How to Avoid Legions of Trouble
A sermon based on Luke 8:26-39
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 19, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As we just all heard the lesson has swine it. So I SNOUT it will surprise you that I have some pig puns . . . some riddles. Why did the pig stop sunbathing? Because he was BACON in the heat. What do you call a pig in a rickshaw? PULLED PORK. What happens when a pig loses her voice? She becomes disGRUNTled? Some of you already seem about to SQUEAL over these puns, so I’ll tell the rest after church . . . out in the PORKING lot.
Our story today takes place in Gerasa which is geographically on the seashore opposite of Galilee. It is also opposite in other ways as it has a large non-Jewish population. 1 (Jewish Annot p 117-118). Which explains the presence of unclean swine. Pigs are often a symbol – even today– of what is culturally considered profane and unclean.
The Gerasene man in the story can also be understood as symbolizing the culturally profane and unclean. He is not only a Gentile, but naked, mentally ill, and living among dead bodies possessed by demons. In short, he is portrayed as just about as profane and unclean as can be in 1st Century Palestine – and he is shackled by humanity and by demons. We are told the demons who cause his grief are named Legion. Legion is, of course, the name of a large Roman army unit of around five thousand men. Roman legions occupied and possessed and bound up the people of First Century Palestine to Rome’s oppressive way. Legion is what ails both Jews and Gentiles in that time and place
Rome was infamous for the brutal and ruthless manner in which the very wealthy, very small top tier of the empire, “dominated Jesus’ world.” 2 The empire was for the emperor to do as he pleased and only a very few elite were allowed to have any sort of wealth beyond what was needed to survive. The vast majority of people in the empire – Jewish and Gentile peasants alike– were intentionally kept at a level of subsistence with just enough for each day’s survival. So most people in the occupied territories of the Roman Empire lived on the very edge of existence hoping to make it through the days one at a time. “Give us this day our daily bread” was meant literally.
That is how Rome managed it. Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces was to suck up as many of the provinces’ resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether. Rome slowly siphoned the life out of places life Palestine. 3
Those who could give something to the system were placed in a web that made the men above them in status their patrons– their brokers of power for literal survival. I suggested before that this was kinda of like the Mafia in “The Godfather” movies. If you were in the Mafia’s empire you needed a don and his lieutenants’ patronage to survive. If you offer the patron system nothing then you are considered expendable. Jesus and his followers were mostly Jewish expendables. The Gerasene Demonic is a Gentile expendable.
And expendables who challenged or disrupted the patron system were are not just expendable, but in the way and therefore in need being disposed of. The Gerasene Demonic is disposed of like an unwanted dog might be today by a cruel uncaring master. He’s barley alive, chained, uncared for in an unwanted place, hardly recognized for what he is, a human being. He’s hungry, thirsty, sick, a stranger and imprisoned.
Jesus, of course, is later disposed of in a crueler way– tortured and hung on a cross to slowly die. It was a public method of disposal by Rome reserved for those in the way, those who protested, revolted or otherwise challenged the empire. And they were violently disposed of in public to terrorize the masses into thinking twice about questioning or getting in Rome’s way.
Our lesson this morning has dozens of sermons possibilities. Besides taking advantage of the opening for terrible (by terrible I mean great) pig puns, I am going to focus today on the very subversive suggestion in the story – in a pretty unveiled way– that earthly’s demonic powers that abuse and shackles its people needs to be exorcized. And then I’m going to point out the Bible’s version of God’s vision of what God centered rulers and nations do through earthly power.
The story pretty clearly claims Jesus’ Way can unshackle and set all manner of people free of such demonic Legions in the world. In modern parlance and humor we could say that demonic earthly powers end when pigs fly– and the miracle in the story is they do fly right into water which was thought at the time to help exorcize them! (Kinda like the Wicked Witch of the West who melts when water touches her, that what happens to Legion in the sea).
The Gospels focus on Jesus’ power and teachings, his way to rescue lives. Very often they include lessons on tending to neighbors–including enemies– who are oppressed. Metaphorically the oppressors are the demons inherent in earthly empires not following God’s way. Demons such as: greed; prejudice, self-centeredness; lack love; oppression; power hunger; violence; cruelty; and all sorts of “isms” and disrespect for the worth of others. And here in this one little story much of that is packed in.
The story suggests that even the most unclean Gentile need not be feared, only the Roman Legions that occupy and bound and oppress them, the same ones that occupy and bound and oppress Jews. See, it’s not Gentile people that Jesus teaches his followers to oppose, but rather abusive and violent earthly powers, the systems that corrupt and make us unclean, politics that oppress and chain and treat others in inhuman and unGodly ways.
Heard in this way the story literally suggests that if we remove violent and oppressive earthly power (represented by Roman legions); and if we exorcize that sort of unGodly demonic possession from the land and its people (all its people) then for everyone – both Jew and Gentile alike– there can be experiences of healing.
Now, as we heard, Jesus discourages the local healed man from literally following him out of town because Jesus needs those transformed by his Way to stay and help others get on that Way and experience transformation and further the community’s well being. Here’s how the Feasting on the Word commentary puts it, that Jesus appears to:
be bequeathing the responsibility and the authority to effect communal change to those in the community who have felt Jesus’ presence and power. Perhaps what these people, need is not a demonstration of Jesus’ power but the living testimony of the one who has been healed and restored. 4
Jesus’ Way transforms and it is very important to point out that this story is holding up to ridicule earthly power, not Gentiles or Romans. Jesus does not rebuke or harm humans only the demonic spirit of the institution of the Legion. It’s the sins of the system in spirit, not the individuals in human form, that are mocked as unclean and impure and the “bad guys” in the story.
