On first reading, this story just doesn’t make sense. Jesus has landed on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at the gentile town of Gerasa, known today as the Greco-Roman ruin of Kersa. He encounters a man whose life and spirit is completely taken over by a host of haunting demons. His very identity had become subject to his multiple tormentors: when asked his name, he uses the pagan military word ‘legion’ to describe how thoroughly he has been possessed. His demons beg Jesus not to send them into the ‘abyss’ — the biblical word, ἄβυσσος, suggests a watery, unfathomably deep, chaotic place of defilement. But that’s exactly where Jesus banishes these horrendous spirits, sending them into ritually unclean swine who plummet over the seaside cliffs of Gerasa to their death.
What doesn’t seem to add up is the reaction of the Garasenes to this dramatic, unexpected display of healing power. Jesus had suddenly gotten rid of a demon-possessed monster who had terrorized their countryside. For years, they had put up with this crazed creature, a public menace whom they had chained, shackled and chased, but could never keep under control. The man would skulk among the bones and viscera of the burial grounds, screaming his lungs out and refusing to wear clothes.
Now all Gerasa saw him restored to his right mind — clean, clothed, and healed. And what was their reaction? Overwhelming gratitude for what this exorcizing healer had done for them? Far from it! They were frightened out of their minds by this stranger’s power to set things right. They preferred the way things had always been and forced the one who would change them to leave. They chose to go on living in fear instead of embracing a new day with gratitude.
“How could they reject something that was clearly so good for them?” we ask. But when we take a closer look, it’s hard not to recognize this as all-too-familiar, very human behavior. It looks very much like how we so often react when an evil we’ve become accustomed to is unexpectedly overturned and goodness is suddenly restored. We prefer to stay mired in fear than move on with thanksgiving. We’ve seen it in our nation’s past and in what is happening today.
Think of the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies in this country — so many people reacted in fear to the great strides the nation’s minorities had begun to make. Or think of the fear-filled pushback we see whenever a new wave of immigrants try to build a new life for themselves in our land. Look at the anger and resistance women have encountered when they have sought true equality in our society. Consider the fear-soaked hostility toward muslim Americans that’s abroad in our land. And then there is the revulsion that some people display for those who seek to live full and equal lives according to their own God-given sexual orientation. Too often, people prefer the predictable bad old days to a new, good thing that disrupts and challenges the way the world has always been.
Seeing the brutal way the Gerasene demoniac was treated reminds me of one of the great national tragedies of our times: we Americans incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other nation on earth. We’ve learned to live with this national calamity, building so many new jails and penitentiaries that they now outnumber our degree-granting institutions of higher learning.
The vast majority of prisoners are doing time for committing non-violent crimes. Locked away for long periods of time because of mandatory minimum sentencing, they receive very little training, except, perhaps, peer coaching in advanced criminality. When they finally do get out, they discover their prison record prevents them from finding a job, securing a home, and becoming a contributing member of society.
Shall we reform this unfair, incredibly overcrowded and enormously expensive prison system? ‘No’ is the answer we’ve given so far — the prospect is just too scary. So we keep this national misfortune in the shadows, letting our fellow citizens rot away among the tombs of solitary confinement and the chains of dead-end boredom and the assaults and indignities that are rife in the nation’s prisons today.
And there is one other heartbreaking way in which we as a nation prefer to live with our violently destructive demons. We have chosen to tolerate and accept and convince ourselves that there’s nothing we can do about being the nation with the world’s highest frequency of mass shootings — close to 120,000 Americans murdered with guns, “18 times all American deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded those forces.
This Gospel helps us to see how much this is a spiritual problem and not just a political issue. The problem is that desolate “sickness unto death” that the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote about, that dispairing sense that we must accept that military assault weapons must be available to virtually anyone in our society, that we are somehow freer and better off this way and we must just learn to live with the demonic and destructive world we have created for ourselves. The biblical view is that to be possessed by a demon, (δαίμων), is to be controlled by an illness of the spirit that distorts and corrupts the very likeness of God with which we were created. That’s an apt description of many soul-destroying conditions that we decide we must live with because we’re afraid we can’t do otherwise.
It is fear, inhibiting fear that feeds the demonic forces around and within us. Imprisoning fear can keep our society chained and shackled and us living in the shadows. Morbid fear can keep us all from delighting and flourishing in the goodness that God intends for us.
But there is an alternative. Notice that there was one person in the land of the Garasenes who was not afraid — the restored demoniac himself. Uninhibited by fear, he was infused, instead, with gratitude. He wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus set for him a more challenging task: he was to stay at home, to stay in touch with his gratitude, and to make a difference there.
It’s gratitude that keeps us in touch with the goodness of life. It’s gratitude for what God has already done for us that helps us overcome our usual fears of the unknown and the unfamiliar. And its gratitude for our world, for God’s good world, that provides a vision of the part we can play to restore creation even as evil and injustice abound all around us. Staying in touch with our gratitude to make a difference where we are gives us the courage to overcome despair, to resist the forces of darkness and to stand for what is good and what is of God in this world.
There are two ways we can react to life: by leading with our wretched fears or by living out of gratitude. Our restored Gerasene brother would have us take Jesus’ advice as he himself once did: right where you are, choose to be grateful, and with your words and your actions, courageously “declare how much God has done for you.”