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We continue with the sermon series “A New Testament,” and I want to invite you to have another look at the lectionary passage for this week – Jesus healing the Gerasene Demoniac. This incident appears in all 3 Synoptic Gospels – right after Jesus calms the storm while crossing the lake in a boat with the disciples.
How many of you remember this passage?
What are the details you remember?
8:26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”– 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.)
8:30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 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.
Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 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 were afraid.
Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
8:38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “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.
For those of you who can remember this passage, what details did you missed out?
What details of the story was interesting to you? What surprised you? What puzzled you? What was odd to you?
I found the demons being exorcised and entering the pigs and running immediately off the cliff and drowned rather odd.
Let us begin with the context of this passage.
We can read the passage literally as it is – an account of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. This is how this passage is often interpreted. That still leaves the drowning pigs unexplained.
One detail that always struck me was the name of the demon – “Legion.” While this word has passed into common usage today, it is a very specific word during Jesus’ time. A Roman legion was the basic military unit of the ancient Roman army – the rough equivalent to the modern word division.
The notes from the New Interpreter’s Study Bible for the similar passage from the Gospel according to Matthew (Matt 8:28-34) reads “demons invaded and possessed a person, just as Rome had possessed this region. Rome was Satan’s empire.” Furthermore, the pig was the “mascot” of the tenth legion, stationed in Antioch and prominent in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
I did some more research on this –
The Tenth Legion, or X Frentensis was centrally involved in the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73). X Frentensis was in Judaea to suppress the revolt in 66CE.
In the summer of 68, X Fretensis destroyed the monastery of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have originated.
By 70, the rebellion in all of Judaea had been crushed, except for Jerusalem and a few fortresses, including Masada. In that year X Fretensis, in conjunction with V Macedonica, XII Fulminata, and XV Apollinaris, began the siege of Jerusalem, stronghold of the rebellion. The siege of Jerusalem lasted five months and the besieged population experienced all the terrible rigors of starvation. Finally, the combined assaults of the legions succeeded in taking the city, which was then subjected to destruction.
Given that the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, this passage can be read as a coded message about the Roman invasion and occupation, and the hopes for Jesus’ return to liberate the Jews from the Roman occupation.
While this sheds some light on the passage and helps us understand the text better, how does this text interact with us today that create a new understanding that will challenge and transform us?
Let me go through the key points of the passage
1. As soon as Jesus and the disciples arrived at the country of Gerasenes, opposite Galilee, a man who had demons met them.
2. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
3. When he saw Jesus, he fell down and shouted “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”
4. Many times the spirit seized him, he was kept under guard and chained and shackled, but he would break free and escape into the wild.
5. Jesus asked him “What is your name?”
6. Legion – the demons ask Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss but into the pigs who are feeding on the hillside nearby.
7. The herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.
8. The swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.
9. 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 were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
10. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
11. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “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.
How is God speaking to us through this passage?
Who are the characters in the passage?
The man who had demons, the demons, the herd of pigs, the swineherds, the people from the city. Some of the not so obvious participants – the disciples who were oddly silent in the whole affair, the ones who bound and guarded the man who had demons.
Who do you identify with? Why?
Which part of the passage jumped out at you?
1. The assumption that Jesus was there to torment, instead of healing or liberating or freeing.
Are there circumstances where people assumed Jesus was there to torment instead of healing and liberating people? Or let it phrase it differently – are there situations where people assumed Christians are there to torment instead of healing and liberating people?
Yes! Christianity has been used as a tool to oppress, to colonize by the many empires who took slaves, who took lands away from indigenous people. We celebrate, no, commemorate the bicentennial – 200 years of British colonisation of Singapore this year. Yet what are we remembering?
Some may think that the colonisers were here to civilise us. But was it harmful? Today, there are missionaries who want to clothe the naked indigenous people in South America without realising they are doing more harm than good. Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, have stated that “Missionaries insisting on clothing ‘naked savages’ is the most enduring metaphor for the colonial destruction of tribal peoples. Clothes can not only carry disease, they can make illness worse for people with no tradition of wearing them.” “Indians too sick to hunt risk sitting around in perpetually damp and unwashed clothes which can exacerbate the infections which have already killed millions of Indians in the Americas. That this is still happening today is a crime which must be stopped.”
There are times when I say I am a Christian, and people immediately react and ask, “are you here to convert me, because thanks but no thanks.”
It is imperative that even as we seek to live out our call as Christians, we do what we do with wisdom and humility so we do not torment or harm as we seek to heal and liberate.
2. Jesus words “What is your name?”
Jesus reaction was instead to ask for his name. Jesus wanted to humanise the man and wanted to know the man as who he is supposed to be – a beloved child of God. But the man replied “Legion.” The man had been demonised by the people so much that he had let that become his identity.
We do that to people. In subtle ways, we inflict that on the people around us. There is a difference when we say “people living with mental illness” and “mentally ill people.” In the latter, we have allowed mental illness to become the identity of the person.
I joined one of the visits to the wards we adopted in the Institute of Mental Health recently, and I was reminded again how healing it was not to see them as “mentally ill people,” or even “people living with mental illness” but beloved children of God as well.
