We often think of Jesus’ ministry as one of reconciliation: He preached the forgiveness of sins and welcomed into his circle those estranged from synagogue and society at large. And, as Paul put it, we have been called to the ministry of reconciliation, following in his footsteps. But, as we know, reconciliation is hard work. Today’s Gospel story, known traditionally as the Gerasene Demoniac, in addition to being a major healing story, also offers us an example from Jesus’ life where reconciliation is rejected — at least at first. And I think that’s work some attention today.
When Jesus and the disciples get out of their boat across the Sea of Galilee from their home country, they arrive at a broken community. Jesus is immediately greeted by “a man of the city having demons.” It’s an interesting descriptor, since it emphasizes that the man belongs to the community; he isn’t a stranger to them, but one of their own. But, he has demons. Whether we think of this as referring to literal possession by malevolent spirits, mental illness, or something else, it’s clear that he is living in a state of deep dysfunction. He is not able to remain in the city where he rightfully belongs, but lives amidst the dead in the tombs, where he is kept shackled and under guard.
The man greets Jesus, falling at his feet and shouting, “What have you to do with me? I beg you, do not torment me!” The man’s response to Jesus is not to ask for healing, but to try to put distance between him. He is accustomed to his life in the tombs and not at all certain he wants to disrupt it. (As I previously noted when reflecting on Mark’s version of this story, it’s very human to prefer an unsatisfactory status quo over the uncertainty and effort required to change, even if that change is for the better.) But, eventually Jesus is able to cast the demons out of the man and into a herd of pigs, which subsequently runs into the sea and drowns.
What’s strange is how the community responds. We don’t actually get much idea of their opinions at all. The swineherds don’t rush to the man’s side, but instead go to spread the news to everyone in the area. But we don’t know how they feel about it. Are they scandalized and rushing to spread the gossip, or are they excited and running off to spread the good news? Are they upset at losing their pigs, or is the cost of the herd worth it to them to have the man restored to them? We don’t know.
We similarly don’t here much about the people of the city. They come to see for themselves, and all the text says is that, seeing the man healed, they are afraid and ask Jesus to go away. It’s as though, when confronted with the miracle, they just don’t want to deal with it. It’s an interesting confrontation.
Jesus, for his part, doesn’t criticize how they’ve treated the man, but he offers him back to them whole. As James Allison writes:
Jesus did not come and give the Gerasenes a lecture on the structure of their society. He didn’t argue with them about definitions. He didn’t propose an alternative form of legislation. He did something much more three-dimensional. He empowered the demoniac to become a human being, sitting, clothed and in his right mind, going home to his friends. (Faith Without Resentment, 133).
And their reaction is less than enthusiastic. As the story ends, the man doesn’t seem to see much place for him back in his city and asks to tag along with Jesus, but Jesus sends him back home as a lasting witness to what God had done.
The story has no resolution. Jesus leaves the area and the man he healed returns home with a good story but an uncertain welcome. Jesus has offered the community an opportunity to be healed and reconciled. Will they take it? Or, will they remain in their place of fear? We aren’t told, but it doesn’t look good.
There’s an important lesson for us in this. God is always at work in the world, giving us healing opportunities we can either seize in faith or reject in fear. It takes a special kind of strength — a strength we call vulnerability — to open ourselves up to the risk that real change, including desired changes like reconciliation and healed communities, can involve. When faced with the work of God in our life and in our communities, how will we respond?
The choice is ours.