"PETA Problems"1

LUKE 8:26-39

3 Nov 2013


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            One biblical scholar declares, "This is a strange story."  Another biblical scholar calls it, "Fantastic and grotesque."  A third biblical scholar says the story is "Unsophisticated, with enough preposterous material to invite the scorn of the skeptic."

            I agree, in part, with their assessment.  The story I just read is strange and fantastic and open to scorn, however, I also think it is a good story.   I think it is a rich story.  So did the gospel writers.  In fact, three out of four gospel writers include it in their account of Jesus' life.  It could be called a story of a healing, but it's really a story of an exorcism, which, in our scientific day and age, nudges it toward the fringe of respectability.  

            As we consider the story this morning, I want to view it from four perspectives, and to keep each perspective straight in our heads, I want to assign each perspective with a word that begins with the letter "c."

            Let's begin with the country.  The location of the story is important.  We read that Jesus came to the region of the Gerasenes.  This is Gentile country.   Gerasa is a Gentle town, hence the presence of pigs.  No self-respecting Jew would keep pigs.  To a Jew pigs are unclean animals.   A Jew doesn't eat pigs, keep pigs, or have anything else to do with pigs.  Therefore, if there are pigs in a story you are in a Gentile region.

            Today, Gerasa is called Jerash and it is located in modern day Jordan.  This puts Gerasa well east of the Jordan River.  It's roughly thirty-two miles from the Sea of Galilee.  Look at my face, and if you can't stand to do that, look at someone else's face in the congregation.  If my face is the Middle East, put the Sea of Galilee in the middle of my forehead.  Put the Dead Sea where my mouth is.  Now, run a blue line from my forehead to my mouth. That blue line is the Jordan River.  Anything on the west side of my face is Israel.  Anything on the east side of my face is Jordan.   

            So, after the bumpy, windswept crossing of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and the disciples hike thirty-two miles into Gentile country.  Now, a quick stop for truth in advertising.   Luke tells us this story unfolded in Gerasa.  So does the gospel writer Mark.  The gospel writer Matthew, however, does not.  That could be because Luke and Mark were good buds, having traveled together with the Apostle Paul.  Matthew, however, moves the story to Gadara, which is located 27 miles closer to the Sea of Galilee.   So, instead of thirty-two mile walk, Matthew has them hiking five miles.  That distance will become a big deal later on, but let's not worry about it now.  Let's stick with Mark and Luke.   Let's assume the story takes place in Gerasa.

            Next, the crazy.  On the outskirts of Gerasa, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man.  If you have difficulty with the idea of someone being demon-possessed, think of him instead as being violently insane.  He also has maniacal strength.  He cannot be bound, even with a chain.  In other words, what he have here is a "wild and crazy guy."   Luke's buddy, the gospel writer Mark, adds another detail about the man.  Mark says that by day and by night, this man is constantly crying aloud and bruising himself with stones.  In other words, he is self-destructive.  He is the kind of person for whom we pad walls.  Luke adds that he neither wears clothes nor lives in a house.  He loiters among the tombs, and since pagan tombs are places of ritual uncleanness for a Jew, we are talking about a man with an "unclean spirit," who also dwells in an "unclean place."  In the parlance of someone from India, we are talking about an "untouchable" here. 

            And something fascinating takes place right out of the blocks because elsewhere in the Gospels, nobody seems to know who Jesus is.  The disciples are never quite sure.  Speaking of Jesus, we heard them ask last week, "Who then is this?"  The Pharisees certainly haven't figured out who he is.  But a foreign demon knows him immediately.  And since names are important, Jesus wants to be on equal footing with the demon.  "Look," Jesus says, "you seem to know my name.  What's yours?"  To which the unclean spirit says: "My name is legion for we are many."

            Wow, that's a lot of demons because a Roman legion, well known in that region, consisted of 6,000 foot soldiers.  If all 6,000 are marching in the same direction, one gazes upon a marvelous display of integration and power.  But if the 6,000 soldiers are going every which way, they can tear one apart.  To suggest that "my name is legion" is to suggests that there are many, multiple, more than one.  It also suggests that he is split, divided, torn perhaps schizophrenic.   I think of the psychologist who asked his client, "Does everybody in your house get along?"  His client replied, "I live alone ... no, we don't."

            Some people today feel that way.  Some people hear conflicting voices vying for their attention.  Some people experience multiple personalities.  Some people feel as if a civil war is being fought internally.

            And sometimes, not to this great extent, but sometimes we act a little crazy ourselves.  We say things like, "Sorry, I just wasn't myself yesterday," or "I don't know what I was thinking," or, "Sorry, I don't know what got into me."  This guy, however, had our mild condition in spades. 

            Next, the cure.  Jesus commands the demons to vacate the man's body.  The demons recognize Jesus' power over them, and so they offer no resistance, however they do bargain for the best deal they can get.  "Do not send us back into the abyss," they say.  We don't know why they didn't want to go back home.  I guess even demons aren't to keen on h ... e ... double hockey sticks, so spotting the pigs, they say, "Send us into the swine," which according to Mark number about 2,000 pigs.  Jesus complies and the pigs rush down the steep bank and drown in the sea.

