Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Trinity 4 The Gadarene swine
My first husband was a policeman. He was a village bobby and we lived in the village bobby’s house, with a small police office attached. As a consequence, I was sometimes involved in some of the village policing; usually answering the phone or the door and, very occasionally, having prisoners in the house while we waited for transport, etc. In those cases, the prisoner was often drunk or involved in a domestic dispute of some kind. One occasion sticks in my mind, however.
There was a man, a local man in his 30s, who had a mental illness. He lived with his parents, but his family did not know how to look after him and the so-called care in the community of the 1970s, meant that he had nowhere else to go. The only time I encountered him, he was curled up under my husband’s desk and barking and growling like a dog. Nowadays, we know that this man was a schizophrenic. When his fits came upon him, it was frightening for everyone around him – but (thankfully) he never caused harm to anyone. 2000 years ago, seeing him barking and growling like that, I think I might have thought he was the demon-possessed man of our gospel story today.
Jesus’ ministry is in full swing, he has been preaching, teaching, healing the sick, dealing with Pharisees – and he is tired. Verse22 (which we are not reading) says he suggested to his disciples that they go over to “the other side”. They sail across the Sea of Galilee, through a massive storm, and land in the Gentile region of Gadara. Were they, I wonder, blown off course by the storm? Other occasions when they have crossed the lake, they have stayed where the Jewish crowds can follow.
Gadara was a Greek town, one of the original members of the Decapolis and remained predominantly Greek after the Roman conquest. It was ruled over by one of the Herod family and despite the town being 5 miles or so from the Sea of Galilee, shipping was its main commercial activity. Most of Jesus’ ministry was within the region of Judea and to Jewish people. Going to the region of Gadara, they go into a completely different culture. Just note – they keep pigs.
The first person they encounter is this wild, naked man, who threw himself at Jesus’ feet, shouting at the top of his voice. In our gospel, the man is described as demon-possessed – a phrase which occurs many times in the gospels and describes many conditions, which, from the descriptions given, could be attributed to any condition from epilepsy to schizophrenia. This poor man had no clothes and no home. He was kept in chains and under guard in the local burial place – tombs - in those days, usually caves carved into the rocks. He had no hope, just waiting for death to relieve him of his suffering. He was strong – the text says he had broken free of his chains, so no wonder the townspeople were afraid of him.
Jesus asked him what his name was and his reply is telling: “Legion”. The word ‘Legion’ could describe a very large number, or could refer to the occupying Roman governance (the soldiers were legionnaires, - 100 to a Legion). So, we can understand that it’s not his real name - it’s just what he is known as, referring to the ‘many’ demons ‘occupying’ him. I think it is quite an insult, like calling someone ‘fatty’, or worse.
The poor man seems to have been accustomed to some form of torture, because almost his first words to Jesus are “don’t torture me”. Torture might have been village lads throwing stones, or worse forms – or just the torture of being kept in chains in a graveyard with no clothes. Did they feed him, we wonder, did they chuck food at him and run away? He obviously escaped from his chains frequently and had to be caught and brought back. A truly pitiable wreck of a human being.
But... there is something quite wonderful to consider here. He knew who Jesus was. He not only knew his name, but also recognised him as the Son of the Most High God. Think about that for a while and we will look at Jesus for a moment. Jesus and his followers had sailed across the Sea of Galilee to the territory of Gadara. Most of the commerce was of the Sea, so we assume that news of Jesus was carried on the ships plying back and forth. Jesus power was not exclusively for Jews, as we know from other parts of the gospel, Here, in this Roman-occupied, Greek territory he was well known, even a mad man living in the tombs knew who he was. Jesus obviously pitied him and healed him – casting the demons into a herd of pigs.
Don’t waste pity on the pigs, by the way, because they run into the sea and are drowned. Their fate was always an early death, they were kept for food. And, of course, they represented some of the wealth of the area. The pig keepers rushed to tell the owners in the town (about 5 miles away) and around the countryside. What did they tell them, we wonder? “Jesus is here, he has sent all our pigs to destruction, he’s got ‘Legion’ with him” “Yes, Jesus! He’s here!” Can we call them missionaries? Anyway, they came back, with others, and what did they find?
This man, this nameless, naked, homeless man was sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind.
What do we expect when someone has an encounter with Jesus?
These people were afraid, but what were they afraid of? The man was in his right mind – no more mad outbursts, no more demonic strength, breaking his chains. An encounter with Jesus will always put people in their right minds. An encounter with Jesus is not religious mania. But these people were so afraid they asked him to leave. Oh, how often does that happen? The unsaid rule, “don’t mention religion”. The penance of being a missionary!
There is one more missionary to mention. The man (we still do not know his real name), this man wanted to go with Jesus – but Jesus had work for him. He tells the man to go home and tell what God has done for you.” And that is precisely what he did, and what we should always do. Tell others what God has done for us.
I’m going to link this back to the Isaiah reading now, because Isaiah uses some analogy that appears in our story today. Isaiah is prophesying to a people who do not know God; and says they sit among graves, eat the flesh of pigs and who say “don’t come near me”. But God will choose them too, says Isaiah. He says, “if there is any juice left in the bunch of grapes, don’t destroy it, there is still a blessing in it”. Even a glimmer of faith can be accessed by God. Remember that when you tell people about the church, they might say they are not interested, but God is interested in them and the tiniest spark can become a flame.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians reminds us that God is indeed God of all. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile”, he says. Demonstrated some 20 or 30 years earlier by a man from Gadara, a Gentile, being saved by Jesus himself. Again, as Paul says, In Christ you are all children of God.
Last week (at Gratot), we were reminded about the debate/discussion/quarrel between the believers in Jerusalem (including Peter) and the believers in Antioch, (led by Paul).
The early believers had been persecuted by the Jewish authorities and many had left the area around Jerusalem. A group of them had gone north to Antioch and started telling the people there – and many of them were non-Jews. A crisis of definition was at hand – was Christianity (a name first given in Antioch) just a Jewish sect or not. There is a great symbolic difference. Jewish males had to be circumcised at 8 days old. Converts had to undergo that surgery as adults. Only males were circumcised. Yes, there is a downside to a male dominated culture.
But baptism is the mark of a convert to Christianity. And baptism is for everyone, as Paul says: men and women, Jew or Gentile, slave or free – we could add crazy or sane! Equally available, and usually painless!
We can, and do, learn a lot from our readings today. Jesus’ message is for everyone and the tiniest drop of belief can be a blessing. Being saved by Jesus puts you in your right mind. There is nothing to fear.
We can all be missionaries – all we need to is tell people about what God has done - for others and for me and for you.
And it’s good news - for everyone.
Footnote to sermon:
"It is not my intention to imply that Legion was a schizophrenic. The gospel writer is clear that he was demon-possessed and Jesus did indeed command the demons to come out. Being possessed by demons is a very serious condition and exists even today. If this is an issue that concerns you, please talk to any member of the ministry team. However, the meaning of this sermon remains unchanged - tell others what good things God has done."