First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 5

Pentecost 5: 19 June Luke 8:26-39

Luke 8:22-25 tells how Jesus stilled the storm. Our passage is equally dramatic: Jesus defeats the powers of the abyss. These are celebrations of power against power. The passage which immediately follows tells how Jesus raised a girl to life and restored a mature woman to community (8:40-56). Luke is retelling these anecdotes which he found in Mark. Here as there they are signs of revolution and change. They belong to a world which framed life’s struggles differently from most of us. Before we can find a common language with them, we must first hear what they are saying within their frame of reference.

It is likely that the story had circulated for some time before it came to Mark. Among Christians with a strongly Jewish background the story contained potent symbols. It took place in Gentile territory, not holy land. Pigs are unclean animals. Cemeteries were the abode of spirits, to be avoided in darkness. ‘Legion’ was not a term meaning many, but a designation for one of Rome’s armies. The one stationed in Palestine had a boar on its standard. The sea was a place a danger, an abode of demonic powers. For people within such a system of values Jesus, by this act, has defied the forces of the Gentile world and exorcised the Gentile land.

This suggests the story has already undergone elaboration to make it such a celebration. The neatly balanced description of the man’s plight in Mark 5:3-4, almost poetic, indicates careful attention in the retelling. It is striking that some of the key motifs are found in Isaiah 65:1-5 (outreach to Gentiles; tombs; pigs; refusal of contact). Even more strange is that the story is set in Gerasa, which is around 60 km south east of the Sea of Galilee. The pigs would have had a very long stampede to reach their goal! Subsequent storytellers sensed the contradiction. Matthew brought it back to Gadara, only 14 km away, but still a long way! Some manuscripts reflect Origen’s solution: Gergasa, on the lake shore. This all makes reconstruction of the story’s beginning problematic. Perhaps the motif of the pigs and the lake is an added touch, influenced by Isa 65 or, perhaps, even by the drowning of the Egyptians when they sought to cross the Red Sea.

At its base appears to be an exorcism which invited such elaborations, at first in a strongly Jewish setting where the humour and irony of the elaborated story would make best sense. From there Mark has picked it up. For Mark pigs were probably not unclean; nor was Gentile land. The same might also hold true for Luke, although he is generally more cautious on such matters. Both, however, would share the assumption that this was a meeting of the holy and the unholy, a confrontation of evil powers with the Son of God, whom they recognise and try to outmanoeuvre. Both would understand that demonic power could achieve superhuman feats. Both would appreciate the humour that Jesus outwitted the demons and sent them headlong into the sea. Both might have been aware of the political imagery: the ‘legion’.

At all stages of the story the central theme remains the same: however we imagine the powers that oppress people, Jesus came to bring liberation. We might prefer to individualise such powers, interpreting demon possession in the light of different explanations for the same phenomenon. The disadvantage of demonic theories is that they can lead to a fatalism which removes the responsibility and locus from the person to someone or something else. The advantage of the demonic theories is that they invites us to see evil as something which is beyond the individual. We might prefer to speak of the power inherent in structures and in political forces. Always understanding oppression in personal or psychological terms is a naïve way of looking at things. At some stage this story has developed a thinly veiled allusion to the Roman army. Perhaps it is an internalised trauma at the hands of the invaders which is now manifesting itself as a spiritual projection. The madness of the demon possessed sometimes reflects such ordeals.

Jesus brings about a confrontation with the powers, whatever our theory of their origins. The story has been cut adrift from its history to serve as an affirmation of faith. The people of Jesus are a movement for liberation (salvation/redemption). Defiantly they acclaim that Jesus can still the storm, walk over the deep, raise the dead and liberate the possessed. These stories, whatever their origin, become myths of identity. They are that already in the gospels. Matthew even reworks the dialogue between Jesus and the demons, so that they complain that Jesus has come there before the time. The time in mind is the climax of history. Traditionally it was the time when the dragon would be cast into the sea. Matthew knows the myth and is asserting for his hearers that Jesus is to be seen as the one who brings that kind of change.

It is an odd anticlimax that the people of the region arrive on the scene, are stunned by the miracle and ask Jesus to go away! Luke says it was fear and probably means: fear of the divine. No mention is made of the loss of the pigs. Was it also economic loss? That may be reading too much into the story. It is after all a story. For that reason to raise the issue of cruelty to animals, a valid concern, is to ask too much of the story. Nevertheless it is striking that, for whatever reason, people did not want Jesus to remain. Acts of liberation are not always popular.

The man remained, however, even if it was not his preferred option. And so for Mark and for Luke the story now celebrates a mission in Gentile territory, an important theme. It is their way of saying: Jesus intended inclusivity. Gentiles also belong. They are thus connecting the struggle to the underlying issue: compassion towards all, inclusion of all. Liberation is never enough. Liberation can go disastrously wrong and end in new forms of oppression. The liberation which Jesus brings is a liberation for as well as a liberation from. The man retains his wholeness as he goes out and lives the liberation where he is, in his own household and among his own people.

Epistle: Pentecost 5: 19 June  Galatians 3:23-29