An Unexpected Encounter
Imagine the opening scene of a movie. The setting is eye-catching – a hillside gently sloping to the seaside. The camera zooms in. There is the hero, Jesus. A herd of pigs is nearby. Coming towards him from out of what looks like a graveyard is a wild man screaming and waving his hands in the air. He stops in front of Jesus who says a few words that cause the man to fall to the ground writhing in pain. Suddenly he stops moving. Soon, the pigs start running crazily down the hill and into the water. The next scene shows the man sitting quietly at Jesus feet. The frog has become a prince. His princess awaits. They join hands and walk together into the sunset to live happily ever after.
Not exactly… (read text)
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
26 Then they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on shore, a man from the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had not worn any clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding, and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd stampeded down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then the whole throng of people of the surrounding region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Our first thought: why is this story in the Bible?
Let’s look at the context of the passage for a moment. Prior to this scene, Jesus has been teaching the crowds using parables to explain the importance of both hearing and doing the word of God. He has healed many people of a variety of illnesses and conditions.
Just before this story, he and the disciples were sailing across the Sea of Galilee when a large storm came up. Jesus was asleep until awakened by the disciples who were trembling in fear asking him if he cared that they were about to die. Jesus calms the storm. As they step out of the boat, the disciples were trying to wrap their minds around who this Jesus they thought they knew really is.
The Jesus they knew was compassionate, an amazing teacher, and a miracle worker. All ways he was showing what it meant to both hear and do the word. Now, they saw a Jesus who had power and authority over nature. Although they didn’t realize it, they had now witnessed the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
What do we make of this particular text? It is unusual to say the least. Is the story true or untrue or a metaphor for something else? Where is the compassion by the towns people and others for the man, the pigs, and the pig keepers? The story is confusing. Fear is an underlying factor. The towns people tried to contain the man in a place far away to protect themselves. Observers, including the disciples, kept their distance.
Why might fear be a factor in this story? First, look at where Jesus is. He is across the lake opposite Galilee in Gerasenes, the land of the Gentiles. A place Jewish people didn’t go because it involved crossing geographical and religious boundaries. Boundaries that Jesus intentionally crosses in a powerful way. He brings his disciples with him across this boundary, the disciples still shaking their heads over the adventure on the sea.
This action of crossing into the “outside world” is the first lesson for those who follow Jesus. His message is not just for them to hold on to and to protect and keep safe, it is to be shared with others, even the others outside of their comfort zones. The same thing he tells his disciples later in Acts 1:8: “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Here the disciples are simply putting a toe in the water. Later they will wade into the world outside of the comfort of Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee. They will create ripples that will carry far beyond their initial encounters with people.
I have told the familiar story of the starfish before. The young boy is walking down the beach throwing starfish that washed up with the tide back into the water. A man asks what he is doing. The boy says, “saving the starfish.” The man responds that the boy can’t save them all. The boy, as he throws another one back in the ocean, says, “I can save this one.”
Yes, many of the starfish are saved by the boy. The man who watched and asked did nothing. He could have joined in saving the starfish or turned to tell others the story or took the meaning of the boy’s actions and applied it to another context. He did, as far as we know, none of those things.
By throwing the starfish back in the ocean, the boy created a ripple effect. Those he saved could go on living thereby contributing to the on-going ecosystem. They would eat and produce new starfish. The creatures that eat starfish would continue to be fed.
Imagine the ripples that could go beyond saving starfish. Saving dolphins, whales, and other creatures. Becoming aware of the importance of caring for the earth. Saving people.
Saving people. Not just those saved from physical harm by a lifeguard, but also from emotional and spiritual harm. From their internal demons. The legions that grab hold of a person refusing to let go. The demons that dictate choices and a person’s life course. Those that pull one away from family and friends, and from the hope filled parts of life, leading one to a frightening life of depression and hopelessness.
We don’t know where life will take us. Some places we anticipate while others are unexpected. The unexpected can be scary, such as a wild man jumping out from behind a tombstone. A change in the status quo can be frightening.
The villagers in this story had learned long ago that they couldn’t cure or contain the demon possessed man who now lived in the tombs. Over time, they had grown accustomed to him especially since he didn’t live among them. Both the villagers and the man knew their place, or at least they knew his place. They had ostracized the man because of his condition so they didn’t have to deal with him.
Imagine their alarm when, summoned by the pig keepers, saw him at Jesus’ feet fully clothed and in his right mind. And then when he came back to the village a healed man. His return upset their status quo. Now they had to deal with change and their fear of change. Not only of the man returning to their society to find his place, but the reality of what has happened. The reality of Jesus.
Change for the villagers created a ripple effect. Their sense of security was disrupted, even the security that came from knowing that the threat to their way of life was far away, literally and figuratively. That false sense of security was exposed for what it was – a foundation of life built on sand. Now they had to reconsider and rework who they were. The ostracized was now a part of them.
Their sense of communal identity changed and had to be redefined.
We value our identity even if we are not comfortable with it. We know who we are, how we interact with others and how others interact with us. We have developed a comfortable and known façade.
When that façade, our comfortable identity, is disrupted, we become confused and unsure of ourselves. A new person enters our lives. Circumstances change. Our status quo is upset.
Often, we experience fear of the new situation. It will be different than what we are used to, and we may not like the change. We worry about what might happen if the change doesn’t work for us.
Fear and change are woven through this story of Jesus’ healing of the demon-possessed man. Change, that at one level, was obvious. The man was healed. The need for change was harder to identify. The community didn’t expect something that would upset their comfortable way of life. The disciples had to rethink who the man they were following, Jesus, really was. The healed man now had a different life ahead of him.
All of them had to wrestle with their experience and how if affected them. To learn what shifted and how it altered the way of life they had become accustomed to. They all had to figure out how to deal with their new normal.
Although we could consider the response to all that happened from the perspective of any of the people in this story, it may be the most interesting to look at the probable response of the healed man.
He was no longer the demon-possessed man who lived in the tombs. He had been restored to a person who was now acceptable and able to fit into the community. He would be welcomed home and returned to his family. No… He knows the history – his and the community’s. A history he believes can’t be overcome.
Out of fear, the man begged Jesus to let him go with him. He needed to escape his past and he didn’t want to face the future. The man would rather leave.
Jesus confronts the fear in an assertive way and with great understanding. Jesus knew that if the healed man let fear take over then he was not truly healed. So, he sends the man home to confront the other demons of life. To identify them for what they were.
We are in a similar place. In front of us is life after a pandemic. There are several ways to deal with the change. Ignore it and do whatever it takes to return to what we knew as normal. Limp along wishing things were different while knowing they aren’t, not wanting to deal with life as it is now. Embrace the change, find new avenues to explore and a different way to interact with others. See the once-familiar community in a new light, working to include those who were healed, those whose loved ones were not, and finding new ways to connect with our internal and external communities.
A positive response to the change is to proclaim what God has done. People, including ourselves, have experience physical healing, emotional, healing, and spiritual healing. Share the good news of Jesus. Be proactive.
Start a new ripple! See how far it spreads. Know that it goes far beyond what we can see. Jesus is doing a new thing. We are invited to be a part of it!