Monday, June 21, 2010

Crazy Thing about Demons

Bible readings for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost include Galatians 3:23-29 and Luke 8:26-39

Am I the only one who thinks it’s wickedly funny that this should be our Gospel, on the day we complete the church school year?

Do you think this story causes our church school teachers to smile, when they think of their little herds running down the church school hallway?

Could this story possibly explain occasional episodes when behavior runs amok? No, couldn’t be…

It is an amazing story, isn’t it? For one thing, St. Luke tells other stories where the disciples keep wondering who Jesus really is… is he God’s special agent, the Messiah, or isn’t he? But here, the demons know exactly who he is.

Do we believe in demons? Two thousand years ago, the time of this story, people understood the world to be populated with many invisible powers: demons, spirits, nymphs, centaurs, and angels, all of them in charge of things people couldn’t understand yet. Demons, they thought, were the cause of mental illness. To ward them off, people wore charms and performed rituals that we today would call pretty crazy.

Because people thought you could catch a demon from someone who had a demon, the fellow we hear about today was forced to leave his family home and go live in a cemetery. People had the idea that that’s where demons and spirits ought to live. And no one ever went there, except when they had to, like to bury someone who had died. And that was kind of crazy, wasn’t it?

Please don’t get me wrong in what I’m about to say. Jesus is not Superman. But I watched a Superman move the other night, and in one way they remind me of each other: Just like Superman, Jesus knows precisely who needs him. As if having radar, cries for help are heard, noticed just in time to save a life. Jesus doesn’t change his clothes in a phone booth, but off he goes to help this suffering man, even though it’s to a cemetery (and I expect his disciples were none too happy in being made to go along, for I imagine them to be superstitious, themselves).

“What is your name?” Jesus asks him. Did you notice that when the answer comes, it’s not a name at all? “Mob… I am called Mob.” Or, in another translation, “Legion… my name is Legion.”

A legion was a big company of Roman soldiers, five or six thousand strong.

You know, in all our Gospel stories, words count. Details and names mean things. Here, this poor tormented man, kicked out by his people, hasn’t any sense of identity left. No name. Just a nickname, a label, like “crazy person”.

Mobs are big batches of crazy people. We can all think of examples, from lynching mobs to shopping mobs.

Before the World Cup games in South Africa, at an exhibition match, people started stampeding. That was a mob—people panicking either to get in or to get out, losing all manners, breaking rules, breaking bones as well.

And that other nickname, Legion. What if St. Luke wanted the people hearing this story to imagine that the struggle going on in this man was as if he had five thousand soldiers fighting inside himself? What a powerful image!

And what if St. Luke was being very clever, weaving in a story within the story? Could he be saying that this struggling man was like our Lord’s homeland, possessed by the demonic Roman army that controlled daily life for everybody in those days, driving everyone crazy by taking away all their freedoms? Is Luke showing us how truly powerful God is, sending Jesus to bravely face down the truly bad guys? This poor troubled man they called Legion wasn’t the bad guy—but the Roman legionnaires, they are remembered in the New Testament as being violent and greedy and arrogant.

Maybe so: maybe this is a story on two levels. We learn to hear the Gospels on more than one level. But we’ve still got the simple story to appreciate. And we haven’t gotten to those pigs yet.

Pigs weren’t big in Israel. The dietary rules of Israel prevented the eating of pork. But that doesn’t mean that Wilbur the pig would live a long cushy life without ever having to become supper. It means that by and large people looked down on pig farmers (who might likelier be foreigners than Jews), and didn’t want pig farms near their backyards (which, come to think of it, I’m not sure I would either). It means that a lot of people believed they’d be better off without pigs, period. And that attitude may help explain the unfortunate fate of all those piggies in the story.

“Demons and pigs go together,” they might have said, “Good riddance to them all!”

But you and I would call that worse than crazy. We would call that cruel. Not to mention what it must have been like for those pig farmers to lose their herd, and their livelihood.

If you’re down on pigs, like many of the first hearers of this story, you wouldn’t find the story troubling. But how do we feel about Jesus allowing this to happen? Actually he made it happen, the story says.

If you’re asked that question by a five-year-old, you might answer, “Hmm… I don’t know how to resolve that. Do you?” Perhaps, being a five-year-old, she will.

Was Jesus showing everybody how crazy and destructive our customs and attitudes can be?

It seems to me that he wanted to heal not just this one tormented man, but the whole troubled society that bought-in to the powers of magic and believed more in the powers of demons than they believed in the power of God. But make no mistake: this story shows those demons getting deep-sixed…evicted… gone.

But I guess we’ll put this story down without being satisfied why those pigs had to lose their lives in the bargain.

No wonder, though, that the city fathers didn’t give Jesus the key to the city. They asked him please to leave. Their economy was bad enough without this new crisis in pork futures.

Notice how the man, when he has been healed, wants to become one of Jesus’s disciples.

“I’ve got a better idea,” says Jesus. “Go home, back to your own town, and tell the story of how much God has done for you. The more you do that, the deeper you’ll be healed.”

That man is remembered for being the first apostle to the Greeks. His hometown was one of several settled mostly by Greeks. If it hadn’t been for him, people outside the homeland and culture of Israel might never have even heard about Jesus and the loving power of God at work in Jesus.

And wouldn’t that have been crazy?