This week’s Bible study discussion was on Luke 8:26-39.
Exorcism is a controversial topic for discussion. Many people are rightly disturbed by the fact that accusations of demonic possession have been levied against people who suffer from medically discernible disorders such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, and dissociative identity disorder. Our LGBT sisters and brothers can testify to the fact that accusations of demonic influence are often hurled at those who deviate from accepted patterns of behavior prescribed by dominant religious officials. Jesus himself endured such accusations during his ministry.
With all this in mind, I approached this week’s discussion on the story of the Gerasene demoniac with not a little fear and trembling.
However the demoniac’s condition is understood, it cannot be denied that this story begins with an encounter between Jesus and a tortured soul. This person is estranged among strangers. The story begins as Jesus leads his disciples into Gentile territory on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. The region of Gerasa was inhabited by people of different race, religion, and politics from the twelve disciples.
As soon as they arrive, they are met by the village idiot, but not the silly contrivance of Monty Python sketches. This is a truly disturbed and disturbing person. Those who know may be reminded of Cowboy in Utica or Ross in Vancouver. Demon spirits, tombs, wilderness, and ritually unclean animals (pigs) give the story a rather menacing tone. The disciples are probably feeling literally and figuratively “dis-placed” by such an opening to their venture beyond the pale of Jewish society.
I remember the first time I visited the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. While I was waiting for the church doors to open, a hooker propositioned me on the sidewalk saying, “Ooh! You look horny for ME!” Not knowing what else to do, I just said, “No thanks” and nervously pretended to look at something else. It was a little overwhelming for a southern boy from the burbs who was living in the big city for the first time. I imagine Jesus’ disciples experiencing similar emotions during their encounter in Gerasa.
Jesus, however, is unphased by Legion’s display of insanity. The most remarkable thing to me is Jesus’ ability to separate the problem from the person. The problem is eliminated but the person is healed. The Gerasene man was previously “demonized”, but has now been “humanized” by the ministry of Christ.
This is quite similar to the approach taken by those in recovery from various addictions. For the last half-century, addiction has been increasingly recognized as a disease for which a person must receive treatment. One hundred years ago, someone would have been called a drunk, now we know that such a person suffers from the disease of alcoholism. In this area, we too have begun to separate the problem from the person.
One member of our community at St. James, who has been in recovery from alcoholism for several decades, was able to identify the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in this story. Like the demoniac, she too was restored to sanity by her Higher Power.
In the denouement, we read that the Gerasene man is now “sitting at the feet of Jesus”, a remarkable phrase used to describe the relationship between rabbis and their disciples. The same phrase was used to describe the relationship between Jesus and Mary of Bethany. What this indicates is that Jesus is interested in recruiting women and non-Jews into his cadre of disciples. This would be unheard of in that time.
The transformation in the Gerasene man is obvious to those who know him. In fact, it causes quite a bit of consternation among the locals. This is not surprising considering that communal systems tend to resist change.
Recovering addicts and alcoholics are able to relate to this as well. Re-defining family relationships is one of the most stressful parts of recovery. The family had maintained a delicate balance and rhythm for survival while their loved one was drinking and/or using. When that person gets clean & sober, the balance and rhythm get disturbed. There are two easy ways out of this situation: the person in recovery can “pick up” their substance of choice again or the person can leave the family system altogether.
The Gerasene man occupied a certain place in the communal rhythm of Gerasene society. He was the person upon whom everyone else could look down. His healing upset that rhythm, causing anxiety in the broader community. He might face even more marginalization after his healing than he did before. It would be easy for him to get out of town. In fact, he tries to do just that when he asks Jesus if he can go with him. But Jesus doesn’t allow the man the easy way out. Already a disciple, Jesus sends the man back to his own town. In essence, Jesus ordains him the first apostle to the Gentile people. He is instructed to tell them the story of what has happened to him. Our friend in recovery pointed out that this is not at all unlike the twelfth step in the AA program, where the recovering alcoholic is instructed to “carry this message” to those who still suffer.
This is not just a story about exorcism. It is the story of a tortured soul who finds healing and purpose through his connection to Jesus. It is a story about crossing boundaries and encountering real humanity in the most unexpected places.
Do we have enough courage to venture beyond the pale of our “normal” lives and see human beings where there only demons? Do we have enough insight to discern the difference between people and problems? Do we have enough faith to let our comfortable systems be upset so we can share in the healing work that God is doing in our midst?
“You’ve got to look outside your eyes / You’ve got to think outside your brain / You’ve got to walk outside your life / to where the neighborhood changes.” ~Ani DiFranco, “Willing to Fight”