Readings: 1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a, Galatians 3:10–14, 23–29 & Luke 8:26–39
Our gospel reading this morning deals with the issue of human brokenness. We hear of a man who is possessed by many demons. A man who, for the most part, walks around naked. A man who lives, not in a house, but in the tombs of the cemetery. A man who, at times, has had to be bound and shackled in chains in order to restrain him. The way the people of his day explained the man’s condition, was to say that he was possessed by demons–evil spirits who controlled his actions–it was the demons who were responsible for the man’s unusual and erratic behaviour. These days, we would probably say that the man suffered from severe psychiatric problems.
We may have all encountered people who resemble this man in some way. You only need to spend some time walking around the Melbourne CBD to see people who fit this profile. There is a growing number of homeless people living on the streets of Melbourne, some of who are very shabbily dressed, unkempt and unclean; and some whose behaviour can be very frightening–it can be abusive, aggressive and volatile. Instead of being bound and shackled in chains, like the man in our gospel story, they might spend time locked up by the police.
I came across an example of this recently when I encountered a young man in the CBD who was asking people for money. When he approached me, I asked him what he wanted the money for, and he told me it was so he could buy a coffee. Instead of giving him the money, I bought him a cup of coffee, and we chatted while we waited for our coffee. He was very edgy and anxious, and he told me that his wallet had been stolen the previous day in the CBD, but that he had been arrested by the police because he had reacted aggressively to the theft of his wallet.
There other types of “demons” that possess people these days, not just psychiatric conditions. It might be substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol, or it could be an addiction to gambling, computer games and even social media. These conditions are also forms of human brokenness, and there are still others which, although they may not be defined as human brokenness, might still keep us from living full and complete lives.
Conditions such as broken or strained relationships with family and/or friends. People who find themselves homeless and living on the streets, especially teenagers and young adults, are often people who are running away from family relationship problems. In situations where relationships are broken or strained, we can find ourselves being “bound and shackled” like the man in our gospel story. Not physically bound and shackled, but emotionally. We can hold on to feelings of anger, resentment, hurt or betrayal, to the point where these feelings get such a strong grip on us, that they end up controlling us.
We are unable to be ourselves. Unable to be free and enjoy the good things that life can provide us with. Just like the man in our gospel story who was not himself because of the demons that were controlling him.
The gospel story takes place in a region referred to as the country of the Gerasenes. We know this isn’t a Jewish region. How do we know this? Because Luke tells us there is a large herd of pigs feeding on a hillside, and we know that pigs were considered to be unclean animals which a Jewish person would not let themselves come into contact with. So Jesus has entered a Gentile, or non-Jewish region, and the man he meets, who is possessed by demons, is himself a Gentile.
The demons who are controlling this man; oppressing him and causing him to be kept in shackles and chains, are a metaphor for the Roman Empire, which at the time was oppressing the Jewish people, and figuratively keeping them bound and shackled. How do we know this? Luke tells us that when Jesus first meets the man and asks him his name, the man replies “Legion”, on account of the many demons that had entered him. But of course “Legion” was the term used for a division of the Roman army.
So Luke is implying, that in the same way that Jesus is about to restore this man from his own human brokenness, Jesus will also restore the Jewish people from their collective brokenness. He can do this because he is the Messiah, the Son of God. But we know that the majority of Jewish people did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and so they remained in their collective brokenness.
Writing to the Church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul said that people had been imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith was revealed through Jesus. Up until Jesus came along, the Jewish people believed they had to uphold the Torah (Jewish law) if they were to find favour with God. But Paul believed that having faith that Jesus was the Messiah, not upholding the Torah, was the way to God. Therefore having faith in Jesus, liberated people from that perceived duty to the law. We can say that it freed people from the shackles and chains of the law.
In a similar way, perhaps there are times when we might feel bound and shackled by some of our own religious beliefs? We might carry feelings of guilt, if we think that we have acted in a way that isn’t how we would expect a so called “good Christian” to act.
In our first reading this morning from the First Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah flees from Jerusalem after Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab of Israel, threatens to kill him. Even though God has performed great and wondrous works of power through him, Elijah himself is perhaps lacking in faith that God will protect him. But God speaks to Elijah, and even allows Elijah to be in His presence, as He commands Elijah to go to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Renewed in his faith, Elijah does as God commands him.
So what can we learn from our readings today?
I think the first thing is that as human beings, it is possible that we will all experience some form of brokenness in our lives; perhaps some more severe than others. We can all, at different times in our lives, feel that we are bound and shackled in some way, restrained from being our normal selves. Believing in Jesus; letting him into our lives and entrusting him with our brokenness or the problems that are restraining us, can restore us to fullness of life, just like the man possessed by demons in the Gerasenes.
And the second thing is that we need to remain strong in our faith, even when circumstances might cause us to doubt. Even the prophet Elijah had doubts when he reached the low point in his life. But he received a message from God that reassured him and enabled him to go on and do God’s work even in the face of grave, personal danger.
We need to be open and alert to God’s presence in our daily life so that we can discern when He is sending us a message. And we need to put our trust in God, that He will equip us with everything that we need to prosper and do His will.
The Lord be with you.