Last Sunday we had a wonderfully cinematic story
about a hooker giving Jesus a massage
at an all-male dinner party.
Today is a summer blockbuster movie,
“Jesus Does Combat Against the Legion.”
This is my favorite Gospel story
and it only comes up once every three years
and if I’m on vacation on that Sunday
I don’t get to preach it for another three years!
So even though it is hot
I am going to wring every bit of juice from it I can
so I hope you can sit back, relax,
and enjoy the movie.
Act One: Border Crossing.
Jesus takes his students to the country of the Gerasenes,
or Gadarenes depending up the translation.
Only somebody that would let a hooker massage his feet
at a banquet thrown in his honor
would visit someplace like Gerasa.
This is proof positive
that Jesus cared much less about his reputation
than the Church and clergy do about ours.
If yucking it up with whores
and the first century equivalent of drug dealers,
sex offenders, terrorists, and spies
was not evidence enough of Jesus’ moral depravity,
then taking his young and impressionable students
to Gerasa was proof positive.
As viewed by the upstanding clergy
and social leaders of his day,
Jesus had to have been morally bankrupt
or demented to go hang out with the pig-eaters.
Gerasenes were pig-eaters like us;
Goi – gentiles.
In other words,
they were people who didn’t know how to keep clean,
and by that I mean morally pure.
They were barbarians without knowledge of grace
or any socially redeeming attribute.
The Gerasenes were not in the Covenant with God
nor did they exhibit the least interest
in knowing about the Covenant,
or any other way of being in relationship with God –
which of course, was the standard criteria
for moral purity.
Consequently, they ate pigs.
They probably even wore clothing made from pig flesh.
Nobody with an ounce of spiritual wisdom
would knowingly go into Gerasene territory,
and in fact, would go out of their way to avoid it.
To enter their territory and mingle among the pig-eaters
was automatic defilement that rendered
the perpetrator morally unclean
and would require reclamation through the temple.
Now just to add a little more spice to this story
of moral depravity verses purity,
the demoniac who Jesus is about to encounter
is a city boy – “a man of the city” it says –
while Jesus and his pals
are country folk.
The first thing we need to know when reading the bible
is that details are usually not coincidental.
The details tell the story.
It is just like in the movies when some little detail
comes back later in the plot
and the audience says, “Oh yeah.”
We are told with a throw away line
as if it was extraneous,
that the strong man who could not be bound
was an urbanite.
That’s a comment on city life.
Jesus and his boys are not from the city,
they are more, well, “upstate” if you know what I mean.
They were hicks from Galilee,
looked down on by urbanites from
Jerusalem and Jericho.
So here comes Big Urban, we’ll call him,
Not even any tan lines.
He’s walking around as ‘commando’ as you can get.
Now some of you guys
are probably so sophisticated
that you vacation at nude beaches
where the sun shines and the wealthy are carefree,
and if so, it might be difficult for you to imagine
just how scandalized the audience first hearing this story
would have been about the naked city boy.
Public nakedness was a huge no-no
in 1st century Judean culture.
In fact, that was part of the humiliation that Romans
embedded in crucifixion:
they crucified their victims naked and in public.
Forget the little waistband you see on crucifixes,
Jesus was absolutely naked when he was executed.
Public nakedness was horrifying.
Even though Romans were well known for great parties
that could include public nudity,
the Law of Moses strictly forbade it.
So Jesus’ students would have been shocked
and scandalized by the appearance of a huge naked maniac.
And let’s face it,
most of us look a lot better with clothes on anyway,
so even beyond the shame and scandal
Big Urban couldn’t have looked all that good
after living among the tombs
and never showering or shaving
and engaged as he was in self-abuse.
So Act One ends
with Big Urban running toward Jesus,
yelling chaotic words
in the parlance of schizophrenia
and Jesus yelling back at the demons yelling at him.
The screen goes black
as the creepy music hits a crescendo.
Act Two: Power
Darkness slowly fades into dawning light.
Sitting in the grass at the middle of the giant screen,
surrounded by cemetery tombstones leaning
this way and that,
are Jesus and Big Urban.
They are sitting cross-legged and facing each other.
