Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Homily based on Luke 8: 26-39.

I want to share with you my discovery about this passage from Luke. I have always found the healing of the Gerasene demoniac disturbing on several levels. For one, I feel sorry for the pigs, God’s creatures too, and also for the swineherds who have lost their income source. As well, I don’t believe in demon possession, especially as the cause of mental illness. I understand the story metaphorically but not historically. As John Dominic Crossan argues, Jesus taught through parables, and his followers told parables about Jesus. So, for all these “woke” reasons, I usually sidestepped ever talking about this passage. But, as with most works of literature which I at first found difficult and disliked, once I forced myself, or was forced, to look at it closely, I learned so much. That happened for me with this troubling story this past month.

Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, who delivered the sermon at the Platinum Jubilee service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s cathedral, was the spiritual director at the June Niagara clergy retreat three years ago, and, a good-humoured man himself, he encouraged us to see the humour in scripture. We are often so serious when considering the Bible. Good storytellers know the power of humour to maintain audience interest and to develop character and theme. I began to read today’s gospel story through the lens of humour.

Let us consider Pigs as figures of fun. Pigs by Canadian children’s storyteller Bob Munsch: “Megan, please feed the pigs,” said her father, “but don’t open the gate. Pigs are smarter than you think. Don’t open the gate.” Of course, Megan opens the gate for the “dumb pigs” who proceed to wreak havoc in her home, school and town. Animal Farm by George Orwell: “The pigs did not actually work, but directed and supervised the others. With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership” (Orwell 19). And the pigs take over the farm and lord it over the other animals. Now, pigs, and swineherds, in Jesus’ time were loathed by Jews. Remember how low the Prodigal Son fell on his wayward journey: he ends up working for a Gentile, caring for swine, an unclean outcast on two counts as far as his Jewish community is concerned.

So, I got to wondering if the spectators of this incident between Jesus and the demoniac, or those listening to the story, would laugh at the herd going off the bank into the lake, sort of the way we laugh at Wily Coyote running off a cliff while chasing after the roadrunner. What a funny way to get rid of demons, and even at the demons’ request: “They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these [pigs]. 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 [like the Keystone cops] and told it in the city and in the country.” When you look at the story as comedy, the humorous possibilities abound.

            Now, Satire is a genre of literature that uses humour as a weapon, most often directed against social, institutional evil. Satire is very idealistic and the satirist is angry at the discrepancy between reality and the ideal. The classic example is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. Swift’s 1729 essay offers the proposition, if people are appalled by the sight of starving Irish children  because of the potato famine and the British insistence that quota be met, then he proposes, “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”  In one ironic paragraph near the end of the essay, Swift suggests several “other expedients” to solve the problem, such as “being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing.” Mercy, honesty, industry, skill, temperance and love are other reactions, Swift implies, but warns, “let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.” Swift subtly evokes the ideal responses to the social injustice and human suffering he witnesses in Ireland.

            The early Christians were used to communicating in code, for fear of persecution, from Romans and from religious authorities, people like Saul before he became Paul. Two Christians would quietly make the sign of a fish in the dirt to identify themselves to one another. The Book of Revelation is a code book, for fear of discovery and persecution, and the central theme of Revelation is anti-Rome’s violence and values. Israel was under oppression and domination by Rome. The key to the code in this story from Luke is the name of the demon: “Legion, for many demons had entered him.” The legion was the chief weapon of Rome’s domination of the known world; those Roman roads some of which you can still see in Europe today, were built so Rome could dispatch its legions quickly to any part of the empire in order to quell any rebellion. Legions were brutally violent; they would kill, maim, rape, enslave and pillage. If the legion came to town, there would be nothing left of the town. The Pax Romana was only peaceful for Rome; it was peace enforced through violence. It guaranteed that no other superpower would come in to conquer and oppress your country. How delightful for the oppressed Israelites to imagine Roman legions sent off to their death, rather like the drowning of Pharoah’s army while crossing the Red Sea.

        Pathos is part of satire as well, again, think of Modest Proposal, with its image of starving children. In Luke’s story the pathos is the portrait of mental illness seen in the demoniac: “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. For many times [the demon] 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.” The ill man, living in the land of the dead (an often repeated metaphor in scripture) represents Israel under occupation—oppressed, deprived, depressed, despairing. We surely see such suffering reflected in the people of Ukraine today (and Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, to name a few others)—shell shocked, bereft, without possessions, family, identity, ‘sans everything.’ The very face of the children under siege is enough to break your heart.

            Consequently, there is a “glimpse of Hope” in the story. Jesus heals, with his good news, so beautifully summarized in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “you are all children of God”; the demoniac is healed and pictured at peace: “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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.” The Legions gone, the story imagines a world without Roman oppression. The demoniac and the community can be restored to health, can live even under Roman domination by following the way of a different Lord than Caesar. The passage ends with the gentle man confidently witnessing to God’s grace. He has his identity restored and a renewed purpose in life.

“Humour and religion are siblings. They both encourage us to see the world from a different perspective, thus making it possible to observe more clearly its hypocrisies, its contradictions and its absurdities. Humour releases us from the blind acceptance of what is, allowing us to laugh at it . . . Religion reminds us that we have the power to change both ourselves and this magnificently ridiculous world.” This parable about Jesus reminds us that we are God’s eyes and ears, arms and hands in the world, God’s mouthpiece, to speak and act, to point out violence and injustice, to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth as in heaven.

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