What do you suppose they were all so afraid of? After all, that is the bottom line of this dramatic and startling story in Luke 8: all the witnesses and all the townsfolk were afraid.
What was it that did them in, fear-wise? Was it the sight of all those dead pigs floating in the water and even now starting to wash up on shore? Was it the sight of this nut job of a human being now clothed and in his right mind? Was it the idea that despite the other explanations people had bandied about over the years (he’s quirky, he’s angry, he’s just not well adjusted) that it turned out there really had been a legion of demons in this man after all? Did the demons frighten them all? Did this reveal to them that the world is a more spiritually fraught place than they had previously guessed? The transfer from the man to the pigs had shown the truth of the situation and maybe retrospectively that shook them up, given what had been really lurking in their midst all along.
So is that what they were afraid of?
Whatever it was it was so overwhelming a fearful feeling—Luke tells us they were flat out “overcome” with fright—that they asked Jesus to leave. And maybe just there is as good an answer to this question as any. The spectacle had been shocking and shocking things have a way of producing unsettled feelings, even fear sometimes. The loss of the pigs had been a blow to the local economy perhaps but in the end the pigs could be replaced. The man himself was a sight to see now that the wildness and untamed nature of him had been put aside but whatever and happened and however it had happened, he was not a very scary spectacle just sitting there. In any event no one from the town suggested that he hit the road. They’d put up with his rabid nature for years without banishing him (and without, apparently, being too terribly afraid of him) so he was surely no source of fear now.
But they asked Jesus to leave and there’s really only one explanation for this: they collectively decided that he was the source of their overwhelming fear. Maybe if he left, their fright would depart with him. If your child is afraid of the stuffed bear in the corner of her room because she thinks it is looking at her when she sleeps and might come alive during the night, you take the bear out of the room. If a community is afraid of some peeping Tom who keeps peering through window panes at young girls as they get undressed, the police seek to find and remove this person from the streets (and no one sleeps well or feels settled until this source of fear and intrusion is properly locked up).
These people were afraid of Jesus. That’s why he had to go. The one the demons properly pegged as “the Son of the Most High God” just couldn’t stay there because his presence was unmaking people, terrifying them. The man who had been delivered? He could stay. The demons—wherever they had scooted off to once they lost their temporary home inside the pigs—could apparently stick around, too. But not Jesus. He had to go so people could breathe easy again.
Can it be that the presence and power of God are a source of fright? Apparently. And I wonder if even us religious types wouldn’t find this to be true in case the palpable, physical presence of God showed up even some Sunday morning while we are in the act of worshiping God. We are surely fooling ourselves—but we surely do this all the time, too!!—if we assume that were Jesus to show up at one of our worship services, he would ever and only smile upon and bless everything we are doing and saying. Maybe we do have everything absolutely correct in terms of who God is and how he likes to be worshiped and spoken of. Maybe every socio-political stance a given church advocates and every program it carries out and every decision it makes on how to spend money in the church budget—maybe ALL of it just fits God to a T.
Maybe. But I have this sneaking suspicion that if Jesus really did show up, he’d prove to be plenty unsettling to even us buttoned-down religious types even as he might just surprise and shock us. We might come to see just where and how we are significantly out of alignment with Jesus after all and as it is at the office when the boss shows up and starts very carefully going over all your work and all your files and all your emails . . . well, sooner or later the knot in the pit of your stomach signals to your heart one undeniable fact: you are afraid! What might the boss uncover if he looks that closely at our work?!
But if that could be true of us even within Christ’s Church today, how much more true for hapless and clueless folks such as the people of the Gerasenes in Luke 8? The thing about having the one true God in your midst is you have this feeling that the incident with the pigs could be just the tip of this divine iceberg. Who knows what would be next but it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that this Jesus person, the Son of the Most High God, could end up shaking up everything and that is, well, a frightening thought for most people.
In the tradition of the church the sin of sloth, of acedia, is regarded as one of the Seven Deadly Sins and although in the popular imagination sloth is reduced to mere laziness or being sluggardly, the actual essence of sloth is spiritual boredom. It’s an inability to get excited about things that are truly good and wonderful. Sometimes the spiritually slothful are anything but slothful in other areas of their lives it’s just that what most energizes them are sporting events or NASCAR races or finding out there’s a new microbrewery opening up in their neighborhood. They get excited all right, but just not about the right things. A hockey game is something to look forward to all week but the things of God . . . not so much.
A desire to NOT change, to not do what needs doing in order to make one’s life better, often underlies sloth. It’s easier to stay the same—even if “the same” is not all that great—than let someone put you through the wringer or confront you with this or that truth about your life or this culture or this world that you’d just as soon not know. For the people of the Gerasenes life with a demon-possessed crazy man in their midst was no picnic. He terrified neighborhoods, was a cause of fear for parents of young children, was a public nuisance and embarrassment when friends from out of town would come by for a visit. But as they say, better the devil you know . . . better the devil you know than the God you don’t know but who looks to promise a whole lot of change that just maybe it’s easier not to do.
Of course, when God shows up to shake things up it’s finally a grace that he brings to us. It goes without saying that his deliverance of this hapless man was an act of grace and mercy but so are the other things Jesus can do for us in our lives, painful though some of those things may be for us as we find the need to change course or give up certain things.
As Luke 8 concludes, Jesus sails away even as the folks of the Gerasenes go back home, unchanged. Just the one man is left on the shore waving furiously in gratitude to the man who saved him. He’s got a job to do in telling people the great things God had done for him.
I wonder if anyone in the Gerasenes listened . . .
In his perennially best-selling book years ago, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck opened by saying that across his many years of practice as a psychologist, the number one obstacle he encountered in helping people get better had nothing to do with stubborn chemical imbalances in the brain that were resistant to medication but rather the #1 obstacle was people’s unwillingness to do the hard things that needed doing to make the necessary changes in their behavior. It’s not that Dr. Peck could not come up with good programs of activities people could engage in that would make a difference. But getting people to act on those programs . . . well, as Johnny Carson used to like to say, you can lead a horse to water but to get him to swim the backstroke is tough!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 23, 2019
Luke 8:26-39 Commentary