Sunday, June 20, 2010

"What Is Your Name?"

Fr. James Liggett, an Episcopal priest from Texas, gives this colorful assessement of Luke’s Gospel passage (8:26-39): “On one really important level, the story is a hoot – it’s somewhere between a political cartoon and a graphic novel. The whole scene is bizarre. You’ve got a naked crazy guy, chatty demons, charging pigs doing swan dives, tombs, chains, shackles, freaked-out locals, and a small riot. All in Gentile territory where, as far Luke was concerned, Jesus had no business being in the first place.

The folks who first heard this story must have loved it. In addition to the great action and dialogue, there was ancient regional rivalry.
What could be more fun for the good Jews of Galilee to hear than a story about how un-kosher, unlucky, and generally weird the Gentiles on the other side of the lake [the Sea of Galilee] really were; and about how all those unclean pigs came to a well-deserved and hilarious end.

Then there’s the political subtext. Everybody knew instantly both that it was no accident that the demons called themselves ‘Legion’, after the famous and feared Roman legions, or that pigs were a staple of both the Roman army and the Roman economy. Caesar’s legions, and Caesar’s rations, were mere child’s play for Jesus – a quick flush and they’re gone. What fun! And most Romans who heard the story probably wouldn’t even get this part..."

There’s much more in this passage than meets the eye, much more than a quick stop-by healing and a crowd of fearful Gentiles watching Jesus and the disciples casting off, after virtually the whole Gerasene community had asked them to leave.

To understand the story, I’d first ask you to bear in mind that Luke was writing for a man named Theophilus, literally meaning friend of God/beloved of God. He was probably a real person, perhaps a patron, a benefactor interested in the subject matter. Luke addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus”, a title for a high government official, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the man was of high rank. Whether he was a Christian or not is unknown. Nevertheless, I like to think that the name’s meaning wasn’t lost on Luke, and that he could imagine many future readers and hearers, “friends beloved of God”, for whom the Gospel, and this story, would come to have personal meaning.

The story’s geographical context isn’t entirely clear. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, so called because, in contrast to John, they tend to look at Jesus’ words and actions from a similar viewpoint, all include the core of the story, though with variations, such as where this story took place. Though it’s in the general region, the terrain of Gerasa, roughly midway between the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south, doesn’t match well some details in the story. A better guess seems to be the nearby town of Gadara (fence/border), one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis, present-day Umm Qais (mother of Caius, a Roman name.) It’s in modern-day Jordan, just southeast of the Sea of Galilee, very near the Yarmouk River, largest tributary off the Jordan River. In identifying the site as “opposite Galilee”, Luke emphasizes that this is Gentile territory, so we shouldn’t be surprised that here we find elements of tombs, demons, Romans and pigs!

Luke tells us that, upon arriving, Jesus steps off the boat, fresh from battling a huge storm, where, you remember, his disciples cowered and shrieked in fear, and he steps into a new “storm”. “[A] man of the city who had demons met him”. The man was a citizen of Gadara. Apparently he’d been normal, but now “[f]or a long time”, Luke notes, he’d run around naked and was homeless, taking refuge “in the tombs”. Here is a person socially and spiritually adrift: alienated, shunned by his own. A demon(s) had taken over his identity. Luke, within a few sentences, will provide some editorial background: that the demon(s) had seized him, that the Gadarene townsfolk kept him “under guard and bound with chains and shackles”, and that the demon(s) drove him “into the wilds”.

Luke indicates that Jesus had figured out the situation almost immediately, “...for Jesus...commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man...” These cases of demonic possession are difficult, at best, because it isn’t always clear who or what you’re dealing with. Luke sometimes refers to “it” or “he”, sometimes to “they”. So who’s really speaking: the chief demon? the possessed man? or all of the demons?

Robert Hamerton-Kelly, commenting on Mark’s version of this story (5:1-20), in his book The Gospel and the Sacred, makes this observation: “The demoniac is a classic scapegoat figure.” He dwells among the tombs and wanders the wilds, “...always howling,” Mark says, “and bruising himself with stones”. No chains can bind and no man subdue him. The legion of demons by whom he’s possessed are, in effect, his Gadarene fellow citizens, who’ve become the mob persecuting him as the “other”, says Kelly. The possessed man carries his persecutors inside himself in the classic mode of a victim who internalizes his tormentors. In Mark’s version he even mimes the stoning by which he was probably driven out of their community, compulsively afflicting himself with stones and crying out his own rejection. In a mode of self-estrangement, he becomes his own executioner, imitating his persecutors whom the legion of demons mirrors.

How often do we, in fact, like this man, fall victim to our own inner demons: to what other significant people in our lives have convinced us that we are, to the tags and labels we assume for ourselves, to our feelings of unworthiness or shame, or not being good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough: letting these define who we are?