            It is here that the story unravels just a bit.  This is the invitation to scorn part.  From a geographical standpoint, the story is hard to comprehend.  If it really takes place near Gerasa, the pigs have to run 32 miles to water.  Even if we allow Matthew's change of locale to Gadara, we are left with pigs needing to make a five mile run.  This may well be the most energetic herd of pigs in history.  Which explains why Origen, a theologian of the early church, suggested that the village was really a place named, Gergesa.   In fact, in some early translations of the Bible, the place was changed to Gergesa, but there is absolutely nothing to confirm that correction, and the more reliable translations won out leaving us with Gerasa or Gadara and not Gergesa.

            Then there is the problem posed by the demise of the pigs.  I chose the sermon title to reflect that problem.  I changed the title from "Deviled Ham" which I thought was good as well.  This story bothers the sensitivities of animal lovers everywhere.  Furthermore, these pigs must have belonged to somebody.   Whose going to reimburse the people who owned the pigs?

            Of course, not everyone would have been upset with the demise of the pigs.  The presence of slaughtered swine would certainly appeal to a Jewish audience.  Since Jews viewed pigs as unclean they would have cheered this story.

            Then there's  Emery Percell's take on the story.  He contends that  Luke's readers would have understood the word "swine" to be a euphemism for "Roman soldiers" in much the same way that protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago referred to the Chicago riot police as "pigs."  Percell implies that a Jewish readership would have snickered over the image of legions of demons entering legions of soldiers, thus confirming a widely held belief that Romans were not only insane and would eventually tumble.  That's a stretch, even it would have been well within the spirit of the times.

            No, I like the idea that Jesus cast the demons into the pigs because the Gerasene Demoniac would have never believed that he was cured unless he had tangible proof that the demons had left him.  Nothing less than the visible departure of the demons would have convinced him.  Jesus had to get into the mind of the poor man and he found a way to do it.  As the swine dashed away to the sea, I think Jesus said something like, "Look!  Look!  Your demons have fled."

            And maybe you are wondering, "What do I think of the cure?"   "What do I think of demon possession?"  Well, that's a difficult question.  I believe that the man was possesed, but I think most of what the Bible refers to as demon possession we treat as mental illness today.  Maybe we have that wrong and the Bible has it right.  Maybe we ought stop sending people to psychologists, but I don't think so. 

            This event is out of my comfort zone.  I don't like to think about demons running around, outside of little demons trick or treating at my door.  They didn't teach us how to do exorcisms in seminary.   Never having done one, I wouldn't know how to proceed.  The closest I ever came to exorcism was watching the movie The Exorcist.  That movie scared the bejeebers out of me, with the twirling head and the deep voice.  Critics say the movie was highly sensationalized, having little in common with classical exorcism.  But how would I know that, given that I know nothing about classical exorcism?

            But Scott Peck does.  Scott Peck was a psychiatrist and highly esteemed author.  His best selling The Road Less Traveled was one of the more memorable and helpful books I have read.  He also wrote a little book on the subject of evil, bearing the intriguing title, People of the Lie.   In its pages, Peck sets out to study subjects of demonic possession.  Peck believes it is possible to be possessed ... something very rare ... but possible.  He suggests that demonic possession, if it occurs at all, is the culmination of a long, slow process.  It also involves, to some degree, the cooperation of the victim.  "I doubt very much," Peck writes, "that somebody can go walking down the street and have a demon jump from behind a bush and penetrate him or her.  Rather, possession appears to be a gradual process, one in which the person possessed repeatedly sells out to evil."  And listen to what Peck says next:  "In the few cases of demonic possession I have been able to document, the primary reason for selling out appeared to be loneliness, wherein the demon became something of an imaginary companion."

            So what do I think of demon possession?  I think it's extremely, extremely rare, and much of what the bible refers to as demon possession is really mental illness, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.

            Finally, we have the Crowd.  About this group I will say next to nothing because my time is up and the crowd is not all that admirable.  When word of the healing spread, people gathered.  When they saw the "wild and crazy guy" sitting beside Jesus, fully clothed and of sound mind, they were afraid.  And Luke adds: "All the people of the surrounding country asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear."  Which he did.  He returned to the boat and he left.

            But he did not leave the crowd alone.  He left the healed man with them.  It may be legend but the story is about Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln went down to the slave block.  He saw a young slave girl.  He took money from his pocket and bought her.  When the purchase was made she heard the words, "Young lady, you are free."

            She said, "Please, sir, what does that mean?"

            Lincoln said, "It means you are free."

            "Does that mean," she asked, "that I can say whatever I want to say?"

            Lincoln said, "Yes, my dear, you can say whatever you want to say."

            "Does that mean," she asked, "that I can be whatever I want to be?"

            Lincoln said, "Yes, you can be whatever you want to be."

            She asked, "Does that mean I can go wherever I want to go?"

            He said, "Yes, you can go wherever you want to go."

            The girl, with tears streaming down her face said, "Then I will go with you."

            The healed man wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus said, "No, stay.  Tell them what God has done for you."

            And the man did.  He did that a lot.  What has Jesus done for us?  It's important to tell that story as often as we can.  Amen.

[1] Outline borrowed from "A Not So Simple Story of Demons & Pigs" by William A. Ritter.