Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In this week’s gospel lesson Jesus casts a legion of demons out of a man, sends them into a herd of pigs which, in turn, rushes headlong into the sea. That’s something you don’t see every day. In fact, it is something we moderns don’t expect to see at all. There is not much room for demons or the devil (some would also add God!) in a world governed by discoverable scientific principles. To be sure, there are some phenomena we don’t understand. But we assume that is only because we have not yet uncovered the data we need to provide a rational, scientific explanation for them. As children of the Enlightenment, we tend to believe that “the truth is out there” and by dogged investigation, experimentation and theoretical application we can arrive at the “truth.” In any event, those are the assumptions our culture has inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers of the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
We are not only children of the Enlightenment, however. Our Nineteenth Century confidence in the persuasiveness of “reason” has been shaken severely by the Twentieth Century’s genocidal wars and the world’s seeming inability to unite in preventing global violence, environmental ruin and grinding poverty. It is no longer taken for granted that human beings are capable of being “objective” and that everyone looking at the same set of data necessarily sees the same things and draws the same conclusions. We are just beginning to understand how the way we see, hear and understand is all shaped by family influences, cultural conditioning and psychiatric traits coloring the way we process information. Philosophers, historians and literary critics refer to this new skepticism as “post-modern.” We know too much about our world to return to the Middle Ages and pretend that the earth is flat, that we reside in the center of the universe and that heaven is just beyond the sky. At the same time, we have discovered that we are incapable of being “objective,” and that the scientific method of objective observation, experimentation and extrapolation, though it has brought us a long way in many respects, cannot finally bring us to a “truth” capable of saving us from ourselves. Modernity has failed us, but we don’t have anything yet with which to replace it.
My education was modern in nearly every respect. Back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was in seminary, we set great store by the “historical critical” method of Bible Study. We assumed that by applying to the biblical text the proper analytical tools, we could arrive at its true meaning. That “true meaning” could nearly always be harmonized with our modern world view. To be fair, most of my teachers recognized the limits of historical criticism and were far more modest in terms of what they felt it could deliver. Biblical commentators of that era had not yet caught up with my teachers, however. Typically, they equated instances of demon possession in the New Testament with mental illness. Clearly, if the biblical writers had had the benefit of our superior scientific knowledge and understanding, they would not have employed such primitive notions.
But maybe the biblical witnesses were not quite as primitive as we imagined and maybe we were less advanced than we supposed. The demoniac in our gospel displays conduct (aggression, self destructive behavior) that we often associate with mental disorders. He may actually have been afflicted with a degree of mental illness. Yet that is not the full extent of his problem. I think it is significant that the demon gives his name as “legion.” That probably speaks to the source of the demons as well as their number. What do you think happens to a people occupied by a hostile army, stripped of freedom and self respect, forced to raise pigs (an abomination to central tenants of its faith) in order to feed the legions of its occupiers? The same thing that happens to kids whose childhood is dominated by teasing, bullying and abuse. Anger turns inward, becoming self hate expressed in self punishment and indiscriminant violence. That is the clinical end of it, but this is not finally a clinical problem. The demoniac in the gospel lesson cannot be healed by “talk therapy” or by any medication. That will only mollify the symptoms of a sickness that is bigger than he is and afflicts not only him, but his people. For this demoniac and for all Israel to be healed, “legion” has got to go.
With that in mind, let me say that casting out demons is still very much a task for the church. I don’t have to know what a demon is or where it came from or why it exists to know that demonic power infects our culture and destroys human life at every level. I cannot read this story anymore without recalling the images of young girls, some of whom I have known, who starve and mutilate their bodies because they do not look exactly like the flawless (airbrushed and photo-shopped) women in teen and glamour magazines. Offering these girls crisis intervention, counseling and medical treatment is all well and good, but it is not true healing. As long as the systemic evil oppressing them remains, we have only “healed the wound of my people lightly.” Jeremiah 6:14. Maybe the demons that need to be named these days are called Vogue, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and Victoria’s Secret. Perhaps it is time to call out the devil from behind the “beauty” industry and tell him in no uncertain terms: “You don’t get to say and decide for us what is beautiful anymore. Now get the hell out of the hearts and minds of our children.” This truly is a liberating word of the Lord that many, many of our young people need desperately to hear.