The demonized man, cowering in fear, falls in front of Jesus and “at the top of his voice” asks what Jesus has to do with him, begging Jesus not to torment him. Jesus calmly asks “What is your name?”, which is to say “Who are you...really?” Jesus, through his mysterious gentle presence, in and out of our lives, has a way of constantly posing this question to us, through glimpses here and there, not always clearly defined.

The demonized man answers: “Legion”, from the Latin legio = the heavy infantry which was the basic military unit of the Roman army, numbering between 4200-5200+ men: thus, Luke’s comment “...for many demons had entered him”. Gil Baillie comments: “'Legion' means 'crowd,' 'mob.' This demon's name is Mob. It's an undifferentiated crowd. Who's the constituting Other? Every one of us has a constituting Other -- no doubt, a cluster of constituting Others.

For biblical monotheists, our primary constituting Other is supposed to be the one God; but, instead, we have many Others. This man is crazy because the constituting Other is a Crowd. A lot of moderns are crazy for more or less the same reason. Behind this question, 'What is your name?', is the answer, 'I am the Other,' and the Other is the Crowd. This man is a tool of the Crowd. He is possessed.

In Jesus’ presence the many demons become powerless and “[T]hey begged [Jesus] not to order them to go back into the abyss”, i.e., into the place where evil powers are kept captive for the final judgment, also represented in this story by the waters of the river or lake, in which the pigs soon end up drowning: a symbol of dark depths, turmoil and chaos.

It wasn’t unusual for swine to be grazing in this Gentile area. As Fr. Liggett mentioned earlier, non-kosher pork was a staple of the Roman army and of the Roman economy. For the third time now, Luke depicts the demons “begging” or “beseeching” Jesus, this time to let them enter a nearby herd of swine. “The demons recognize Jesus as their nemesis and try to persuade him not to expel them altogether from the system of violence which exists here, but merely to transfer them from one location to another, thereby managing violence by means of violence within a closed sacrificial system.” (Baillie) Jesus OK’s their request, but only to expel them for good by sending them into the swine, who, contrary to the demons’ expectation, suddenly, inexplicably, rush over the cliff, into the water and drown. The herd of demon-inhabited swine is an eloquent symbol of the Gadarene townspeople in pursuit of a victim, much like the crowd of Jesus’ Nazareth townsfolk, earlier in Luke (4:29), who “...drove him out of the that they might hurl him off the cliff…” In light of Jesus’ commanding presence, the herd's drowning means that violence ceases when the mob disappears. Expectations are reversed, with the mob going over the cliff rather than the scapegoat! The fear-ridden townspeople no longer define the man’s identity. Notice that the swineherds aren't particularly upset about the economics involved. They don't run to Jesus asking him to compensate them for their losses. What really upsets them, and sends them running off to the townsfolk, is the loss of their scapegoat.

From Gadara the news spreads rapidly around the region, and, as so often, in cases of breaking news events, people come out of the woodwork in order to gather and gawk. What they discover strikes fear into them, because their system, their very mode of living together, all that they know, namely, living in fear of being found out, is now threatened. Here’s the “wild” man now sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, clothed (one wonders who was kind enough to take care of that for him), and “in his right mind”. “And,” Luke says, “they were afraid”.

The witnesses of Jesus’ confrontation with the demons and of the ensuing demise of the herd of pigs tell the gathered crowd, in Luke’s words, “how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.” Yes, that’s true, and most translations give some variant of that: “healed”, “cured”, “made well”. But that isn’t the word Luke uses in Greek, and only the New American Bible gets it right: the Greek word used is “saved/taken care of”.

Now, you’d expect that what Jesus did would’ve elated the crowd and caused great excitement. This man Jesus had done what no one else had been able to do: to control this man, to settle him down, to drive out the demons, to make him sane again, even to save him! But listen to what Luke records: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes/Gadarenes [note: not just the townsfolk] asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Gil Baillie says that “the cure to possession is possession”. This man is sitting at the feet of Jesus. The cure is right there. This is what “conversion” looks like. What Baillie calls “a constituting Other” cures people at the core of their being: namely, the Risen Christ.

The man, now sitting in Jesus’ presence, is saner than the rest of the Gadarenes. They come and see the man clothed and in his right mind, and they are afraid. Why? For the same reason as some nations try to keep human rights organizations from entering their countries and confronting them with their scapegoating behaviors. For the same reason that abusive spouses try to keep their victims isolated. For the same reason that pimps control the lives of their sex workers by keeping them poor and addicting them to drugs. For the same reason that we keep even ourselves locked up in despair of our own inner demons. These groups and people realize intuitively that the lynchpin of their whole cultural apparatus is thereby being eliminated. Jesus went right into that Gadarene community, right up to the one who’d been at the heart of their cultural apparatus, and released him, helped him to find the true answer to his question, “What is your name?”.

