Reading Luke 8.26-39
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I’m going to be talking this morning about our gospel passage, the healing of the demoniac called Legion in the country of the Gerasenes.
And perhaps I should say straightaway that I’ll be taking its talk about demon possession at face value. Demon possession would be a whole other sermon and I have, as it were, other fish to fry – and only ten minutes in which to fry them.
I’ve thought for a long time that there’s something unique about this miracle. Somehow it’s not like Jesus’ other miracles.
Now, if you think about something for long enough, a new thought usually comes to mind eventually. And the thought that has come to my mind is that the absolutely key thing about this miracle is its moral ambiguity. That moral ambiguity isn’t just a side issue, it’s a central issue.
You may be thinking to yourself: moral ambiguity? Jesus? Surely not. Well, here’s what I mean.
With the other miracles of Jesus – especially the healing miracles – you’d be hard pressed to detect any moral ambiguity at all. Jesus heals someone sorely in need of healing. What could there possibly be to cavil at?
True, the Pharisees sometimes kick up a fuss about healing on the Sabbath or some such irregularity but they are always and plainly shown to be in the wrong. The gospel writers clearly mean us to understand that these healings are unalloyed good things.
But that isn’t the case with this demoniac. This story breathes a different air. For a start there’s the question of the swine, the pigs. Now, I’m a vegetarian so maybe I’m particularly sensitive to this kind of thing but I don’t think you need to be a veggie to feel a little bit sorry for those poor animals. There’s an undercurrent here of swine being ritually unclean in the Jewish tradition but, really, what harm were those pigs doing to anyone?
That’s moral ambiguity number one.
Ambiguity number two is the reaction of the local population. Luke tells us that the man was of the city. The locals knew him. He wasn’t just an unknown stranger. You might think everyone would be overjoyed at what had happened but no, they ask Jesus to leave and he leaves – immediately, as far as we can tell.
But they weren’t being merely churlish – like perhaps those Pharisees having a go at Jesus whenever they could. These local people were deeply – and understandably – perturbed.
Those pigs belonged to someone. Who knows what financial loss that person incurred? There was no National Farmers Union in those days to provide insurance cover. There was no compensation scheme for farmers adversely affected by the actions of itinerant miracle-workers.
Then there’s the swineherd. Was he now out of a job?
I have some sympathy with those people who asked Jesus to leave. They were wondering what Jesus might do next.
And I have sympathy with those pigs.
To my mind this miracle is highly ambiguous from an ethical perspective. You might be wondering then why I think Jesus performed this miracle at all.
Well, I think we can make sense of it rather than merely scratching our heads. There are two factors that we need to bear in mind.
The first is that it is impossible to overestimate the value that God places on an individual human being. Each human individual is made in the image of God. Each individual has infinite worth. The individual matters.
To rescue people from the living hell in which they sometimes find themselves was of supreme importance to Jesus.
This demoniac in his individual living hell was of infinite value to God.
The second factor is that the world is an unimaginably complex place with an untold number of contradictory forces acting on each other and littered everywhere with a blizzard of conflicting personal and communal interests.
Sometimes we know that our actions will have unfortunate consequences, and yet we feel morally bound to do them. And we incur no moral guilt in doing so.
Imagine you’re, say, a committed lover of wildlife. You’re driving along a country road at night with your young family asleep in the back of the car.
Suddenly a badger appears in your headlights right in front of you too late for you to stop. If you swerve to the left, you’ll hit a tree. If you swerve to the right, you’ll plough into an oncoming lorry.
You brake as much as you can but you carry straight on and the inevitable happens.
Since we don’t currently live in the kingdom of God, sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils – in the case of this night-time drive, the lesser of three evils, the point being that the world in all its complexity will sometimes constrain us to make choices we’d rather not have to make. It’s simply inevitable.
I presume that even Jesus couldn’t avoid these choices. Jesus was constrained by the circumstances in which he found himself, just as we are constrained by our circumstances. It’s the nature of the world. It’s the nature of human reality.
As usual the Bible doesn’t give us the full detrails so we don’t know what precise constraints Jesus was under when he suddenly encountered the demoniac called Legion. But under constraints he was.
And yet the situation dictated that Jesus make a decision.
Perhaps, if the man was to be restored to health, Jesus could see no choice other than to allow the demons to enter into the swine. But I think we can be sure of two things: Jesus did not desire their death and neither did he wish to cause economic disruption for the sake of it.
His focus was on the sick man and how he could help him – that person in his particular living hell. That was his priority.
This story – in spite of its
moral ambiguity, perhaps even because of it – shows the priceless value that
God places on each human being.