This passage comes to us form Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). For some background on Isaiah generally, see the summary article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. For our purposes, it is enough to note that our lesson for Sunday was directed to the Babylonian captives who had returned to Palestine inspired by the prophetic utterances of an earlier prophet of the exile. That prophet’s sayings are collected at Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah). Filled with hope and expectation, these pioneers soon discovered that their dream of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple would not easily be realized. The land was inhabited with hostile peoples who claimed it as their own. Jerusalem was in ruins and the hoped for influx of additional returning exiles had not materialized. Broken and discouraged, the returning exiles were on the brink of extinction.
In order to fully appreciate this Sunday’s reading, you need to back up a chapter to Isaiah 64 which begins with the cry, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” The anguished prophet recites God’s doing of “terrible things” alluding to prior acts of salvation for Israel. Though Israel has sinned against her God, the prophet reminds God, “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter.” S/he then asks why God remains silent when the people cry out for salvation.
Our lesson for Sunday is a response to this question. In a nut shell, God replies: I am not silent; you are deaf. God has been reaching out to Israel, trying to get her attention but Israel is a rebellious people who will not listen. They have fallen back into idolatrous ways, “sacrificing in gardens and burning incense upon bricks.” vs. 3. Commentators are divided over what this means. Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann believes that this is a reference to “sacrifices in the high places,” a problem referenced throughout I & II Kings. Westermann, Claus Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press) p. 401. Though most likely intended for worship of Israel’s God, these shrines and the priests that oversaw them absorbed Canaanite practices into their cultic worship. While the biblical authors and the prophets understood worship of Israel’s God to be wholly incompatible with Canaanite religion, the Israelite people did not always view it that way. Worship at these “high places” was never thoroughly eliminated at any time throughout Israel’s history as an independent kingdom. Thus, it is not surprising that it springs up again as the Jews begin to return from Babylon to resettle what once was Canaan.
It is alleged that the people “sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places.” vs. 4. Again, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on here. Westermann believes that the reference here is to rites designed to obtain oracles from the dead. Id at 402. Such rites are not unknown in Israel, see, e.g., Saul’s appeal to the witch of Endor, I Samuel 28:3-25. Whatever is happening, it constitutes resort to someone or something other than Israel’s God whose word alone is worthy to be trusted. One cannot expect to hear a word from God when seeking other words from other sources.
The people are castigated for eating “swine flesh” contrary to specific biblical injunctions, e.g. Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8. This practice might have been dictated more by hard times and scarcity of food than by willful disobedience. Nevertheless, it reflects a lack of faith in the God who promises to provide for the needs of his people. Dietary restrictions and other cultic rules might sound petty and nonsensical to us, but for Israel they were part and parcel of a holistic covenant existence where every moment of life is filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness and opportunities for thankful obedience. Because the presence of God is known within the framework of the covenant relationship, rejection of the covenant naturally creates a sense of God’s absence.
“As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” vs. 8. Though Israel’s faithlessness will be punished, God will not make an end of Israel. To the contrary, God will “bring forth descendents from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains.” vs. 9. Judgment is a necessary word, but never the final word from God. There is a future for this harried people and a promise-if only they have ears to hear it.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. Our reading begins at vs. 19 where the psalmist makes a plaintive cry for salvation. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
This passage spells out the consequences of faith in Jesus Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” vs. 28. Yet I find myself asking in good Lutheran fashion: “What does this mean?” Surely it cannot mean that we lose our distinctiveness through unity in Christ. It cannot mean that there is some spiritual essence that is truly “me” and that my maleness, my American identity, my love of J.S. Bach and Ella Fitzgerald is merely accidental. So what, then, can oneness in Christ mean?
I believe we need to expand our literary scope to I Corinthians to answer this question. Paul does not envision oneness coming about through the shedding of our differences. To the contrary, unity in Christ is achieved through harmonizing these differences in a community bound together by love. This is not a sentimental sort of love. It is a love that is practiced between people who might not like each other very much. It is the kind of love Paul speaks about in I Corinthians 13. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. Becoming one in Christ is a slow, painful and difficult process built through ongoing repentance and forgiveness.
One might conclude from all of this that Paul is replacing the requirements of circumcision and dietary rules with the far more onerous burden of loving each other by our own strength of character. Nothing could be further from Paul’s intent. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1. The life to which Paul calls us is one of joy and thankfulness. Note well that Paul distinguishes between “works of the flesh” which, however well meaning produce sin of one kind or another, and “fruits of the Spirit” that bring life. Galatians 5:16-25 The fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control are not achieved by following any rule. Instead, they grow spontaneously from a forgiven heart that knows the generosity and love of God through faith in Jesus. Knowing God’s limitless generosity toward us enables us to be equally generous and accepting of our sisters and brothers in Christ-with all of their differences. The Body of Christ is enriched and strengthened as the one Lord Jesus is reflected in many and diverse ways through its individual members.
Just prior to this story of the demoniac and the pigs, Jesus calmed a threatening storm on the Sea of Galilee leaving his terrified disciples asking, “Who then is this, that he commands even the wind and the water, and they obey him?” Luke 8:25. In last week’s gospel lesson the guests at the party of Simon the Pharisee were asking each other, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Luke 7:49. Ironically, the answer is given by the legion of demons who recognize Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” The evil one knows his enemy.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I think it is no mere coincidence that the demon answers to the name of “legion.” Matthew and Mark agree with Luke on this point, (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20) but Luke seems to take the story to a heightened level of confrontation with the Rome Empire which has been lurking in the background since the first chapter in his gospel. A “legion” was a Roman infantry division of 6,000 troops. Four such legions were holding the province of Syria, which included the principalities of Palestine. While the Decapolis was predominantly gentile territory, it had a substantial Jewish population as well. The quartering of hogs in what Jews considered to be part of the ancestral holy land could not have been welcome. In all likelihood, the hogs were being raised to feed the Roman legions and their servants. That would explain why the inhabitants were so eager to get rid of Jesus. The Roman commanders would not be pleased to learn that their dinner had been chucked into the lake and less pleased still if they were to discover that this had been the work of a Jewish exorcist. This would also explain why Jesus wished for the man who had been healed to remain in the Decapolis and proclaim all that God had done for him rather than accompany him with his disciples. The people need to know that there is a new sheriff in town. God, not Caesar, is Lord; God, not legion is in command.
The demons beg Jesus not to command them to depart into the “abyss.” This is a broad term. In Hebrew cosmology it constituted the watery deep over which the Spirit of God was blowing at the dawn of creation. See Genesis 1:1-2. In later Hebrew thought this “deep” or “abyss” became associated with the place of subterranean confinement for evil spirits. Jubilees 5:6; I Enoch 10. It figures heavily in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 9:1-11; 17:8 and 20:1-3) and is mentioned also at other points in the New Testament. See, e.g., Jude 6; II Peter 2:4. The confinement of all evil spirits in the abyss is an apocalyptic event signaling the end triumph of God over all the forces of evil. Jesus appears to spare the demons at least temporarily from this fate, but their entry into the swine which, in turn, perish in the sea suggests that maybe the demons found their own way to the “watery deep.” Perhaps we ought not to read too much into the fate of the demons. The point seems to be that “legion” no longer occupies the man he once possessed and cannot long maintain his hold on the people God calls his own.