Saturday, June 11, 2016

Who is possessed? That's the question.

Luke 8:26-39, the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 5 in the Year of Luke, is a marvelous tale, skillfully told.  It is a study in "being possessed" and we are surprised to learn that the villagers' reaction to Jesus' power over the legion of demons living within the demoniac is to ask Jesus to leave their country.  In an unexpected twist, when the people of the village see the man, previously mad, "sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind" they are "seized with a great fear."  We would expect that their fear would subside at the quelling of his madness, but not so.  Apparently the terror of Jesus amongst them outweighed the terror of a host of demons.  Interesting, to say the least.

(The following questions are a sample from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  In this interesting tale, Jesus, the Word, is clearly at work exorcising demons, yet the exorcism is reported almost as an aside:  "for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man." (vs. 29)  What is front and center instead is the effect of Jesus' power over the demons, and the fear that comes as a result of that.  The demons themselves are terrified and beg Jesus "not to order them to go back into the abyss."  They know that, if ordered by Jesus, they must obey.  But even more interesting is the effect that Jesus' power has on the villagers who are reportedly "seized with a great fear."  The Word then is functioning more as law than as gospel for both the demons and the villagers.  It is a freeing word, to be sure, for the man possessed, but it is a Word of terror for the demons and the villagers.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It depends on which character you choose when answering the question of the Word not functioning.  The villagers are not given a gospel word, even though it is evident that Jesus frees. They see Jesus as someone to be feared. The man possessed does not receive a word of Law, but is only healed and freed.  And the demons who enter the swine are given only a word of Law, and are glad to be allowed to flee the presence of Jesus and enter the pigs.

3.  With whom are you identifying in text?   This is perhaps the most crucial question for the preacher preaching this text.  Since we always want to be identifying with those who are addressed by the Word, we have three choices here:  the man possessed, the demons, or the villagers.  If we choose to identify with the man possessed then our job as preachers is to help our listeners experience and celebrate the freeing power of the Word which leads us to be clothed, in a right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus.  The epistle text from Galatians 3:23-29 would work nicely in concert with this approach, as we are told that in baptism we have been "clothed in Christ."  If we choose to identify with the demons, then we have a difficult task indeed, as we are called to help our listeners see themselves as those who are afraid of the power of Jesus, afraid to live under his reign, and preferring even the unclean to a life with Christ.  Finally, we might choose to identify with the villagers, helping our listeners feel the fear that comes when we are in the presence of the power of Christ.  It will be our task to lead our people through a discovery of bondage to fear, and into the freeing Word of Christ.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word that functions to say, "Follow Jesus" is given only the man formerly possessed.  Jesus says to him, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." This is a good word for all of our listeners, regardless of who we have chosen to identify with in the earlier part of the sermon.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  I like some of the classic couplets for this text:  old creation/new creation; bound/free.  I also can see several others right in the story:  mad/in our right mind; driven into the wilds/sitting at the feet of Jesus.

6.  Exegetical work:  The second verse of this text opens up the underlying question.  The verse says, "As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him."  Notice that it is ambiguous as to who has the demons: the man or the city.  Is it "the man who had demons" who met him, or the man of "the city who had demons" who met him?   These days we are recognizing more and more that just as "it takes a village to raise a child" so it takes a village to enslave one or abuse one or allow the regular discrimination of one.  In other words, the community can sometimes be just as "possessed" as an individual.  Another verse highlights the ambiguity of this construction even more:  In verse 29 we read that "many times [the unclean spirit] had seized [the man]."  In verse 37 we are told that the people who witnessed this exorcism "were seized with a great fear."  This is the identical term.  So again, we see that it is not only the man who has demons who is seized, but the community that is seized.  I have a hunch that Luke did not include these details unintentionally.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus van der Sabb, in writing his analysis for 2013 Year C gospel on this text cleverly shows how this text unveils our failure to take seriously those things we are "possessed by" until it is clear that these things lead to death.  He calls his analysis "This Little Piggy."  I'd recommend you go to study to see the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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