In first century Judea and the surrounding countryside there was constant conflict. There was in fighting amongst the various sects of Jews, raids back and forth between Gentiles and Jews, and military action of the occupying forces of Rome. The area was a hotbed of unrest and angst that led to violent and bloody outbreaks not only within the regions own segregated populations but also against that occupying force. Rome was easily the common enemy of everyone. In the first century there are a few key words whose literal meaning was directly tied to Rome: words like Caesar, Senate, Centurion, and Legion. There were also those words that were tied to the military actions of an occupying force like seized or bound with chains and shackles. In our Gospel reading this morning, Luke uses some of these words to describe the scene between Jesus and the demoniac man in the country of the Gerasenes.
In the Jewish Revolt, Gerasa was invaded by a Roman Legion, which is around 6000 men, under the Roman general Vespasian who would later become Caesar. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman soldiers attacked the city, killed over a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, and burned the town and villages in the surrounding countryside. Many of those who died would be buried in the same tombs the demoniac of Jesus’ day haunts.
The Legion of soldiers responsible for the brutal attack was known as Legio 10th Fretensis. The 10th Fretensis would also take the lead in reconquering Palestine and occupying Jerusalem after the Revolt had been put down. Their symbol—displayed not only on their banners but on cups and coins and other objects—was a pig.
The language and actions of this story are meant to do more than simply narrate an episode in Jesus’ life when he happens upon a man possessed by demons. Luke uses intentional language combined with a particular episode to make a point about that which can take hold of us and control us in this world. Years ago I was on a Cursillo staff with Hunter McDonald who said , “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” For many of us, the main thing has become the distractions and occupations of a secular life instead of a focus and centering on God. We may not be imprisoned in our own souls by a legion of demons, but many of us deal with our own “demons” so to speak.
Some of us have experienced trauma and tragedy in life that entangles us in memories and fear, shackling us to a past we can’t break free from. Addiction is a more common ailment than many of us realize—not just addictions to alcohol or drugs, but to things like extreme experiences in which we feel the thrill of danger or even simple things like screen time. The occupation of an addiction in one’s life can enslave us to the point where we, like the demoniac, don’t know where we end and the other begins. Then there is institutional sin that we are oblivious too and yet threatens our community like the failures of the public school system and the breakdown in social structures and socio-economic conditions that have led to increased prison populations. Our oblivion has not diminished their presence as occupying forces in our lives and in our communities. We don’t have a government occupation of our land, but the factors that can destroy the value of human life are no less real for us.
In the Netflix movie, The Highwaymen, there is a scene in which one of the ex-Texas Rangers who has been reactivated for the purpose of hunting down Bonnie and Clyde has a conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father. Mr. Barrow points out to the lawman that his little boy was not born with a dark soul. Later in that conversation, Hamer, the lawman, will agree that Clyde was not born with a dark soul but that he has one now. But neither man can accurately point toward the “turn in the pike” as they describe it—the moment when the identity of a little boy is lost and that of a natural born killer is created. There is also a scene in which one of the Dallas sheriff deputies describes Bonnie in her school days as a petite, smart, and pretty girl who succeeded in school and was in every school play before falling in love with Clyde and being led down a life of crime. Did Bonnie know when she had lost her own sense of self in exchange for the monster that she would become?
Bonnie and Clyde lived in the era of the Great Depression. Their life of crime was infamous and even celebrated at the time. And yet, the decision to become gangster criminals terrorizing banks and rural gas stations from Texas to Kansas to Louisiana was, in many ways, a reaction to the pressure of an economic occupying force in which the identity of Legion was represented by the reaction against the banking establishment. Now, I am not saying Bonnie and Clyde were demon possessed. But what I am saying is that we are susceptible to the loss of our identity, to the darkening of our souls, when we allow the distractions and preoccupations of our secular world to become primary to our decision making and values.
That darkening of our soul becomes our own prison—a prison in which we, like the demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes, do not know where we end and Legion begins. Be it trauma or addiction or structures of society that keep us under guard and bind us, we are not free and even worse, consider what happens that day amongst the tombs when Jesus does set free the demoniac.
The swine herders who witnessed the exorcism go and tell people in the surrounding area who gather at the seaside and see the once demon possessed man sitting, clothed and calm, in his right mind, at the feet of Jesus. Instead of celebrating the man’s healing and release from the Legion of demons that had possessed him for so long, the crowd begs Jesus to leave them. Fear has taken them captive; the memory of the Legion is too much to bear; freedom is too costly. For the people of this place in the first century, to cast out the occupying authority can only lead to more suffering. For many of us, even in our own day and age, fear is what has allowed us to remain shackled to whatever forces occupy our lives and keep us from keeping the main thing the main thing.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus has power and authority over the forces that challenge and control us. Yet, in our humanity, we allow our fears and insecurities to define our relationship with Jesus. We seek God, but when we find him, we discover that it is too much—that the cost of freedom is too scary. We are created in God’s image and our call to live in to that image is the only true freedom we can know in our earthly or heavenly citizenship. Jesus comes to cast out the powers that occupy us, to release our souls from the darkness that has begun to invade them. Some of us will find deliverance from Legion too much and will turn away and others of us will accept the release of Legion and ask to follow Jesus. And we, as the now healed demoniac man, will go into the world proclaiming what God has done for us, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ: his healing work, his casting out of demons, and his setting the captives free.
2 Pentecost Proper 7: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, June 23, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer