The Living among the Dead
Proper 7, Year C
Lessons for the Day: 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
For years the man haunted the tombs – the living dwelling in the places of the dead. No one remembers his name; they can barely register that he is even a human being. He was reduced to an ailment and haunted by demons. So, he wanders the tombs: naked, alone, neglected, ashamed, forgotten, afraid. He doesn’t experience peace, never knows human decency or love, lives a miserable existence, entombed and tied down by his illness, and is further constrained by societal neglect and indifference.
Nonetheless, he is still a person. He must have known at one time (at least I hope) what love and compassion looked like. He certainly knew what companionship and community were like. Now, though, he doesn’t recognize his own name. He names his demons “Legion,” but that’s not his name. That is not who he is; but, rather, what has become of him, what has happened to him. I don’t want us to get stuck on the demons. The demons, I think, are best read as metaphor, descriptive of emotional and spiritual disruption and disintegration” of reality.
At the historical level, “Legion” refers to that large unit of the Roman army, compromising five to six thousand soldiers. It is a name that undoubtedly would have conjured up an image of the Roman military in the mind of those who heard it, of a military at the heart of occupation and oppression by the Empire they represented. Indeed, to those who inhabited the Roman Empire, especially those conquered and forced into subjugation, the presence of Roman legions meant “the loss of control over every dimension of their own society” (Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, 178). By naming the demon, “Legion,” the storyteller is pointing out that the demon possessing the Gerasene is not one of his own sinfulness or cause. Instead, the name would indicate that the demons are the result of an oppressive colonizing force, and norms upheld by the Roman Empire in the interest of preserving its own power and stability. It is a structural evil that is at the heart of this narrative, one that completely occupies the man, resulting in the distortion of his God-given identity and behavior. When this man says that he is Legion. he is essentially saying that he has been overrun, broken, divided, and separated by Caesar and Empire. The man has been fragmented and fractured, disrupted and overwhelmed by forces that he cannot conquer by himself.
Essentially, the man is lost to himself, without identity, abandoned by the community, and dispossessed of his humanity. He is, therefore, naked and exposed. He is vulnerable. No longer allowed to live in the city, he dwells among the tombs – the barely living in the places of the dead. And, as it seems, the townspeople are happy to leave him there. He is at a safe distance, not bothering their security. And no matter how bad things may get, no matter what life may bring, at least they are not like Legion.
Then, for the man possessed in Luke’s narrative, Jesus shows up in the place of the tombs, bringing life among the dead. At that moment, everything changes. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Legion is scared. Empire is frightened. The powers that be are angered. Jesus looks past Legion to see the man as a beloved child of God. And healing follows. The man, now dispossessed of the demons of Empire and power and of abandonment and marginalization, comes to his right mind!
As is the custom in small towns, word spread quickly that the town crazy is no longer crazy, and people are scared. What frightens them? Perhaps they are afraid that Jesus will upset the way things are. Perhaps they are afraid that a man formerly known as Legion might actually have a name and identity of his own, with a past and a future. So the townspeople invite Jesus to go away! When you bring the raise, fear has a way of creeping in.
Jesus and his disciple pack into the boat and prepare to leave, but the former demoniac begs and pleads to go with Jesus. He wants to be a disciple, to know better this Most High God who recognizes him for who he is even as his own people do not. But Jesus insists that he remain to tell the story of his healing, to spread the good news among the people. This man will become a living parable of the power of God to transform even the most broken and neglected. Hope can be scary. So, indeed, the man dispossessed goes away proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
So, at first, I think that we can empathize just a little? Who does not know what that might be like to be tormented ourselves? Haven’t we all, at some time, lost our bearings, when the colonizing forces of corruption and greed, control and power overwhelm us? It is a place and time of separation, loneliness, and isolation, when we become exiled from family, friends, and faith. I don’t know what in your life has shattered, what isolation you might live in, how you might live among the dead. I don’t know the Legion of your life. I know some of your stories and stand ready to hear more – when you are ready to tell them.
This past week, I had the privilege of celebrating with and affirming the identity of LGBTQIA+ persons with Polk Pride. I heard stories that reminded me of the Gerasene demoniac – of marginalized people forced to live among the tombs. One woman recounted how her mother, when she told her mother that she was gay, quite literally tried to kill her by holding her head underwater in a bath. Another told the story of how they were exiled from their home, and lived on the streets, among “the almost dead.” Countless others told of how they lost their communities of faith and friends and family, marginalized for claiming their identities.
I can tell you this, however it is that you or someone you love might be possessed by Legion, it might be it is the place to which Christ comes. Jesus steps out onto the land of this foreign country, the land of Legion. He comes to us as the one with inner clarity, focus, knowing, and understanding. He is the presence of unity, wholeness, and integration. He is the image of who we are and who we can become. That’s why we continue to seek and follow Jesus as our teacher, guide, and savior. He is and has the life we want. Jesus comes unafraid of death or the tombs in which this man lives. He is not distracted by the man’s craziness. He is not repulsed by the man’s nakedness or appearance. He is not limited by the chains and shackles that bind this man’s life. He is unchallenged by the guard. Legion holds no power over Jesus. And we are Jesus’ disciples, empowered by the promised Spirit, so Legion holds no power over us, either.
But it’s more than just our own demons we have to contend with. It can be all too easy to form a detente with demons and to usher the possessed to live among the tombs. It is far easier to make peace with the demons that we, our world, our religion, our society, our empire have foisted on others. Yes, it can be far too easy to make peace with the demons caused by homophobia and transphobia, and to usher those possessed by them to the tombs, than to actually expel those demons and welcome others in. It is far easier to make peace with demons caused by racism, misogyny, and xenophobia – caused by our fear of those different from us – than to banish those demons and dispossess those affected.
But God never intended for any of us to dwell in the place of the dead. God imbued us with dignity and worth and purpose and invites us to discover the same in others.
And if we are honest, we don’t really have to go far to find those living among the tombs. There are those in our communities, those in our neighborhoods, those inside our churches simply wanting to be seen and heard and given the dignity of any human being. There are those who long to experience healing and compassion in a world that is often forgotten them, disabused them of their identities, and pushed them out of the city. There are those who spend their days and nights in the places of the dead, who long for the good news of Jesus’ love, welcome, and hope. So, the invitation to the man dispossessed is now our invitation. We, having been dispossessed ourselves, are invited to imbue the world and the church with new life, new hope, and new inspiration. We are invited to the boldness of welcoming others from the tombs and loosening the shackles that have kept them bound.