June 19, 2022
Way back in the 1860s, there were two sites in Hawaii on the island of Molokai that were designated as leper colonies. In those days, leprosy didn’t really have any kind of cure. It was a frightening looking disease—people would be disfigured by it in ways that made them look like monsters. And since people didn’t really understand how it spread, the solution for millennia had been to isolate lepers in a colony, off by themselves. Those two leper colonies in Hawaii wouldn’t close until 1969.
But isolating people we don’t want to deal with isn’t just something we did back decades or centuries ago. Even though we know from studies that the best way to deal with most kinds of criminals is to get them integrated into and invested in their communities, the United States instead has the biggest prison population in the world—bigger than the height of the Soviet Gulags or even (by percentage) the North Korean prison camp system, in fact. Criminals are undesirable so we hide them away—out of sight, out of mind.
And even though we know the best way to stabilize and support people with mental health issues (beyond medication, of course) is a supportive and connected community, society seems to work very hard to hide the mentally ill away with homelessness, prison, or isolated homes away from society at large. Out of sight, out of mind. The way society treats people it doesn’t want to see in the present should be eerily familiar in our gospel reading from this morning.
The man possessed by Legion probably was once known in his village before he was possessed. Like any of the numerous people pushed to the edges, he had a life and connections and a family. But whatever happened, however it happened, he became the person his fellow villagers wanted to keep out of sight and out of mind. He scared them, after all. He was strong—strong enough to break the chains they used to bind him. And he lived in and among the tombs and graves—whatever humanity he once had was replaced with the specter of the boogeyman amid the gravestones. The people were convinced that the best way to protect their village was to keep him away—keep him away, but close enough that they knew where he was. This man, shoved to the outskirts by a population working hard to ignore his plight while keeping a close eye on him, is the one who confronted Jesus as he stepped off the boat from Galilee.
Then the memorable exchange happened. He demanded to know what Jesus was doing there, shrieking his question at the top of his lungs. We learn that this man is being tormented not by one terrible demon, but a legion of them. But even a legion of demons is no match for Jesus, and they know it. Using the man’s voice they begged Jesus to let them go into a herd of pigs—unclean animals—instead of being sent into the abyss. That dramatic moment happened, and suddenly the demon-possessed herd rushed headlong into the sea. But the man, the man who had been marginalized and, frankly, demonized by his fellow villagers for who knows how long, suddenly regained his humanity. He was rehabilitated. He was well enough that he was learning from Jesus—sitting at his feet—when the villagers arrived to see what on earth had happened.
And the part that always gets me when reading this story is the way the villagers reacted. They didn’t rejoice, like you’d expect. They didn’t celebrate the new life this man had been brought into. They didn’t even thank Jesus for taking away the demons that made this man so dangerous. Instead, they were gripped with fear. They were afraid! And why were they afraid?
I suspect it was for a lot of the same reasons we would be afraid of someone newly released from federal prison. Or someone we’ve known to have a very destabilizing mental illness. Or anyone else who, until just recently, held the title of some kind of person we’ve been used to avoiding. The truth is that it is hard for us to rehumanize someone that we have spent a long time dehumanizing. It’s hard to see the humanity of someone we’ve been trained to see as only the worst thing they’ve ever done, or the most caricatured version of their illness, or the worst version of a statistical average. The man formerly possessed scared his fellow villagers because they now had to look at him as a man, and not a demon-possessed creature living in the tombs.
Because that’s what Jesus does. He restores the humanity of people who have been stripped of their humanity. He brings people back into relationship with their loved ones, their neighbors, and even their enemies. He pulls people out of the darkness of possession and oppression and restores them to who they once were. And he invites us, calls us, to see that humanity in people we’ve dehumanized. He beckons us to look at the former prisoner as someone in need of community, support, and friendship. He calls us to see the person with a mental illness as equally in need of love, encouragement, and social bonds as we are. He restores humanity, and he has empowered us to complete that restoration.
So when we read the account of the Gerasenes, we’re invited to see them as a foil of what not to do. Holding on to old fears of what once was, becoming more upset by the loss of their swine herd (and the wealth associated with it) than the demonization of their neighbor, and rejecting the healing shalom that Jesus brings all go hand in hand with what we are called not to do. Instead, the Gerasenes remind us that Jesus wants us to see the humanity of others as more important than anything else. He asks us to look at people not as their worst deed, or their deepest illness, or greatest torments, but as human beings with complexity and depth and contradiction as deep and extraordinary as our own.
Let your eyes be opened to your neighbor that you’ve been taught to ignore. See people, not as statistics of economic and social impact, or bearers of the shame of criminal activity, or inscrutable carriers of mental illness, or dehumanized, faceless masses, but as people. And ask God to help you love them as people, just as God loves you. Be better than the Gerasenes, because Jesus is with you. Welcome the lost, because Jesus is with you. Step fearlessly into loving those cast to the margins of society, because Jesus is with you. He casts out the demons so that we can see humans again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.