The other day, I walked the dog in my neighborhood on a morning that was just right. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. It was just right. The sun was warm on my skin, the birds were singing, flowers were blooming. And then, I saw him: a thin man in his early 20s, standing in the middle of the street on this just right morning, barefoot, tattered, talking to himself, arms waving above his head like he was fending off a swarm of bees. As I walked near him, he turned an eye to me, and the look he gave me was wild. I had no idea what he was going to do next, what vision he was seeing as he looked at me. I found myself glad that my little guard dog DeeDee with me. As I turned the corner onto another street, I looked back and saw that he was taking off his clothes, still standing in the middle of the street. I wanted to help him — he was some mother’s son, not much older than my own — but I was afraid to and didn’t know how.
Of course, I thought of this young man — and so many others like him who haunt the streets of our cities — when I read our Luke passage for today. The man from our story is a similar picture of brokenness and isolation. He is possessed not by just one demon but many. What torment he must have suffered from all those voices in his head, all those forces inside his body. Naked, tattered, he lives outdoors in a cemetery — which, for Jews, would have been an unclean place to be avoided as much as possible. It seems that that the townspeople really didn’t know how to help him either. They had tried chaining him up and giving him a guard. In the version of this story in Mark, it says they did this so that the demons who possessed him wouldn’t harm him, so he wouldn’t beat on himself with rocks. But he would break his chains and be driven by the demons into the wild, away from the people who were afraid of him and didn’t know how to help.
Jesus meets this troubled soul the instant he steps out of his boat after crossing over the sea of Galilee. And instantly, Jesus tells the demons to leave the man and soon — after a big of negotiating as to where they would go — they do. Clothes are produced, and the once-isolated man is sitting at Jesus’ feet by the end of the passage, in his right mind and at peace.
It would be so easy read the story of this exorcism as a simple, although hard-to-believe, story of individual healing. Through some magical mojo, Jesus was able to still the troubled mind of this man and restore him to himself and his community. Woohoo! And, truthfully, so what? In a time when we can’t really believe in this magical mojo or at least don’t believe it exists anymore or see any evidence of it, what bearing does this story possibly have on the young man I saw on my walk or the hundreds like him? What does it mean for us?
To find out what it means for us, we have to know what it meant for people of that time and place. This is the “law” of Biblical interpretation that I was taught to follow. We can’t possibly understand the good news for us right now if we don’t understand how this was good news for them back then. And that’s hard work, because we live in such a different world than they do and have such a different worldview. So, I want to give a bunch of background to help us understand healing stories in general, what they meant to people of that time, and then specifically talk about the meaning of this exorcism story.
The people living in that time would not have heard this story as one of individual healing. They were much less individualistic than we are, and so a sick body within a community was believed to impact the entire community. As the authors of Say to the Mountain: Marks’ Story of Discipleship write “In the ancient Mediterranean world…. illness was perceived primarily as a ‘socially disvalued state,’ a defective condition that threatened communal integrity.” (All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from this book.)
If you were sick or not whole in some way, you were a problem for the entire community. Your disorder mirrored vulnerabilities in the community and made the community vulnerable. Your disorder might make you unclean or impure, and this impurity could be passed along to others. For instance, a menstruating woman was considered unclean and had to be quarantined so as not to make the whole community impure. If you touched her or her bed or anything she sat on, you became unclean.
We call this system of determining who or what is sick or defective the “purity system.” The priests of that day were the purity gatekeepers; they had the power in the purity system. They determined who was clean and unclean and they were the ones who could effect a change in someone’s purity status. This is why Jesus tells the man he healed from leprosy to show himself to the priest, who would have the power to declare him clean again and thus have him be reintegrated into the community.