Again, one would think, "Well, that's a great thing!" But the whole Gadarene community wants Jesus gone, in the same way that those mentioned above want to keep others away and the lid tightly closed. There’s nothing more fear-inducing when you’re stuck in a dysfunctional system than change, and Jesus’ presence brings that about, in aces! Earlier in Luke (2:34-35) Simeon proclaims, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed..." When the Gadarenes ask Jesus to leave, that’s the beginning of the revelation of their “inner thoughts”. They realized, at some level, that Jesus was interrupting and doing away with the social mechanism on which they’d depended. It is in Gil Baillie’s words “a parable for the way the Gospel works in history.

But then there is what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story”. Jesus and the disciples get into the boat to return to Galilee. Before they shove off, it’s the changed man who now “begs” something of Jesus, and it’s a perfectly understandable and reasonable request: “Let me [not just “go with”, but] be with you.” James Finley defines a “seeker” as “a person, who once having caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do.” Aside from that, if you were this man, surely you’d want to “get out of Dodge”, too, just to leave behind all these crazy Gadarenes, after all they’d done to make his life miserable! But Jesus, recognizing the true strength and openheartedness of this man, tells him to “[r]eturn to your home [because he, of all people has every right to belong there] and declare how much God has done for you.” By that Jesus means, not only his physical release from the cruel control of demons, nor even just the psychological release from being the town’s scapegoat, but the sheer grace that God, through Jesus, gave him to become a genuinely compassionate human being: even towards his own community which was still unwilling, because unable, to acknowledge their secret fears, even towards a community who were probably still unanimously unaccepting of him as an equal. Luke says, “…[H]e went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” It’s for God alone to determine where and how your ministry and mine will bring Jesus‘ presence to others.

This week the whole world was buzzing about the recent gaffe of B.P.’s Board Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, in referring to the “small people” of the Gulf Coast. While I don’t think he probably meant it exactly in the way it was taken, I think the mistake clearly betrays a cultural mindset among some, not unlike that of the Gadarenes in the Gospel, a mindset to which any of us could be susceptible, namely of stereotyping people, like this possessed man, according to how we, from a position of privilege or control, perceive them.

One thing to carry away from today’s Gospel is that compassion for the “other” is the experience of God’s compassionate Presence, in Jesus, manifesting itself in and as our compassion for one another. It is a way, a path of continual spiritual awakening. Notice Jesus’ threefold pattern in this and other miracle stories of the Gospel:

1) Jesus cares enough about someone that he shares in that person’s suffering; feels something of it; makes the person feel that they’re not alone. Jesus calls you and me to an openness to be accessed by others’ suffering. That’s tricky, because how do you and I allow ourselves to be compassionate without drowning in another’s suffering? James Finley once described the situation as like standing outside the circle of another’s suffering. If I’m unwilling to step into the circle, there’s no compassion. The trick is to step into the circle, but to also keep one “foot” outside the circle, firmly planted in That which transcends suffering. I owe this to the other so that the other person can come to trust that my life is grounded in something/Someone which transcends suffering, giving the other the hope that he or she can also experience the same.

2) Jesus loves the person by taking action to deliver her/him from suffering. Genuine compassion, necessarily rooted and grounded in a compassionate love for ourselves, leads us, like Jesus, to engage the other, to be with them in their suffering, to listen, to do whatever we can, all things considered.

3) Even in his smallest act of compassion toward a person, Jesus reflects, manifests the reality of God’s seeing the preciousness of that person: the image of Godself. Our compassion to one another, like Jesus’, must be grounded in recognizing the other’s identity, not as their brokenness, but as the preciousness which God sees in them, the image of Godself. Jesus’ healing of the man possessed by demons, as all his miracles, is a sign of what Finley calls “experiential salvation”. When Jesus came out of the boat and saw the demonized man, what he saw was a preciousness that the man couldn’t even imagine at that point. I think Jesus’ question to him, “What is your name?”, was Jesus’ way of revealing to the man that he was “saved”, i.e., of helping the man to understand that, despite the inner demons which had taken him over, God, in Jesus, sees only the precious image of God. When I believe that I am what’s wrong with me, that brokenness becomes my identity, and then I lose hope. This man had certainly lost hope, and then some! But that was restored the minute he began to see that his identity was the preciousness that Jesus saw in him, the very image of Godself. No wonder that the man wanted to “be with” Jesus!

Compassion, according to James Finley, is love in the presence of suffering. Love sees the image of God in the one suffering and holds the suffering close until it disappears and becomes love. Moments like the meeting of Jesus and the man possessed of demons, moments like we ourselves often experience periodically, whether with ourselves or with others, are “graced moments”, moments of saving and being saved. We never know when they’ll come or through whom they’ll come.

No one can “trash” God’s image in us. We’re created in that image, expressed in the Word, Jesus: “the mystery of God hidden in Christ”, and this is the preciousness, our true identity, which God sees.

Thanks be to God!

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