This sermon was delivered on June 23, 2013
26And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
28 When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes,* two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ 30Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ 32And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. 33The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood. 91And after getting into a boat he crossed the water and came to his own town.
Demons and pigs. That’s what I’ve been thinking about all week. How do I talk about demons and pigs? What’s the lesson here, the good news? What’s the point of this story? The context? The symbolism? It’s not the easiest story to interpret, but it is kind of fun.
I have always been interested in demons. From the time I could read, I always went to the scary stories section of the library. I loved stories about ghosts and witches and demons, not because I wasn’t scared by them, but because I was, and I loved that feeling. I still love ghost stories, and when I go to see horror movies, I need a friend to hold on to, because I get so scared…but, this demon story is not your typical scary story. This one is scary in different ways.
First of all, we have a man, they call him a demoniac, because he is possessed by demons. This possession means that he is incapable of fitting in with society. He doesn’t wear clothes, he lives in the cemetery, away from friends and family, he sometimes needs to be shackled because he’s dangerous to himself and others. The demons in this man are scary not because they are supernatural, but because they have taken over his life to the point where he can’t function.
This is, unfortunately, not a rare situation. Every day in Santa Cruz, you can see many people whose demons have taken over. Untreated mental illness and addiction, and often the two combined, cause many of our neighbors to be in the same state as the man in this story…harmful to themselves, unable to function in society, lost and alone.
In our story, Jesus arrives on the scene. He comes to Gerasea, a gentile town where the local economy depends on raising pigs, unclean animals, according to Jewish law, and he meets this man, and proceeds to talk to his demons. The demons recognize Jesus right away, and they are afraid of him. He asks their name, and they say ‘Legion,’ which tells us that there are many of them, but also remind us of the Roman legion, a violent symbol of the oppressive empire of the time. There is an army inside this man that is destroying his life, yet that army is afraid of Jesus.
Now, the concept of demons and their like were common across many cultures in the ancient world. One source I read said that lesser powers were thought to obey greater powers, so the fact that Jesus was able to command power over these demons symbolized his great power, especially because these were gentile demons, if you will. If they had a master, it wasn’t Jewish, yet Jesus’s power was greater.
This, I think, is one of the lessons in this story that might have been more obvious to ancient listeners than to us. We don’t spend much time thinking about demonic hierarchy nowadays, but when the gospels were written, it was common knowledge, and the idea of Jesus commanding someone else’s demons would have signified a power and divinity that was impressive.
So, this army of demons is afraid of Jesus, they don’t want him to order them back into the abyss, something they wouldn’t be afraid of unless they thought he had the power to do it. Instead, they beg to be moved into a herd of pigs nearby. Jesus obliges.
Now, we know that pigs are considered unclean under the Jewish dietary laws, along with many other animals, shellfish, for instance. But, I was thinking about this symbolism and couldn’t help but recall many visits to pig farms, which is something children do in the Midwest. Other kinds of farms have their own smells, farms where there are cows and horses and goats and chickens smell of manure, certainly, but I’ve never been bothered by it. Pig farms, on the other hand, stink. They smell terrible. The more pigs there are, the stronger and more oppressive the stench. It’s a stink that sticks to you, that gags you if you aren’t used to it. And, remembering that stench, I think it’s no wonder pigs were considered unclean!
But, however bad they smelled, the pigs in this story are interesting, in that they cannot abide being possessed by demons. Unwilling to live with the demons inside them, they commit a mass suicide, which, although he was harmful to himself, was not something the possessed man had done.
Since we don’t hear more about them, I assume this means the demons did, in fact, end up back in the abyss.
So, the man is healed. Suddenly, he is in his right mind, he cleans himself up, puts on some clothes, and he’s ready to sit at Jesus’ feet and be a disciple. The townspeople, however, are not happy. Sure, they had one crazy guy who they had to watch out for, but they also had a lot of pigs who, however stinky, paid the bills! Now, a member of their community has been healed, but their economy has been deeply affected, and they are scared. They tell Jesus to leave. It’s not that they don’t think he performed a miracle, it’s that that miracle was too expensive for their comfort. They hadn’t planned on paying so much for one man to be healed. They would have rather kept chaining him up when he got troublesome.
Jesus obliges, and goes on his way, but when the man asks to come along, Jesus refuses him. He tells him to stay home, and tell people what Jesus had done. He creates a gentile apostle from a formerly demon-possessed man. This couldn’t have been easy, though, for the man to go back to his town, to continue to live with the people that had seen him acting crazy, even violent. Sure, they might see he had changed, but how could they forget who and what he had been? Would he ever be able to have a normal life there, with people who knew his past? It wasn’t an easy thing that Jesus asked him to do.
So, what does all this mean for us? I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about demons, about the most obvious kinds we deal with, mental illness, addiction, but also the more insidious but common kind, the demons that live in our heads, telling us lies. We all have them. They may tell you you’re ugly, stupid, unlovable… they may repeat all the bad things anyone has ever said about you until you believe them to be true. Or, they may tell you that money is more important than love, that power is more important than peace. Our world is full of demons, and they are legion.
Most of my writing these days is done with a sleeping baby next to me. As I looked at her this morning, I realized she doesn’t know about demons yet. Her biggest worries have to do with the location of her pacifier, and the frustration of a toy that is just out of reach. But, unfortunately, she will know about demons someday. She will know about her birth mother’s demons, so powerful she couldn’t keep her babies. She will know the demons of friends and family who are broken and hurting, and she will almost certainly have some of her own, even though I will try to thwart them whenever I can.
This society breeds demons in little girls—telling them how they should look, and dress and act, and making them think they are less-than if they don’t fit. This society also breeds demons in little boys—discouraging emotion, encouraging violence. These demons hurt us all, but can be invisible, and I think that makes them worse, in a way, than the more obvious demon of schizophrenia, for instance.
Unfortunately, in our society, we are too much like the townspeople in today’s story. Less interested in healing people’s demons than making money. Unwilling to pay the price, whether economically or emotionally, to heal those who are hurting. When Jesus, a healer came to them, he proved his abilities, but they still implored him to leave. Even if he could help them spiritually, he was bad for business, and that’s what their priority was.
Demons are actually pretty good business. The ones that tell us we aren’t good enough cause us to spend lots of money to look different, to change our bodies, or to acquire more and better stuff. The demons of addiction keep drug lords and liquor stores alike in business, and the demons of violence and fear make for a multi-billion dollar gun industry. The message in our story is that Jesus can heal these demons. Jesus can bring us peace, acceptance, freedom, but maybe we can’t see past the profits to let him.
Jesus has always been bad for business. That’s one of the reasons he was killed. The Roman Empire profited by subjugating the people they colonized, and Jesus was spreading the message that the God of love was more powerful. Jesus’ disciples left their work and families to become homeless travelers who shared their resources and preached against hoarding.
And Jesus’ teachings about money and greed are so threatening, most people, including most Christians, choose to ignore them.
And so, what do demons and pigs have to do with us, today, in the US, in Santa Cruz, in this room? I’ve actually come to the conclusion that they are extremely relevant, that by hearing and thinking about this story, we can learn a lot about ourselves. If we let Jesus heal us of our demons, will we be brave enough to stick around and tell people about it? Brave enough to admit what those demons were, no matter the cost? Brave enough to be witnesses to the healing power of God in a society more interested in greed?
This is what we are called to do, to allow ourselves to be healed, and then to bear witness. Healing our demons won’t likely result in any pigs being harmed, but our egos might have to take a jump off the cliff.