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Breaking Our Chains and Shackles

Be not far away, O Lord; *
you are my strength; hasten to help me.

Our story today from the Gospel of Luke is found in all three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke-synoptic meaning containing similar or the same stories and point of view. Jesus has decided to cross the lake. This lake is not what comes to mind when we think of a lake. The Lake of Genneserat or the Sea of Galilee is 8 miles wide by 13 miles long. On the way, they encounter a severe storm. The disciples who accompany Jesus, though some of them feel at home on the sea, fear for their lives. They wake Jesus from his nap and he, “scolds the wind and the raging waves”, restoring the calm. But the disciples are still shaken when they arrive on the shore at the country of the Gerasenes and encounter a man who is clearly beyond himself. 

The nameless man, who is portrayed in the demonic sense, approaches Jesus, addresses him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God,” and begs him to leave him alone. The story tells us the man lived in the tombs and though he was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles, at times he would break the chains and run away into the “wilds.” It is an extraordinary story of someone who is living way beyond who he is. But he is still living—in a very diminished way—but he is still alive. And Jesus approaches him, not responding to his request, but rather asking, “What is your name?” What a tender and searching question. Throughout scriptures, naming is a central act of establishing personhood–locating a self in the love and image of God. Names are important. They are a link to our deepest memories and our closely held identity. 

But the man answers by equating himself with what holds him captive, with what has reduced his humanity to being seen as demonic. He answers with one extraordinary word, “Legion.” The singular into the plural. Luke’s Gospel tells us that “many demons” tormented him. In other words, the sources of his brokenness were many. The man’s condition has stripped him of agency, dignity, and community. He uses militaristic language. The people of the Gerasenes would understand this term as they had been brutalized by the Roman Army. So there are political elements to the way that Luke tells this story. 

The man’s demons beg Jesus not to send them away. They have found a place where they had made a home. But Jesus will not let the man continue to suffer so rather than sending them into the abyss, he sends them into the bodies of some unfortunate pigs who then run into the sea. 

The swineherds rush into the town telling the story and then all the villagers come and find the man who had lived in the tombs, naked, chained, now sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and restored. It is remarkable because the story does not say that the villagers saw the chaos, or they saw the dead pigs, or the loss of their livelihood and are afraid, but rather it is when they see the man who was seen as demonic sitting at Jesus’ feet, healed, that they are  “filled with great fear.”

There are many questions to ponder in this incredible story. But one can be was the man chained and shackled because he was beside himself? Or was he beside himself because he was chained and shackled? How often do we create demons that we then persecute? How is it that we create situations where somebody’s protest becomes the thing that justifies hating them? 

We are constantly creating places that chain and shackle people. Our poorest brothers and sisters often live in places where the water is dangerous, the streets and sidewalks are littered with filth and criminal activity, where children’s futures are diminished because schools are underfunded, and healthy food and health care are beyond reach. And then we blame them for their despair and their inability to rise above generational poverty. 

We label our brothers and sisters who are not seen as white as dangerous and we disproportionately arrest them, lock them away in prison, and strip them forever of all rights promised to all citizens—the right to fair and impartial justice, the right to find a good job that will support them and their families, the right to vote so they can have a say over their destiny, which creates a crippling cycle where one’s worst moment comes to define forever their lives and the lives of those who love them. And then we persecute them again when they don’t respond to our country’s symbols as we require. 

And now, with a crisis at our southern border, rather than responding with creative concern, we imprison young children in for-profit facilities that are grossly overcrowded and lack the basic essentials for their care. At the same time, we question whether they are even worthy of compassion.

Every one of us can be bound with chains and shackles when we allow ourselves to be controlled by the idealization of perfection, invincibility, and power. We may be held captive by personal struggles that if shared would free us to come back to ourselves. Our Legion may be in the form of past trauma and hard memories. We may prefer isolation to revealing our humanity and our vulnerability with each other. If we view this story in the light of anything that conspires to keep any of us dead, when God wants us alive, then the story of the Gerasene man possessed by demons does not seem just an odd ancient story. But rather one that is central to our own times.

But Jesus is not contained by our human made boundaries. Jesus is always crossing over to confront and drive out our demons. Jesus knows suffering intimately. Jesus understands vulnerability, and longs to open us to all that leads to abundant life. God looks at the tone of our skin, the texture of our hair, the color of our eyes and sees beauty.  God sees God’s self and says each person is eternally loved. God sees the struggle of those who try to live with dignity within the violence of poverty. God sees suffering and calls us all to respond with compassionate and generous hearts. God sees our decisions made in haste, and God’s heart is broken over the harm that is caused.  Yet God also sees our hearts and knows our deepest longing to be whole. God never abandons us. God calls on us all to recognize, respect, and reach out to each other from within our own brokenness to see and embrace the brokenness that no one sees as stranger. 

Note in this story that when Jesus has healed the man, he sails back home again. Which means to me that the purpose of this journey across a stormy sea and difficult confrontation with villagers unhappy about their loss of livestock and frightened by the power of this rabbi, was all in order to meet this one man living in a forsaken life.

But this is where we always find God. There is nowhere God is not willing to go to reach out and free those who are broken and suffering. There is nowhere God is not present and active. No place on earth is God-forsaken. And absolutely no one is beyond God’s love. No one is left out. No one is seen as being of less value. No one is seen as being beyond or unworthy of God’s liberating grace and mercy. 

At the end of the story, the man begs for Jesus to take him with him. It seems a reasonable request. The man has found his life restored because of Jesus and it is not hard to imagine understanding his desire to continue to sit in a place of healing, at Jesus’ feet. The word ‘beg’ occurs throughout Luke, and on most occasions when someone begs Jesus to do something, he consents. But this time, Jesus tells the man, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And your heart really goes out to this guy. Come on Jesus, give the man a break! But Jesus in a way says, do not let the terrible thing that you have suffered be the thing that keeps you captive. There is a possibility that you can be the place from which goodness and generosity comes. While it is not easy or painless, you may be one who brings hope and healing to others. As Padraig O’Tuama writes about this gospel, “You may find your home in the very place you thought you would have to leave.”[1]If you have suffered great grief, you may be a source of comfort for someone in pain. If you have struggled with an addiction, you may be the one who can help another find the courage to face another day. If you have experienced loneliness, you may be the person who recognizes the one who needs your company. 

There is a hidden wholeness, as Thomas Merton says, that God wishes to call forth. This hidden wholeness enables those once possessed by demons to be clothed and in their right mind. This wholeness comes often in sheer silence that heals our fears and enables us to see holiness in others. God asks us, “What are you doing here?” when we have strayed off the path. God listens to our deepest heart’s desire, often hidden by fear and hatred, and elicits the healing powers of God in each person and community. We are each invited to open ourselves to this healing power, recognizing God’s eternal work in us and our potential for being an instrument of God’s healing in others. May we allow God working in us to remove our chains and draw us into the liberation of all God’s people.