And often, the first question the volunteers ask of the people there is “What is your name?”
And, now, many of the volunteers actually know the names of people in the wards, and they recognise the volunteers.
I think God is inviting us to move beyond labelling people because reducing people’s identities to labels is dehumanising. We are invited to ask “What is your name” and see people for who they are.
When I think about who the tormented ones are today, who do not live in a house but in tombs, I think of many groups of people. I wonder if there are better ways of integrating them in society instead of putting them somewhere out of sight, out of mind.
I read about a village in Netherlands, called Hogeweyk which is actually a nursing home disguised to look like the outside world. It helps people with mild to severe dementia suffer a little bit less in their remaining years.
Hogeweyk started in 1993 as your typical hospital-style nursing home. But the staff soon realized there was a better, more humane, way to offer care. “We said to each other ‘What do we want for ourselves and our moms and dads?”
Eloy van Hal, the facility manager said that Hogeweyk places a great deal of importance on word choice. The staff members don’t treat patients — they care for residents.
“All the residents living here need medical treatment, yes. They all have medication. They all have [an] advanced stage of dementia,” van Hal said. “But they are first a person. That’s why there are people living here with dementia, and not demented people.”
To build facilities to cater to those suffering from dementia will cost us much more as a society. Are we willing to make that kind of sacrifice?
Nursing homes in Singapore are almost like hospitals in Singapore. It is almost like living in hospital – 6 beds in a room, there is a lack of privacy. This is from the perspective of “cost effectiveness”
In 2016, Anita Kapoor, a TV host, lived in a nursing home for 2 weeks as part of making a documentary. “But I didn’t prepare myself for how bad that actually was,” admitted the television host, who was making a social documentary. “I think after two or three days, I just hit a wall – I was really exhausted by the environment.”
“There is no privacy, there’s nowhere to hang your clothes, there’s nowhere to put your pictures, there’s nowhere to be you,”
“A new narrative for nursing homes is needed to prevent thousands of elderly from serving out their last years in institutions with no privacy, no dignity, and little purpose,”
said Mr Lee Poh Wah, CEO, Lien Foundation. “We need to create a comprehensive care system Singaporeans can count on in old age, with facilities focused on making lives meaningful, and not just meeting regulations or controlling costs.”
Will the swineherds of today be willing to lose their livelihoods – their pigs – so that those suffering today can find healing and restoration?
3. The people’s reaction – instead of rejoicing, there was fear. Fear is repeated twice here. When they saw the man healed and restored, “clothed and in his right mind,” they were afraid. They asked Jesus to leave, because they were afraid.
You see, these people have their lies exposed. They have turned the man into a scapegoat and chased him out of the city so they can return to their every day lives and think the problem has gone away. Instead of finding a way to include the man, they demonised him, and cast him out. That is the way of the world.
But Jesus revealed a different way. The way of God. The way towards inclusion and healing. It is the much harder way. It is much harder to reintegrate someone – be it someone living with mental illness, or someone who had committed a crime (and let’s resist labelling them as criminals). But that is the radical love of God. And this way is costly. It cost the swineherds, who probably are not related to the man, their livelihoods.
I see this most revealed in how we treat people who committed crimes and even the death penalty. What does the death penalty do?
In the Taiwanese TV drama The world between us我們與惡的距離,
The issues of mental illness, death penalty, the impact of the media are explored. It is about the lives of all those who had survived a fictional mass shooting in a movie theater two years earlier. The drama follows the intertwining ties of the killer, the victims, the victims’ families, the media, and the defense teams. The show tries to explore the causes and what lies underneath what happened and find ways to resolve, heal, mend and prevent such incidents from happening again.
The way of the world is to immediately define the person for what he has done – calling him a killer – and then lock him away for good, or even sentence him to death. The reality is the death penalty does not prevent such an incident from happening again. It just lulls us to a false sense of security that it does.
The other way – and I think the way of Jesus – is to heal the person. It is not easy and straightforward. And it requires sacrifices – it will require us as a society to invest and sacrifice a lot in making this reality happen. (watch the TV series)
Like what I asked last week – How do you think the story should have unfolded to better express how you understand God’s love and the kin-dom of God?
Perhaps the passage could have ended differently. When the man was healed and restored, “clothed and in his/her right mind,” the people instead of becoming afraid and asking Jesus to leave, they welcome the man back into their fold.
Or even better, they didn’t seize him and bound him up in chains and shackles in the first place. They would have tried to find ways to include the man in their community and help deal with the demons within him.
I wonder how many of you saw yourself in the story. How many of you saw yourself as the man possessed by demons? Possessed by voices who told you that you were not worthy, not good enough; that you were unclean, and even an abomination. Then bound in chains and shackles, and when you broke free, you ran off into the wilderness?
This story is happening too for the LGBTQ community. And when we are restored and healed, people react in fear. And perhaps it is our task to “Return to our home, and declare how much God has done for us.”
The inclusive love of God isn’t just about who can be part of the community / family. The inclusive love of God is about how the community / family is structured, organised so those who are different, those who are outcasts, those who are suffering, those who are trampled upon, those who are invisible, those who are ignored can find their way home declare how much God has done for them.
This is a New Testament to God’s love, Amen.