I got a little help from Ellen Haroutunian on this one. It's a good one for applying the skill of finding your self in the story. It's another one of those situations where Jesus does something seemingly mean and hurtful. He sends demons into pigs and the pigs kill themselves. It's a problem if you want a consistently fair and peaceful Jesus, but not if you look at this as a lesson in community justice.
This is the gospel, so we have Jesus. In this case he will be representing a group of people or an idea. The story begins with him meeting a demon-possessed man. The community has chained him up and he lives in a cave without clothes. To whom in your community do you see this being done? It might be drug addicts or welfare cases or felons or dropouts or some kid who doesn't pull his pants up. You may also be ignoring your neighbor or co-worker who sits on the opposite side of the political fence. Anyone you think is crazy for thinking in some way that you don't.
Jesus appears from far away as a healer to this man. Somehow the man recognizes him even though nothing tells us that he had ever seen Jesus before. People who are hurting, who have problems that they know are problems, but can't deal with them, often are able to recognize those who are able to help them. They are then doubly confronted, with their own "demons" and with someone who can help "exorcise" them. They sense a painful encounter. The Bible is terribly unhelpful on telling us exactly how to do this. It is not a manual for psychologists on how to break through someone's addictions and mis-education and get them to see they can be a useful member of society. All we get in this story is Jesus told the demons to go into some nearby pigs.
The pigs are the property of the community. This community had made no attempt to help this person. At least, the story doesn't tell us if they did. Judging a whole community is always dicey. What should we expect of them? There are people who don't want to be helped and can't be helped by anything except perhaps severely invasive therapy and medical attention. We have certainly abandoned a lot of these people in rural America (See book reference below). We have blamed communities and families for being backwards and causing the problems while we have whole organizations dedicated to giving assistance to people who live on the streets in cities.
But one story can't cover every situation. The way this is presented assumes the man can be healed. Back to the pigs. The pigs represent a cost to the community. Our Jesus here has judged that this community could have done something. They could have tried to talk to this guy. They could have kept an eye on him and kept him away from whatever it is was that triggered his behaviors. They could have met with him and his friends and relatives and designed some steps for him take to reintegrate himself. Instead they chained him up and that created a different set of consequences. It's a "pay me now or pay me later" situation. The healer eventually comes, but he has a price.
I really like the ending. The community tells the healer to go away, they don't like the price he extracted. The healed man wants to go with Jesus. This happens in 12 step and community support situations. People find the help they need, and they want to attach themselves to the help. Programs become self perpetuating and insulated from the very community they were supposed to be integrating people back in to. Participants may re-offend just to get back into the feeling of being supported that they found in the program.
In the blog I linked above, Ellen puts the community's role in terms of Roman gods. Those gods could be bargained with, and they could punish people you didn't like with demon possession. As she says, "There is a strange comfort in having gods that can be manipulated. Certainties feel safe. Jesus is a problem." I hope the analogy of calling the police on your loud neighbors instead of talking to them is not lost. Or the analogy of paying the price required to deal with people we wish would just go away.
* Hartland to Capitol Hill, The Journey of a Wounded Healer by Ernie Gunderson and Mary Gunderson. This book was written by a friend of mine using journals from his late mother. It was a large family in rural Minnesota. Two of Ernie's siblings had severe mental illness. It chronicles the many problems they had obtaining services. Her work leads to speaking before congress in Washington D.C. on these issues.
Elijah is not too happy with his Kingdom and is ready to call it quits. This is a well known passage and marks a turning point in the Bible where God seems to be speaking differently to his Prophets. Elijah is a very key figure too, in case you didn't know. He appears in the Transfiguration as an apparition with Moses when Jesus wants to show his apostles where he fits in the big picture.
And it's a beautiful bit of poetry isn't it? The "still soft voice", isn't that nice? If you stop reading at this point, which is exactly what the lectionary wants you to do, it sounds like "still" and "soft" are better than a loud wind that shatters rocks or an earthquake.
But I couldn't preach to this part of the Lectionary without mentioning the part they left out.
This is what immediately follows the verse:
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
And it goes on for pages about how they did just that. These anointed kings went about "putting to death" people all over the place. This is pure religiously motivated warfare. Never mind that it didn't actually happen, that doesn't make the story any better. There is no reason for this. It was probably a story told to make the Kingdom of David sound more important than it actually was. What purpose can it serve other than to say if you have God on your side, as opposed to Baal, you'll win?
Psalms are not my strong suit. This is a "lamentation" from King David when his kingdom is in a lot of trouble. It is also one of the more popular Psalms as it's opening line is repeated by Jesus on the cross. Some even say this is a prophetic vision. My non-supernatural view of that is, it is a literary device. The gospel writer is using words that his readers would be familiar with. The Psalm also has words about hands and feet being pierced. They are said to be parallels. They might be errors in translation, but that's far above my pay grade.
The Psalm itself begins with David considering an argument against God known. In the last century, the term "Divine Hiddenness" was coined to describe questioning the existence of God like this. He is seeking God, but feels he's not there and shows some evidence for his absence. Then he sings some praises and ends with a list of good things that will come from that praise, despite all the detractors.