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…
While plenty has been written and preached about the Gerasene demoniac and his deliverance as told in this story, today I’m most curious about the Gerasene villagers who live around this man. The parenthetical note, an almost throwaway line above, actually tells us quite a bit about them. It seems they’ve developed a system for keeping the possessed man locked up—chained and shackled and guarded. Presumably, this is for their own protection from him, and perhaps (they feel) to protect him from himself. Certainly an understandable and justifiable response to a fearsome and potentially dangerous threat.
However, note the next phrase: “but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.” This system of protection the village has developed doesn’t work. The text implies that multiple times, in fact, the system has failed, and yet it seems the village returns again and again to the same plan. Apparently, they lock him up and assign a guard, the Legion seizes him, and he breaks the bonds and escapes the guard, running wild and on the loose. They catch him and return him to his guarded, shackled existence, and upon his next episode with his demons, he breaks free again. Wash, rinse, repeat, as if they have no other choice. This isn’t ideal, but it’s the best we can (read “are willing to”) come up with, so we’ll just keep doing it this way.
Jesus shows up on the scene and offers an alternative to the broken system the villagers are enslaved to. He shows the village that a more abundant life is possible for the poor man and for all of them, but it requires each to give up something. The man must give up or be delivered from his demons. Jesus can and does take care of that bit. But the village must in turn give up the fear THEY have been seized by, fear that has swallowed up their identity and dictates their response to threats, fear that possesses them. They perceive Jesus’ way of love and mercy as a threat to what they have grown comfortable with, to the systems they have created. And so instead of accepting Jesus’ invitation to another way, they turn their fear on him and run him out of town.
As our society continues to experience tragedy and horror in our houses of worship, our grocery stores, our schools, we the church have something to offer as an alternative. Jesus’ way of love and mercy—the way that we proclaim and strive to live out through our baptismal covenant—confronts us with another way. His way, however, requires that we give up some things, perhaps first and foremost our fear. For broken systems to change, for us to find a new and life-giving way forward, for the church to make a positive impact in our society, we must start by tuning out fear’s legion of voices and listening instead for Jesus’ invitations that come with each new moment.