It is quiet,
Clearly they are relaxed
and enjoying one another’s company.
Then, from every direction,
the students come edging their way back
toward the center.
They are uncertain,
“What happened,” one asks.
“Are you alright,” another says.
“Jesus, are you okay?”
They had all scattered in fear at the moment
of the terrifying attack.
But Jesus stood his ground
and did something very interesting.
It’s another one of those little details
that tells the story.
In our world, in our movies,
any hero worth his or her salt
would have shot, stabbed, blown up,
or otherwise zapped Big Urban
when confronted by his menacing attack.
In our world,
heroes show their strength,
moxie, and courage
by vanquishing their foes –
killing or eliminating them.
But in the face of threatening violence
what Jesus does is ask Big Urban his name.
He is not just being polite.
In the ancient world, to know someone’s name
was to know his or her essence
To know the name
was to actually have some power over the person or thing.
So let’s go back to the terrible moment
at the end of Act One.
Big Urban is bearing down on Jesus,
arms flailing and lips slobbering
and mouth broadcasting loud, terrible grunts
and groans and salacious blasphemies.
Jesus asks the dude his name.
Here the story-teller gets deliciously subversive.
“My name is Legion,” he says.
Legion is the name of the oppressor.
If you are a first century Galilean or Judean
living at the margin of the Roman Empire,
you hate Romans with every fiber of your being.
“Legion” is the name that personifies your hatred.
A single Roman legion was four to six thousand
soldiers and engineers.
It was more than enough to subdue a rural backwater
like Judea and Galilee.
Six thousand Roman soldiers
could crucify, rape, and pillage
more peasants than a dog has fleas.
Six thousand Roman soldiers
could tax, bankrupt, and dispossess
more than enough peasants to clear the land
for rich Roman Senators to then purchase at a bargain.
The story-teller’s use of that word
to name the demon possessing Big Urban,
was both a description of its power and a demonization of the Empire – very clever.
So the action in Act Two
turns on a change in the power ratio.
The demons plead with Jesus
so that now it is Jesus who is menacing
and attributed with power not Big Urban.
It all has to do with knowing the demons’ name,
knowing what manner of evil it is
and naming it.
You don’t have to believe in evil spirits and Satan
to appreciate this story,
or hear the truth embedded in it –
I do not believe in supernatural evil, just so you know.
But I love this story in spite of the cartoonish depiction
of evil spirits and gremlins.
What we need to know
is that in the worldview of the author,
and of all the characters in this story,
it was common knowledge that spirits and demons
inhabited all manner of things –
paper, rocks, and scissors along with people,
plants, and animals.
So just like Avian Flu
jumped from chickens to the human genome,
Jesus forces the legion of demons
to hop like a flea
from Big Urban to Miss Piggy,
Pumbaa, Porky, Wilbur, Babe, and the three little pigs.
Oh, and let’s take this opportunity to notice
another detail that is not coincidental.
There just happened to be a swineherd nearby.
The swine are a symbol.
You wouldn’t find a single pig
let alone a swineherd
in Judea or Galilee.
Only among Gentile foreigners
who are spiritually unclean
would you find such a contamination.
It is bad enough that Jesus went to Gerasa
but the fact that he actually healed a Gentile
was itself impossibly radical.
The fact that he had anything to do with pig-eaters
or a herd of pigs
The metaphor of the swine
was a clear challenge to purity-minded clergy
and temple elites
that all boundaries can be crossed.
If landing among the Gerasene was not enough,
then healing one of them,
in a cemetery no less,
and in close proximity to a herd of swine,
was a very loud
and very clear message:
No limits will be kept at the table of communion.
No limits will be acknowledged to the love of God.
not any doctrine,
not any religion,
not any race,
not any kind of bigotry.
Act Two ends
with Jesus sending the legion of demons
into the sweet little piggies
who immediately freak out
and run off a cliff to their eternal demise.
“And this little piggy had none.”
As the light fades
and the music changes
we see the swine herders running for the lives
as a cheer goes up among Jesus’ adoring students.
Act Three: It is not about Jesus
The last act opens with Jesus sitting on a big rock
with a smattering of students sitting all around him.
Sitting directly at Jesus’ feet,
Big Urban’s monstrous silhouette comes into focus.
Then, the town’s people begin to appear
from the perimeter.
The background music is rhythmic drumming
as people cautiously emerge from every direction
approaching Jesus and Big Urban sitting in the middle.
Slowly, tentatively, inching forward
as if Jesus was a cobra rearing up out of a basket,
the villagers gather all around.
As they get closer and see Big Urban invariably they gasp.
He is fully dressed,
washed, cleaned up,
bandaged and smelling better.
A few of the brave ones actually poke Big Urban
to see if he is real and if he will react.
They mummer and grunt
and as they grow more comfortable,
they start to complain.
There is an agitation that takes over the villagers.
They want Jesus to leave their territory.
The narrator does not tell us directly why they are angry
and want Jesus to leave,
but surely it is because of economics.
If Jesus could so easily allow the devastation
to private capital for the sake of one whacko demoniac,
It is clear to them
that Jesus has upside-down values.
If he thought the cost-ratio benefit of the
demoniac-for-a-herd-of-pigs was acceptable
then he was likely to bring ruin upon their economy.
You don’t want someone like that around
especially if you happen to be one of the people
that own the money and the power.
So, Jesus leaves.
It’s no big deal to him.
In response to the public resentment of his efforts,
he just leaves.
They ask him to leave, and so he gets in the boat.
Act Three ends that way,
with Jesus and his students getting into the boats
and the villagers walking away saying, “good riddance.”
But don’t leave the theater yet
because there is a brief epilogue
that delivers the punch line.
It is like the little scene at the end of Camelot
when King Arthur encounters a small boy
that becomes the symbol of future hope.
Jesus and his students climb into the boats
as the late afternoon sun wanders among the clouds.
A gentle breeze blows
and you can see on their faces and in their conversations
that the students are all distracted by
where they will go and what they will eat for dinner.
The light fades to a dusky tint
with the spotlight enshrouding Jesus and Big Urban.
The big guy wants to go with Jesus.
Jesus gave him the only act of kindness
he had ever known in his entire life.
The scene has a sadness to it,
not unlike the melancholy
in Charlotte’s Web when Charlotte the spider
has finally died
and Wilbur the pig is left all alone
with no magic
and no one to tout, “terrific pig.”
Jesus places a hand on Big Urban’s shoulder,
looks into his glistening eyes
and says, “No.”
Big Urban is crestfallen.
The pain of rejection drains the life out of his body.
A silent tear rolls down his still bruised cheek,
his shoulders slump.
There is no perfuming this pig;
he has been rejected again.
“Go home,” Jesus says,
“go home and tell your own people
just how much God has done for you.”
Then Jesus sails away.
All alone on the beach
Big Urban watches them disappear across the water
to the other side where he will never be welcome.
He turns, the last scene of the last act,
his eyes look directly into the audience.
His face is flat,
his mouth a straight line,
his eyes glow with a fierce light.
“Amazing,” he says.
Speaking to us, the audience,
his lips curl upward in a smile,
his shoulders rise,
his arms extend as if taking us all into his embrace.
“Amazing, simply amazing.”
The running lights come on in the theater,
the music unleashes its postlude
for the reeling of the credits.
The movie is over.
I hesitate to do it
but I am going to end by reminding us
what this story was about.
Act One tells us that Jesus crossed boundaries,
even the most fundamental boundaries
of his culture and religion.
Jesus would not and will not live within the lines.
No walls, no boundaries.
Act Two reminds us
that naming out loud the evil around us,
and the evil within us,
diminishes the power of that evil.
Never allow the fear of evil
to dissuade us from naming it.
Finally, the Epilogue reminds us
that it is not about Jesus.
Not everyone needs to follow Jesus.
The clear message of that Epilogue is that it is not about
following Jesus it is about the love of God
and sharing the mercy of God to others.
While Jesus is the teacher
only God is God,
and thank God for unbounded mercy and love.
So there it is,
a doggone good story
with a little sugar and spice
and a little salt and vinegar,
along with a healthy dash of subversion.