My husband and I were once driving along an interstate when we saw a man behaving strangely. He was not on the side of the road but in a median area which was quite large and partly wooded. He must have crossed at least two lanes of traffic to get there. There was no sign of a car he’d parked nearby; and the quick glimpse we had of him just before he vanished into the woods revealed the fact that he was unclothed. I don’t remember it being particularly cold that day, but we were both instantly concerned for the man and for other passersby. Would he run out in front of traffic? Was he suicidal? Was he mad enough to harm someone else? From the cell phone we called 911 and gave a report. I checked the newspapers for the next few days but saw nothing. I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to him.
Running around naked might be cute behavior in a two-year-old. It’s often a sign of madness in an adult.
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then 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 off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. [From Luke 8]
This biblical story has a bit of everything in it, except perhaps a satisfying ending. It starts with a troubled man living in desperation and isolation. He encounters someone who helps him get his life together, and it ends with, well, it ends poignantly.
The man is a real human being in real pain. Haunted by the demons of—what? His own making, his upbringing, his circumstances, his genetic predisposition? He wanders the local cemetery, naked and alone, unable to live in society or even at peace with himself. He’s given no real name in the story; everyone in town knows who he is. Kept under some sort of guard yet physically strong enough to break the bonds of chains, he remains bound by the demons themselves. The NRSV translators say not that he lives “among the tombs” but rather “in the tombs.” He is, in effect, entombed by his mental illness, dead to any sense of real living, miserable.
When Jesus performs a healing, the man comes to his right mind, puts on clothes, and sits down to listen to Jesus’ teachings, along with the others who were there. Word gets back to town, and people are scared. What frightens them? Are they scared that Jesus could upset the social order so easily? What would happen if the mentally ill start getting well and living clothed and in their right minds among all of them? They were used to calling him “Crazy Naked Guy,” not Jim or Bob or whatever his real name was. He had taken to calling himself Legion, because such a host of problems and illnesses took up residence in him. Those who kept the asylum could be out of business. Their fright may have been related to what happened after the healing. Who was going to pay for the lost pigs? No, this is too upsetting.
Please, Jesus, leave our town.
And so he does. He and the disciples pack up into the boat and prepare to leave. But the former demoniac meets them at the shore and begs—begs—to be taken along. He will be a disciple, too. He will sit at Jesus’ feet each day. He will travel from town to town learning how to spread the good news. He can even help others by talking about his own healing.
Please, Jesus, don’t make me stay here, among these people who are scared by my becoming normal.
I’d have let him come along.
But Jesus tells him he must stay. He will indeed learn to be a disciple. He will indeed spread the good news. He will indeed help others by talking about his own healing. He will do those things here, at home, among the people who know him only as the man who ran naked in the tombs.
Now, let’s be clear that Jesus is not sending him back to live in the relationships the way they were—with him in chains, looked down on by the people, perhaps verbally and physically abused and neglected. He is sending him back to live in changed relationships. He is no longer the man who runs naked in the tombs. He is now the healed man. He is now the one who shows the grace of God just by walking down the street and greeting his neighbors, by eating a meal at the local restaurant, by getting himself dressed in the morning and staying that way all day. The things we take for granted—this man will remind them that those things are a daily gift from God. And he will help to teach the people that they need not fear the future when the social order changes for the better. Jesus will not stay there to teach them this, but the man formerly called Legion will do it. Every time they see him healed, sitting at worship, walking in the marketplace, conversing with a neighbor, they may indeed be reminded of what he used to be, but they will begin to see that this man is not frightening. The future can be beautiful. It certainly is not to be feared simply because it is not the same as the past.
You have witnessed this.
Do you look around you and see people who are still moving on even though they and you thought they would never survive a divorce? Do you see people learning to live healthy and happy lives again years after a tragic loss? Do you know anyone who has overcome addiction when no one thought they could ever make anything of themselves? Do you remember a time when you also lived in the tombs—the tomb of despair, anger, economic distress, loneliness—and now live (mostly) in your right mind and in the company of (mostly) healthy others? Then you also have good news to spread, for you have learned to be Jesus’ voice in the world, demonstrating to others where they may find hope.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier