We’re taking a break this week from Jonathan Haidt’s very fine book, The Righteous Mind, and returning to theology. Some of you regular readers might know, I also write for the weekly blog for Westminster Reads *, We’re reading the “Gospel of Luke” now and this week’s reading (which will be posted late 6/16 or early 6/17) includes the story of the Gerasine demoniac. You can read it here. There are, I think, three (at least) interesting things to ponder in this story.
In the story of the Gerasine demoniac , Jesus has traveled into gentile territory. Jesus leaves Galilee, crosses the sea, heals this man and then returns to Galilee. A long way to go for one person. The healed man, not surprisingly, wants to stay with Jesus. He begs Jesus for the opportunity to join with him. But Jesus says no. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you”. And the man does. Actually he tells what Jesus has done, and so answers Luke’s persistent question. Who is Jesus? With this unnamed man, the mission to the gentiles begins. This man is charged to tell the good news before the disciples are sent ( chapter 9) , before the 70 are sent (chapter 10), and before Acts tells the story of the spread of the gospel into the entire world. Telling the story of who Jesus is begins here with one unnamed gentile man charged to tell the story of his experience of God in the person of Jesus.
In the gospels, the demons always know who Jesus is. Others who meet Jesus often are not sure who he is. Some Jews realize who he is, some don’t. Some gentiles recognize who he is, some don’t. Even the disciples are unclear and often confused. But never demons. They are always clear about who Jesus is.
Talk about demons makes some of us nervous, especially perhaps we Presbyterians. But despite our unease with demon stories, they’re in the Bible and thus not easily dismissed. Modern people often try to explain these stories away by saying ancient people didn’t know about pathogens and brain chemistry and so “invented” demons to explain what was otherwise unexplained. Well yes, but before we set these stories aside, perhaps we should take a moment and ask if there is more to them than simply a lack of scientific knowledge.
One important message is that mental health matters to Jesus as much as physical health, which is good news. But in addition these demon stories hint at an unseen world, the world Paul mentions of powers and principalities. Evil, however we name it, exists. It is real and it opposes the reign of God. Jesus confronts evil, everywhere it tries to harm people or disrupt the divine order of nature. What Jesus is about is more than individual salvation, more than personal healing- as important as those things are. What Jesus is about is something big and cosmic and often veiled from our sight.
If you had seen this possessed man healed, what would your reaction have been? The people of Gerasenes were afraid and asked Jesus to leave. We might be tempted to say that these gentiles didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, after all they weren’t expecting a Messiah. But just before this healing, when the disciples are crossing the sea there is a windstorm. After Jesus calms the storm, the disciples “were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Earlier in the gospel when Jesus calls Simon (Peter), James and John after the amazing catch of fish, Peter says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Luke tells us, more than once, that people were filled with awe and amazement at what Jesus did. Meeting Jesus could be unsettling, disorienting, even a little scary. Within this itinerate teacher and prophet was also an unexplainable power. The people who encountered Jesus recognized, just as Israel did when they encountered God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) , sometimes it’s best to step back and be quiet in the presence of the divine.
The persistent question in Luke’s gospel is “who is this?”. Who is this man that people want to leave their homes and follow him? Who is this who heals the sick, the paralyzed, the blind? Who is this who forgives sin? Who is this who controls nature? Who is this who the demons know and obey? Who is this indeed?
* If you want to read through the New Testament in a year, with some- but not too much commentary, check out WR.