They were seized with fear

July 15, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I was away last week and we had family here over the long 4th weekend — a usual summer schedule. It’s good to be back in the gospel of Luke, chapter 8 and verses 26-39.

Then they sailed to the territory of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. When he came ashore a man from the town who was possessed by demons met him. For a long time he had not worn clothes; he did not live in a house, but lived among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him; in a loud voice he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” For he had ordered the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (It had taken hold of him many times, and he used to be bound with chains and shackles as a restraint, but he would break his bonds and be driven by the demon into deserted places.) Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “Legion,” because so many demons had entered him. And they pleaded with him not to order them to depart to the abyss. A herd of many swine was feeding there on the hillside, and they pleaded with him to allow them to enter those swine; and he let them. The demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran away and reported the incident in the town and throughout the countryside. People came out to see what had happened and, when they approached Jesus, they discovered the man from whom the demons had come out sitting at his feet. He was clothed and in his right mind, and they were seized with fear. Those who witnessed it told them how the possessed man had been saved. The entire population of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them because they were seized with fear. So he got into a boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had come out begged to remain with him, but he sent him away, saying, “Return home and recount what God has done for you.” The man went off and proclaimed throughout the whole town what Jesus had done for him.

The Gerasenes were Gentiles or pagans. Being in such close proximity to Galilee they were aware of the Jews’ monotheistic belief, but chose to continue to worship a pantheon of gods. A question keeps coming to my mind in reading and re-reading this story. Why were they so frightened by this exorcism that Jesus performed?

It’s possible that the Gerasenes were using the demoniac as the holder of their own darknesses, their own evil impulses, their shameful secrets. He was their scapegoat. It often is easier for us to blame others for our troubles when the real source is within ourselves. It reminds me of when I worked at the Menninger Foundation. I learned that when someone was referred for hospitalization, the entire family usually was required to accompany the “sick” one and was interviewed by staff as a family unit in trying to determine a diagnosis. Often the “sick” person was the scapegoat for the family’s dysfunction. Their individual problems were transferred to the “sick” member, who was then blamed for all their troubles. (I’m not a clinician and this is obviously an oversimplification.)

In this case the demoniac lived unclothed, outside of town among the tombs. He was wild, unruly, incredibly strong. So many demons possessed him that he called himself Legion, probably a reference to the number of soldiers in a Roman Legion — 6,000. The people had tried to shackle him, but he was able to break free of his bonds and to roam about terrifying everyone he encountered. A scapegoat is much more useful if it can be restrained, controlled, kept in check.

Upon hearing the report of the swineherds about the miraculous conversion of the demoniac, people streamed out to the seashore to see for themselves. Here he was clothed, rationale, and docilely sitting at Jesus’ feet. So, why weren’t they grateful that Jesus had exorcised the demons? Why didn’t they want to more about the power of God who could so radically transform, save, this man’s life? Why instead were they seized with fear?

Jesus was disrupting their lives as he did everyday to everyone. In his person was a power much greater than any of the gods they worshipped. What would he do with that power? In the ancient world gods were often to be feared. They could be jealous, capricious, angry, withholding. So, they had to be propitiated with offerings, sacrifices, and ritual prayers and practices. Would Jesus use this power against them? Could he be counted upon to be always beneficent? That may have been part of what fueled their fear.

But what happens when my sin and shamefulness is exposed? What happens when I have to confront the darkness within myself? Oftentimes it is fear that overtakes me. Fear of being unmasked, of being seen as grotesque and brutish. Fear of being overwhelmed by my own evil impulses and sinful desires. Fear of being required to change if I want to be saved.

That may have been the case with the Gerasenes. They had lost their scapegoat. They could no longer hide from themselves and they couldn’t find the courage to confront their own shamefulness. They could not surrender to the God of the Jews and thereby experience His loving forgiveness and acceptance. I wonder if the saved demoniac was successful in converting the Gerasenes to belief in Jesus. That was certainly Jesus’ hope. It appears he certainly had his work cut out for him, though. Fear is tenacious; it wants to blot out God. Jesus had a response for that, though. Recount what God has done for you. Keeping God’s loving mercy in mind can help me overcome my fear.



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