We might think ourselves above this sort of irrationality but we’re not. Every society has a version of a purity system, a map by which to “regulate and socialize bodies” within the community. So people of color under South African apartheid, Native Americans and African Americans in this country have all at one time been considered “impure” and segregated into townships, reservations, ghettos. There’s lots of purity taboos around LGBTQ people. Mentally ill people, the elderly have been put away in institutions where they can not “infect” us. When a loved one of mine was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she told me the her social invitations dropped off suddenly in the senior living community of which she was a part. She felt as though she had become “impure,” someone to be avoided, as if her disease was contagious, as if her “defective” body was now an unwelcome reminder to everyone else of their own body’s vulnerabilities.
The Jewish Jesus was very much opposed to the Jewish purity system of his day because it was a system that tended to “segregate and exclude rather than integrate and restore.” Jesus’ healings were themselves a critique of this system and a threat to those that had power in it, since they subverted the authority of the priests and their monopoly over the purity system. So, as you can see, Jesus’ healings mean much more than the individual healing of one man. They are really about confronting and upending sinful systems that segregate and exclude.
Given this, we can probably assume that an exorcism isn’t going to mean that one person got set free, right? Exorcisms, as one Bible scholar puts it, are about the “promise of God’s ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict individuals and communities” (Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles, mentioned here). Exorcisms assert that God is powerful enough to expel evil, to re-order the death-dealing powers that plague us. So let’s turn back to our story for today and see what the death-dealing power is that is being expelled in this story. It turns out that it’s really obvious.
The location — Gerasa — was famous in that time as the location for a Jewish revolt that had been brutally put down by the Roman Army in 67 A.D., about 20 years before Luke was written. The Romans killed more than 1000 rebels and destroyed Gerasa and the surrounding villages in a scorched earth campaign. There’s one big clue. Furthermore, when Jesus asks the possessed man his name, he answers “Legion.” Legion refers to a company of up to 6000 Roman soldiers. This strongly suggests that this story is linking the evil powers occupying the man with the evil powers occupying their land. Not only are their lands occupied by the Roman empire, but their hearts and minds are also. The oppression of occupation has been internalized by everyone — oppressed and oppressor alike. So our poor demon-possessed man is the “identified patient” within a system that is making everyone sick. He’s just the one expressing the symptoms.
Jesus comes along and expels this internalized oppression — the demons — from the man. The demons’ preference for pigs is a high bit of humor here. Pigs, as we know, were viewed very negatively in Judaism — they are treif, unclean. Jews of that time were forbidden from owning them or eating them or tending them. The Roman legion is expelled into the most unclean thing around, a herd of swine, who destroy themselves by hurling themselves into the lake. You might imagine how amusing and empowering this would be to the Jewish people hearing this story. As one commentator put it: “The exorcisms breaks the demonic spell that keeps people dependent upon the dominant power. As we hear the hooves of the pigs clicking toward the lake, the message is that even the power of Rome will ultimately be no match for the liberating power of God in Christ.” So, rather than this being a story of a bunch of pre-Enlightenment people believing in silly magic, something much more sophisticated and liberatory is going on.
So, after all that, what might this story mean for us? No answers here, only questions, questions I may not have though to ask if I had not tried to understand this story more like the people of Jesus’ time did:
- I think of my young man on my morning walk. How is he the identified patient, the one expressing symptoms within a system that’s actually making all of us sick? His bodily presence among us signals that all is not, actually, “just right” in our body politic.
- What demons in us and in our communities segregate and exclude? It’s not too hard to think of ICE arrests. But I invite you to think beyond the usual suspects also. What parts of yourself do you disvalue and thus cut off, exclude rather than restore and integrate? Who do you exclude, segregate yourself from and why? Who is excluded from this space even if the exclusion is not intentional?
- What are the disordered powers that possess us and our communities? Can we accurately name these demons? In Jesus’ time, it was thought that knowing the name of a spirit gave you power over it. That’s why Jesus asks the demons their name in this story. I think of the demonic voice that tells us we can’t do anything about climate change, that it’s already done, over. What is the name of that disordered power that possesses us?
May we continue to grapple with these and other questions as we seek to see the world as Jesus saw it and be a part of its — and our — healing. Amen.