My daughter Isabelle is beginning to figure out how bargaining works. Some of her attempts are more successful than others. She’s discovered that the way one carries oneself affects whether or not people will give you what you want. “Daddy, some more goldfish,” said with a bright smile and blinking blue eyes. After saying no, her shoulders drop, her jaw juts out and she begins to wine, “Come on . . .” I don’t know where she gets this.
“Come on . . . come on, Jesus,” the demons reply as they beg Jesus to be left alone. Jesus has arrived in the country of the Garasenes, which Luke tells us is “opposite Galilee,” and it is in every way. Jesus was in a boat with his Jewish friends and he calms a storm. Now Jesus is on dry land with Gentiles and he is about to calm the spirit. He meets a man who is “opposite Galilee” in many ways. He is a Gentile. He wears no clothes. He lives in a cemetery in visual distance of swine herds. It would be difficult to be more unclean. He is “opposite Galilee,” in many ways.
When Jesus approaches, the man falls at his feet and thrusts about, screaming at the top of his lungs, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God, I beg you, do not torment me.” The spirits beg, “Jesus, leave me alone.” “What is your name,” Jesus questions. I wonder when the last time someone asked this man for his name? This question is part of the miracle. “Who are you, my friend? What is your name?” Healing has already begun. LEGION, the spirits reply. Now, one can argue that this is political commentary against Rome because factions of Roman armies were called Legions. Some argue that Legion is the name of a particular demon. Some say that Legion means the man is divided and pulled in lots of different directions, and we too are divided and busy and pulled in lots of different directions. But this morning, Legion simply means that this man’s name is no longer his own. His condition has stolen his identity.
Jesus commands the unclean spirits to leave the man, and the spirits beg Jesus a second time, asking not to be thrown into the abyss. It just so happens that on the hillside there is herd of swine feeding, and the spirits beg Jesus a third time saying, “Let us enter the pigs!” Jesus gives them permission, the spirits enter the pigs and the pigs hurl themselves off a steep embankment into a lake and drown. Now, if you’re a swineherd, you’re having a bad day! The swineherd ran to the town to tell everyone what they had just seen and the townsfolk get up to see it for themselves. I’m not sure what to make of this strange episode with the pigs running off the cliff, except to say that the swineherd did not run to town for the sake of the man whom Jesus had healed. It seems that his condition became common place or forgotten or hopeless, but when their livelihood, their possessions, their way of life, their backyard is aggravated, then they begin to take notice. The man’s condition wasn’t newsworthy until it affected their personal way of life.
The people were so upset by this they beg Jesus to leave. This is a curious reaction. At first blush I expected them to shout “Hallelujah! Amen! Do it again!” But no, out of fear, they beg Jesus to leave them alone. But who can blame them, really? Imagine being in a jail cell with someone like, Charles Manson. I would be afraid to be in a jail cell with Charles Manson. This murderer is out of his mind. Then imagine the warden walking near the entrance of the cell and Manson becomes reserved and quite and polite. I’m no longer afraid of Manson, I’m afraid of the warden “What did you do to him, and for God’s sake, don’t do it to me.” The townsfolk are seized with fear, and they, using nearly the same words as the unclean spirits say, “Jesus, leave us alone.”
Jesus agrees. He gets in the boat to return to Galilee. The man, whose name is never recorded, begs Jesus, “Let me follow you,” but Jesus says, “No, return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” The story is over. This strange story of demons and pigs and miracle and fear is over, at least what’s recorded of it. This is one of those stories in which I wish we had a continuation of the narrative. What happened after Jesus left? See, this story is fundamentally not about a theology of demons (do they exist, is demon really a psychosis they didn’t understand at the time . . . etc), nor is it essentially about changing your context and going to the other side of the lake to be with Gentiles—even though this is a sacred goal and one we should pursue, nor at its core is it about Jesus’ miraculous control over things seen and unseen—even though his divinity shines through these simple words on the page. This story is a sign in and of itself, which begs us to ask a question not explicitly recorded in the story itself. The heart of this story is forgiveness.
I would not be surprised if this man who has no name was Luke himself. For those of you keeping score, whoever put pen to paper used the word “beg” five times (well, four times, but one of them should be translated as beg), and someone in need of forgiveness knows this word. This man was healed, but Jesus’ miracle means little if the community withholds forgiveness and reconciliation and says to him, “We know who you are. It’s best if you keep to the cemetery.” Did this man have a wife, children, family? How did they react to this miracle? I’d bet they had heard, “But I’ve changed, I’m a new man” before. Haven’t you?
Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting the past. You don’t forgive the thief with a promotion to a local bank, or a cheater with a new position as World Cup Referee. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you are to walked upon, let me be clear. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting the past or living without consequence. The resurrected Christ still had wounds to show to Thomas. The wounds had been healed, but the scars were still there. Forgiveness is about healing, not forgetting. Forgiveness is giving up the right to wrong the one who wronged you. It is Jesus refusing to crucify Thomas for his unbelief. Forgiveness is, “See my hands, see my side, and believe.” Forgiveness is God placing a bow in the clouds to remind him that the bow is pointed toward himself, should he choose to flood the world again.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Luke happened to be this man with no name. This story must have been remembered by someone who knows the meaning of the word, “beg.” I beg you, Jesus. I beg you, friends. I beg you, honey. I beg you, my son. This is a person who knows that forgiveness is difficult, that forgiveness takes time, that forgiveness must involve Christ because it is something we are incapable of doing without the church. Jesus told the man to stay and the spread his witness. See, Jesus didn’t come to heal this one man. He wanted to heal the whole Garasene community, the whole Jewish and Gentile community, the whole world, in fact. So, Dads . . . it’s your day . . . who do you need to forgive? Amen.