Once every three years
my favorite gospel story comes around
in the lectionary cycle:
Jesus verses Legion.
If there was one gospel story
that is a microcosm of the entire gospel,
this story is it.
So I am going to do something
I almost never do.
Re-use a sermon.
I may use a story
or re-work a commentary
that I have shared before,
but rarely have I ever just bowled down
the same alley as previously.
The reason I am
is that this story really tells itself.
And that is what I want to do,
just let this story tell itself.
I confess I did edit it, hopefully made it better
and got myself out of the way a little bit more.
As I did three years ago,
I am going to walk us through this story
as if it were a three-act play.
Act One: Border Crossing.
Jesus takes his students
to the country of the Gerasenes,
or Gadarenes depending up the translation.
The fact that Jesus would cross that border
is proof that Jesus cared much less
about his reputation
than most of us do.
If yucking it up with sex workers
and the first century equivalent of drug dealers,
sex offenders, terrorists, and spies
was not evidence enough
of Jesus’ mal-formed character,
then taking young impressionable students
to Gerasa was proof positive.
Looking at it from the lens of upstanding clergy
and social leaders in his day,
Jesus would have appeared morally bankrupt
or demented to go hang out with the pig-eaters.
Gerasenes were Goi – gentiles,
people that ate pork.
They probably even wore clothing
made from pig flesh.
In other words, people who didn’t know
how to keep clean.
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.
To enter their territory
and mingle among the pig-eaters
was automatic defilement
that rendered the perpetrator
morally unclean and would require
re-purification 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.
We are given a throw-away line
as if it was extraneous –
that the strong man
who could not be bound
was an urbanite.
That is the editors 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 buck-naked.
Not even any tan lines.
He’s walking around as ‘commando’
as you can get.
Public nakedness was a huge no-no
in 1stcentury 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 and public baths
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,
there is a reason we say that
“clothes make the man or woman.”
So Act One ends
with Big Urban running toward Jesus,
yelling chaotically and perhaps
in an unfamiliar language –
more likely in the parlance of schizophrenia –
and Jesus is yelling back
at the demons who are yelling at him.
The curtain drops
and the house lights go black.
Act Two: Power
Darkness slowly fades into dawning light.
Sitting center stage in the over grown grass,
surrounded by tombstones
leaning this way and that,
are Jesus and Big Urban.
They are sitting cross-legged
and facing each other.
It is quiet, idyllic even.
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 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 and courage
by vanquishing their foes –
killing or eliminating them.
But in the face of threatening violence
what Jesus does is ask Big Urban hisname.
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, lips slobbering,
and mouth broadcasting loud,
terrible grunts and groans,
even salacious blasphemies.
Jesus asks the big ugly 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 price.
The story-teller’s use of that word, legion,
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 the empire.
It all has to do with knowing the demons’ name,
knowing what manner of evil is present,
and then naming it.
You don’t have to believe in evil spirits or Satan
to appreciate this story,
and to hear the truth embedded in it.
Just so you know, I do not believe in supernatural evil 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 the Ebola virus
jumped from monkeys or chimps
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.
But let’s also take this opportunity
to notice another detail that is not coincidental.
There just happens 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
or a herd of pigs
The metaphor of the swine
was a clear challenge to purity-minded clergy
and temple elites
that all borders 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 their lives
as a cheer goes up
among Jesus’ adoring students.
Act Three: This play 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
tip-toe up and 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.
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
destroy a valuable herd of pigs
just to heal one crazy guy,
then he is no friend
to the Chamber of Commerce.
It is clear to the villagers
that Jesus has upside-down values.
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, not wanted there, Jesus leaves.
It’s no big deal to him.
In response to the public resentment
he just leaves.
They ask him to leave,
and so he gets in his boat and leaves.
Act Three ends that way,
Jesus and his students getting into the boats
with the villagers walking away saying,
But don’t leave the theater yet
because there is a brief epilogue
that delivers the punch line.
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 hear in their conversations
that the students are distracted
by a desire to get home in time for dinner.
The light fades to a dusky tint
with the spotlight narrowing
on 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 life.
There is a halo of sadness around the scene –
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
or friend to tout, “terrific pig.”
Jesus places a hand on Big Urban’s shoulder,
looks into his glistening eyes
and says, “No.”
We are so used to Jesus saying yes,
and affirming those in need around him.
But he says no to the big guy.
The poor gentile 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.
But Jesus looks him in the eye
and holds him with a hand on each arm:
“Go home,” Jesus says,
“go home and tell your own people
just how much God has done for you.”
Then Jesus sails away.
Now this is how I would end the play
if it were me instead of Luke.
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 looking 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,
his lips curl upward in a smile,
his shoulders rise,
his arms extend as if taking us
into an embrace.
“Amazing, simply amazing.”
The house lights come on slowly,
raising a new dawn
with the end of the play.
Act One tells us: No walls, no borders.
Act Tworeminds us: Naming out loud the evil around us,
and the evil within us,
diminishes the power of both.
Act Threelands the surprise:
Not everyone needs to follow Jesus.
It is about sharing the love of God.
So there it is,
a heck of a good story
with a little sugar and spice,
a little salt and vinegar,
and a healthy dash of subversion.