Fear and Hope

Luke 4:14-21; Luke 8:26-39


Good morning! Do any of you wonder why there was no reading from the Old Testament this morning? This is a trick question. Our Call to Worship this morning was adapted from Psalm 42, which was one of our Old Testament readings for the day. More importantly, our first reading from the Gospel of Luke includes a long quotation from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

After reading this passage from Isaiah, Jesus says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21).” This is Jesus’ first public act of ministry in the Gospel of Luke; it explains why Jesus is sent into the world and it tells us that Jesus will release the captives and let the oppressed go free.

Our second reading from Luke shows Jesus fulfilling this mission: Jesus goes into a region known as the Decapolis and he heals a man who is possessed by demons. Geography is important: the Decapolis is an area of ten Gentile cities. The herd of pigs is a clue that Jesus has left Jewish territory.

To release the man who is possessed by demons, Jesus must first call out the unclean spirits by name. The demons are called Legion. This is no accident. We hear this name as a metaphor: the man is possessed by many demons. But the name Legion is carefully considered. This story is personal AND political.

Anyone from Luke’s congregation who heard this story would associate the demons with the Roman legions who occupied the region, in Jewish and Gentile territory. Luke wrote this gospel somewhere between the years 75 and 100 CE. That’s important.

In the year 66 CE, the Jewish people revolted against Roman rule. It took several years for the Romans to put down the revolt. During that time, the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. The Romans also sent troops to retake the city of Gerasa: “Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.”[1] What’s more, one of the Roman legions that was stationed in Jerusalem to enforce Roman rule used a pig as its emblem: on its banners, on coins, and on battle standards.[2] None of this was lost on Luke’s audience, but it’s new information for us.

All of this begs the question, are we supposed to take this story at face value, or are we supposed to interpret it as a metaphor? Yes!

Yes, we have to take this story at face value. Jesus heals a man who was cut off from society, whose demons prevented him from living a full life and being a member of his community, even if it was a community of Gentiles! The man needed to be healed and Jesus heals him.

On the political level, Jesus is proclaiming a common cause with the Gentiles, those who were not originally God’s chosen people. To do this, Jesus transgresses every boundary that Jewish religious teaching has put in place. The man who is healed is a Gentile. He is naked. He is living in a graveyard, which is considered unclean. At that time, if a faithful Jew even touched a grave, he would have to go through a ritual cleansing before he could be considered clean. He would have to do this cleansing before he could enter a synagogue. And let’s not forget about the pigs, which are unclean animals, according to Jewish law. Yet none of this stops Jesus from healing this man!

Surely, this is a call to us as Christians in the twenty-first century. This is a call to us minister to everyone: the people in our own congregation, the people in this community, people across the country, and people around the world. That’s scary! It’s scary because it calls us to go into places where we aren’t comfortable and it calls us to minister to people whom we perceive as unclean.