Jesus and his disciples 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.) 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. 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. [Luke 8:26-39]
It seems pretty likely to me that the man who takes center stage in our Gospel today—this Gerasene possessed by so many demons—had loved ones, family members, former neighbors, and childhood friends. It’s very likely there were people in Gerasa who cared about this man, who were overwhelmed with worry when they saw him lose himself to whatever was going on in his mind and in his body. People who were maybe afraid of what this person they loved might do to himself or others. And so, given their limited resources and understanding of what was happening, they took the only recourse they had. They shackled him and guarded him… to keep the community safe. To keep him safe from himself.
But it doesn’t work. He just breaks the chains and runs wild. Apparently, they can’t make chains strong enough to hold him, to contain him, to control whatever it is that’s going on in him. Finally, in what I can only imagine is an act of desperation and last resort (at least for those close to him), they turn the man loose. They turn him outside the city walls. The only response left to them at a certain point, after all the human interventions at their disposal have failed, is to isolate the problem, to ignore it, to push it out. For the sake of the community. For its health. For its safety.
And the demons… this man’s personal demons… drive him further and further away from his community, his family, his neighbors, his childhood friends. To use modern parlance, his own maladaptive, destructive, dangerous behaviors push him into a self-imposed banishment. He has an “unclean spirit,” so he leaves the city and those who love him to live among the tombs, an unclean place, a place of death.
They’ve reached an impasse, these Gerasenes. The man is driven by destructive thoughts or impulses outside his control and too strong to resist. His community is driven, probably by a mixture of fear and sense of duty, to keep safe, to have peace, and to find some normalcy. So, the unclean demoniac remains outside the city among the tombs and the rest of the community, at the limits of their ability to help, on the inside.
But then along comes Jesus. And think for a minute about the lengths to which Jesus goes just to meet this man. Earlier in the chapter, he’s in Galilee, a city inhabited mostly by Jews like Jesus. And then he just announces, “let’s go to the other side of the lake,” where Jews are the minority. On the way, there’s a huge storm. The waters are so rough that they would’ve drowned, had it not been for Jesus rebuking the storm. Then once he reaches the other side, he associates with an unclean naked demoniac. Unclean on account of being possessed, unclean for living among the dead. To boot, after healing the man, he’s run out of town. The community is so frightened that he’s upset this delicate balance they’ve established in order to have some sense of normalcy that they send him packing.
All of which means that Jesus, the itinerant rabbi proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, goes to an unclean land to meet a man with an unclean spirit living in an unclean place and then gets run out of town and goes back where he came from… all of it for one person. For one person, by the way, who there’s no indication even wanted or was interested in a relationship with God before this.
Because for Jesus there is no place that’s off limits or out of bounds. There are no limits to how far Jesus will go. There’s no condition the man needs to meet before Jesus will meet him. He didn’t have to be of one specific group. He didn’t have to have been a believer his whole life. Or have recently come to believe. Or have any faith, for that matter. Jesus goes on this whole journey to seek this man out simply because he exists and is in need. And for Jesus, that is reason enough.
There are thousands of ways this gospel story relates to our world today. One of the most obvious ones is the way we continue to stigmatize mental illness. The belief in our society that to struggle with mental illness—as opposed to a physical disease or sickness—is to show weakness. It’s a stigmatization that is so intense that people begin to believe it about themselves. They then ostracize themselves from others, living in the tombs of their own homes or even their own thoughts. And the wider society, ill-equipped to deal with something that doesn’t fit into our understanding of the perfect society, is okay with that self-imposed distancing that happens.
But there are other ways we see this story playing out in our lives today, instances where we demonize other beloved human beings created in the image of God. Where we turn them into scapegoats for our own insecurities, symbols of what we think is wrong, and then push them to the outskirts, outside the walls… or we lock them in cages.
We can shift the blame, say that someone else built the cages and we’re just using them. We can pretend that it’s somehow justified. But when we treat other human beings, especially vulnerable children, as less worthy of dignity and basic human respect because of a border created not by God but by humans… we are the Gerasenes. When we separate children from their parents and lock them in cages like dogs… we are the Gerasenes. We are the community who is (okay, sure…) concerned about its safety and driven by a sense of fear, but who, nonetheless, have sinfully ostracized and dehumanized others for the sake of our own perceived safety. And to what end? Do you feel safer? Are we any more guaranteed of being the greatest? The most beloved? The most prosperous?
We are the Gerasenes. We corporately are the Gerasenes. Not one particular group, not one political party. We all are Gerasenes.
One of the things I often struggle with is getting overwhelmed by the news of how far from a reality the Kingdom of God seems to be sometimes, overwhelmed by things that deeply bother me. When that happens, I sometimes stop reading the news, stop listening to radio reports, stop watching TV. This week, some things were more than I could handle. I found myself turning away. Iran. Children in cages. It was just too much.
But thanks be to God that I am not God. Because for Jesus there was no place that was off limits. There was no person that was off limits. There was no experience, tragedy, isolation, illness, no uncleanness, no grief that could keep Jesus at bay. For God, there is no God-forsaken place, no God-forsaken people, no God-forsaken situation. When we can’t stand to look reality in the face, when we falter and turn away, God does not. God crosses the lake. God goes into the places in our lives we’re afraid to even look at and pronounces “this, too, is loved.” God sees the things even about ourselves that we can’t imagine loving and loves more deeply than we can even fathom. That scary place. That overwhelming emotion. The illness or grief. God is there. There is no place God will not go to find us to show us Love.
There is power in reminding ourselves that there is no such thing as God-forsaken. Because if we know that God is already there, that Jesus has already crossed the lake and has already entered the so-called unclean parts of our society, then we can turn and face them with a little less fear. We can plant our feet, square our shoulders, and speak truth to power. Children do not belong in cages.
We can turn and face the truth of a situation because we’re turning to see Jesus already at work. We’re not turning toward a place devoid of hope and grace and love. We’re turning toward a place where God is already at work. We’re turning toward seemingly hopeless situations and believing against all odds that there is hope and grace and love.
There is no God-forsaken place. There are no God-forsaken people.
There are situations, struggles, conflicts, or tragedies that are more than we alone can handle, but we don’t have to go it alone. So we turn and face the scary and gut-wrenching things. Scary things that really frighten me and that I don’t understand how they can possibly get better. But we turn… I turn and face it.
And we… I… say, “God is here.”
God is here, so we will not shut down.
God is here, so we will not turn away.
God is here, so we will not back down from loving.
God is here, so we will not stop telling everyone… everyone… that they are loved.
God is here, so we will never stop working to make sure that everyone is part of God’s Kingdom.