In some ways, the man healed of demons in the Gerasene region of Galilee is the first preacher of the Christian gospel. He gets it – he really does! Even after years of torment at the mercy of a legion of demons, he recognizes for himself right away what it took others years to find out, what some never realized.
Jesus sent him on his way, saying, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
This man recognized that in Jesus’ actions, he was seeing the work of God. He proclaimed how much God had done for him by sending him Jesus, by living through Jesus and coming to him in human form, yet such a form that had power even over his demons.
The people of the city had cast him out and tied him up and left him to the devices and dementia of his demons. They had put him out of sight, him and his demons, out of sight and out of mind. Perhaps, he was a scapegoat for them. Perhaps that it how he ended up with so many demons, a legion of them, because he was carrying the burden for the whole city, while it went on its merry way without thinking about him, except when he got free, except when they were afraid he might come back, replete with all of their own demons.
The term, “scapegoat,” referred originally to a literal goat, on whom was heaped symbolically all of the sins of the people, and which was driven out, so that the people could be rid of their guilt and cleansed of their lingering sin.
This man had become the scapegoat for the city, carrying their demons so that they did not have to confront them for themselves.
I don’t know what you think about demons. Maybe you read them as real manifestations of evil, shadowy but personal, like the characters in C.S. Lewis’ jokey but ultimately chilling, The Screwtape Letters. Perhaps you see them as a metaphor for the temptations and mini madnesses that plague us, or maybe you consider them to be the myths and folklore of an outmoded world view; we know better now. I don’t know what you think about demons, but whatever we think that they are, Jesus knew them when he saw them. He saw the havoc they could wreak on a suffering soul, and he had such compassion for his people, his love drove out their evil.
Of course, now that the man was restored, there was work for the community to do. How would they reconcile themselves to a life in which he was no longer the dumping ground for their own demons? How would they overcome their fear of him, which had grown over the years with the stories and the children’s cautionary tales that they no doubt told; how would they sit down with him at dinner? How would they listen, how would they hear from him the good news of what God in Jesus Christ had done for him? Was it good news for them, too?
It is a shame that the people of the city didn’t see it for themselves, at least at that moment. It’s understandable, perhaps, that they were unable to look beyond the loss of income that the pigs represented, the loss of the status quo that the healing of their neighbour meant, the loss of their own security, based as it was on keeping their scapegoat beyond the walls of their own lives. But what might they have gained, if they had been able to summon up the courage to ask Jesus to stay?
We see this played out over and over in our own communities, our own families. Even when we complain constantly about someone’s behaviour, at heart we don’t want them to change, because that would mean engaging with them wholeheartedly, without the excuse to keep them at a distance. We say that we welcome back the prodigal with open arms, but really we are just waiting for them to run off again. We say things like, “Better the devil you know,” to avoid confronting the devils we know only too well and demanding hard change. We project so much of our own guilt and our own rejection and our own insecurity onto others, so that we don’t have to deal with them ourselves. We each have our own personal, family, community scapegoats.
And then Jesus comes along and turns everything upside down.
This story demands of us hard questions, honest answers. Whom do we scapegoat? Who would we rather keep at arm’s length, in case they convict us of our own guilt, in case we see our own demons reflected in their eyes? Where do we draw the line at accepting God’s transformation in our lives? When do we ask God to leave us alone, because we, the people of the city, are seized with great fear?
The man who was healed had no fear left in him, because he had already suffered a version of hell on earth, tormented and tortured by demons, driven beside himself, abandoned and despised. Yet love had driven out his fear along with the demons: the compassion of Jesus had healed him from his misery, and he knew, he knew that such power, such mercy, such love came from God. He knew it better than anyone, because anyone who has fought with demons has seen God’s angels fighting alongside them, wielding that compassion and mercy like a sword.
I still don’t know what you think about demons, but Jesus knew them, and they knew him.
And so, out of the compassionate actions of Jesus, a new Christian was born; an unlikely convert, but one who saw that in the life of Jesus, the eternal life of God was offered; that in the mercy Jesus showed, God’s steadfast faithfulness shone.
Jesus said, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
I wonder if he heard, in later years, about the trumped-up trial in Jerusalem, about the cruel crucifixion and the rumoured resurrection, that quiet revolution that overcame the power of evil and death. I wonder if that was the moment at which he turned to his neighbours, the people of the city, and said,
“That, there. That is how much God has done for us.”