2nd Sunday before Lent 2018
Sunday 04 February
There are many ways of reading and understanding the story of Legion that we heard in our second reading this evening. There are those who will read it and say that it is simply a wonderful miracle – Jesus cast out demons and calmed a poor deranged man’s mind in the same way that he calmed a raging storm just a few hours before. Jesus brought order to chaos and the healed man lived peacefully and happily ever after proclaiming how much Jesus had done for him.
Others will read this story as a metaphor – the poor possessed man represents Israel occupied by the Romans, and Jesus is the one to cast out the occupying force leading to independence and peace for the chosen people of Israel.
What everyone does with this story, wherever they are on the ‘miracle-to-metaphor’ spectrum, is to take all the humanity out of it. Those of us who come to church and know our bibles hear the name of the place where this event took place ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ and think, oh, that’s the one about Legion and the pigs, the one where Legion gets healed by Jesus …… but we rarely explore the story from a human point of view, so let’s do that and see where it leads …….
Taking the story as it is presented, poor Legion lived among the tombs, often chained to them and kept under guard some of the time. Sometimes, having broken his chains and torn off his clothes, he roamed the graveyard naked. What had led to this point? Where were his family? It is possible that Legion was suddenly possessed one day by many demons, but it is more likely that he descended into what we would call, mental illness, more slowly. The chances are that he was cared for by his family as best they could. Assuming his general behaviour became slowly more strange, he would, at first, have been difficult to care for. The extended family and the neighbours in the town would have become aware that the man was eccentric, odd, and would have talked about his peculiarities and his eccentricities. Then, it seems, he must have become unpredictable and violent– scaring people and eventually scaring his family so much that they had to get him out of their house. We find it heart-breaking to consider someone we love being admitted as an inpatient to a psychiatric ward in a hospital, just think how heart-breaking it must have been to come to the decision that your son, your brother can no longer live at home but must be taken to the outskirts of the town and chained to a gravestone! It seems reasonable to assume that Legion’s family would have been deeply sad, probably wracked with guilt and would have done what they could to help him, visiting regularly to bring food and clothing.
Imagine that you are Legion’s sister or brother. Imagine how you would have felt when you were told, by an angry swineheard perhaps, that your poor deranged brother had been healed by a stranger. Like everyone else hearing the news you would hurry to the graveyard on the edge of the town to see for yourself. So, there you are, standing a way off, looking at your brother, ‘clothed and in his right mind’ talking to a stranger. The stranger gets up, climbs into his boat and sails away. What happens next? Do you really believe your brother is completely better? Do you think that he may simply have been calmed by the stranger and that, any minute, he could revert to his old frightening and dangerous ways? What about the rest of your family, your extended family, the others who live in your town – do they believe Legion is completely healed? On one day, after one encounter, are they going to believe that the man who was seriously deranged, violent and dangerous is now completely well and safe to be around? Imagine how you would feel picking up a brother who had just come to end of a long stay in a psychiatric ward – would you be a little nervous? Would you be looking for any signs of a relapse? How long do you think it would take for him to be accepted as ‘normal’, ‘sane’ before you would trust that he was truly well?
The point I want to make is that Jesus knew that Legion was healed and Legion presumably knew he was healed, but I suspect it took a long time, a lot of patience, goodwill and hard work for Legion to begin to be trusted by his family and his friends and neighbours.
I think it is important to humanise bible stories in this way because it reveals to us that, should we receive God’s forgiveness or God’s healing touch, it does not mean that we will simply live happily ever after. If we have been reconciled, put right by God, that is a cause for rejoicing, but it is not the end of the story – we have to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those we have wronged. Think of the woman caught in adultery, she was forgiven by Jesus and told not to sin again, but then what happened? Where did she go? Who did she talk to? Imagine the tough conversation she would have with her husband! If we have been healed by God, we have to show clearly that we have changed and we have to learn to live in a new way. Imagine the man who had been lame for 38 years, after Jesus healed him where did he go? What did he do? Having survived by charity for 38 years he would have had to go and get a job!
There is cause for huge rejoicing that Legion was healed, the woman caught in adultery was forgiven and the man who hadn’t walked for 38 years took up his bed and walked …… but if we think carefully and realistically about these stories the healing touch of Jesus was only the beginning of the story for each of these people. The ‘fall out’ from receiving Christ’s healing touch was massive. The direct result of Christ’s healing touch was not that they immediately lived happily ever after, it was that they had to go on and do some very difficult and challenging things, they had to have awkward, sometimes, embarrassing conversations with people. They had to reorder their lives and their priorities. Receiving Christ’s healing touch is tough. Looking at these stories this way, it is obvious why Jesus asked the man who had been lame for 38 years, ‘Do you want to be well?’ Do you want to face the new challenges that being well will bring?
Be careful what you pray for …. miracles do happen …. sins are forgiven ….. minds and bodies are made well …… but then we have to live differently, then we have to change …. and that is always challenging.
Let us pray
Living God, Father of light, Hope of nations, Friend of sinners, Builder of the city that is to come; your love is made visible in Jesus Christ, you bring home the lost, restore the sinner, heal the sick and give dignity to the despised. In the face of Jesus Christ your light shines out, flooding lives with goodness and truth, gathering into one a divided and broken humanity. You are the source of hope for all, fill us with your healing love that we may be heralds of your hope and healing now and always. Amen.