And it is the institution that gets the willies and wants to run when Jesus shows up. It’s the institution that doesn’t think before it begs to leap into unclean pigs and runs off a cliff into the cleansing water. Apparently governments have long not thought before they acted, and ended up in HOGWASH and other messes.
The Roman empire’s messes certainly included a lot of unGodly oppression and harm, and Jesus can be heard to have come to clean such messes up–with the help of those of us on his Way. We can’t leave the problems behind to continue to hurt others. Even when Legion leaves town it hurts the locals and Jesus wants us, like the healed Garasene man, to stay and help transform our community, our world.
Thankfully most of have never encountered the level of infamous brutality and ruthlessness Rome used to dominate Jesus’ world. No one person can do as they please with our country. Wealth enough to live beyond a day is no longer limited to a few elite pals of the ruler, meaning many Americans have more than just enough for each day’s survival. We also don’t need patrons and brokers of power for survival. Most of us are not considered expendable and easily disposed if we get in the way. Cruelty, lack of care, torture, terror and death to the opposition are not every day lawful governing practices.
The government, the earthly power we experience is far better than the Roman Empire Jesus experienced. But . . . frankly . . . that does not mean that we can’t hear vestiges of Rome’s abuse lingering, or threatening to rear its ugly head in even our own history. Stories of brutality and violence used in efforts to expand, govern or control protests and challenges exist in American history. There have arguably been those who seen to want to do as they please with resources ignoring concern for others. There have even been times limited opportunities to acquire wealth. And many adults and children have lived in poverty. Our politics have sometimes even seemed at times to have been mired in some sort of patron and broker power system that aims to benefit a few, while ignoring the well being of others. And there have been in our history, I am so very sad to say, cruelty, lack of care, torture, terror and death advocated as proper tools of government. So even though our government is better and always has been better, we too have had legions of trouble in governing.
Our lesson today teaches that such legions of the trouble need to be exorcized. Jesus’ healing Way lets the oppressed go free, but this particular lesson does not detail the attributes of those who properly govern. When Legion is gone it is fair to ask who and what are better replacements? We can look to Jesus teachings on love and doing to others what we want done to us and they provide the touchstone to good relationships– even government’s relationships with others. Simply put, in general if a policy is not for the well being of others it is not love-centered and not Godly.
But we can also turn to both the Old Testament and the New Testament for more specific guidance on the politics of nations and rulers of nations. We’ve looked at Psalm 72 before and I read a part of it today as the invocation. It gives a great outline for identifying good and Godly ruling of a nation. It sets out not only what we are to look for and hope for and pray for in a ruler, but it provides the telltale signs of proper governance as God would have it.
That Psalm says “let the ruler be prayed for continually . . .” and the prayer includes these excerpts:
Oh God give your anointed one your judgement– and your justice. Teach your chosen one to govern your people rightly and bring justice to the oppressed . . . Your anointed will defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor . . .
Your anointed will rescue the poor when they cry out, and the oppressed when there is not one to help them. Your chosen one will take pity on the lowly and the poor and will save their lives.. Your chosen one will rescue them all from violence and oppression and will treat their blood as precious. . . .(The Inclusive Bible, Psalm 72: 1-4; 12-14)
Biblically those are the marks of what God’s wants from a ruler. These may not be what we want, or any political party wants, or gives priority to, but they are actually what the Bible indicates God wants us to pray rulers accomplish.
And notice that these meet up with Jesus’ “love your neighbor” and “do to others as you would have done to you” commandments. They also pass the litmus test of Jesus’ general teachings to care for the lowly, the children and the poor. And they also match up with Jesus specific teachings in Matthew 25 on how nations are judged. “All the nations will be gathered before him . . .” in Matthew 25 and those that inherit the kingdom are the nations that tend to Christ in the least of us. When they are hungry, the nations’ people give them food. When they are thirsty, the nations’ people give them something to drink. When they are a stranger, the nations’ people welcome them. When they are naked, the nations’ people gives them clothing. When they are sick, the nations’ people take care of them. When they are in prison, the nations’ people visit them. That’s how Jesus says the Son of Man judges the nations’ people– on how they do those things. And Jesus said that when those things are not done, those nations’ people “‘are accursed” and that “ they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’” (Mat 25:31-46)
We certainly can have differences of opinions on how to best reach the standards set out in Psalm 72 and Matthew 25 and in Jesus’ other teachings. We do not have to agree on who will best rule under those standards. I am not going to preach which political party or which particular person should rule.
But I am preaching that the oppressive use of earthly powers symbolized by Legion in our story needs to exorcized. And I am preaching that we can help the world avoid those legions of trouble by utilizing the Biblical standards measuring good rulers and good governance. And I am preaching that we pray as the Psalm 72 suggests that our rulers be given God’s judgement and justice, that they learn to govern rightly and bring justice to the oppressed and rescue the poor and crush the oppressor; that they take pity on the lowly and the poor and save their lives . . . rescue them all from violence and treat their blood as precious. Finally, I am preaching that we must especially pray for this in light of the horrific events in Orlando and the heterosexism and sexism and classism and very ugly racism that still exists in our culture.
Biblically speaking, we need our rulers, our governing bodies, to work toward crushing oppressors, rescuing the oppressed and treating the blood of all as very, very precious. God help us, we need our nation’s rulers to end the tragic shootings and horrific violence and the mistreatment of our people. Let us pray that those legions of trouble be exorcized from our way of life, from all ways of life as God would have it.
1. The Oxford Jewish Annotated New Testament, p 117-118
2. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, p. 61
3. Ibid., p 63
4. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 3., p 171
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