Photo credit: Lewis Burrows
I have always been fascinated by this text. In my opinion, it is one of the most quietly creepy stories in the bible, particularly because of verse 30, when Jesus asks the name of the demon and he replies “Legion.” This story is also recounted in the book of Mark, and it is rendered even more ominously: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” I can’t read that without the hairs rising up on my arms. Now why do I think that is? Well, for many of us, there is something inherently scary about “the malevalent many.” At the time of Augustus, a Roman legion was about six thousand men. Thus, the demon’s name calls to mind an enormous army. One person does not have much chance of standing up to that many. I’ve also seen one bible translation use the word “mob” instead of “legion.” That adds an additional dimension of violent chaos to the characterization. So, whether we are talking about the menace provoked in a disciplined army of many thousands, or a the chaos of a mob, we almost unconsciously understand this “legion” to be completely uncontrollable, and I think this is why it is deeply unsettling.
But, you might have noticed that a different type of fear shows up in the narrative as well. A few verses later, in v. 35 we find that the people, seeing the healing that Jesus has done, seeing the formerly possessed man dressed and in his right mind….are they grateful, joyful, amazed? No, they are afraid. They ask Jesus to leave. Jesus has done this amazing thing, this amazing service to their community, but they ask him to leave. What is that about? Surely, this possessed man no longer being violent and uncontrollable, that would be a good thing? Why didn’t they think so? It’s a good question. So, while I do love the understandably scary and ultimately ridiculous Legion, I would submit today, that the fear of the people in the face of the healing itself is the much more interesting part of the story. So that’s what we are going to talk about.
First, a little background on the text. This healing comes directly after a story of Jesus calming the raging waters of a storm. Jesus had to take a boat across a lake to get to Geresene, where he encountered the possessed man. While they are in this boat, Jesus goes to take a nap, and then a squall comes up and the boat was in danger of sinking. The disciples go wake Jesus up, saying “we are going to drown!” and Jesus “rebukes the wind” and calms the waters. He then asks them (rather famously) “Where is your faith?” and they in turn, incredulously ask each other “Who is this, that the wind and the water obey him.”
And it is at this point, with these two important questions still hanging in the air, that the story turns to the demon-possessed man and his healing. So, in terms of the narrative, we are seeing that Jesus first shows his command of the natural world (the wind and sea) and then he also shows his command of the spirit world (by ordering the spirit out of the man and into the pigs). Jesus will follow up this story with another healing of a chronically bleeding woman who touches his cloak, and then he raises a little girl who had just died, foreshadowing his own resurrection. All these stories in quick succession are trying to answer the question “Who is this Jesus?”….by saying that Jesus is someone whose power is so great that he can command the weather, vanquish demons, can raise the dead, whose power is literally so vibrant and pulsing that someone need only touch his cloak and they are healed.
But, while the narrative is trying to answer who Jesus is, Jesus himself is also kind of subversively asking a different question. He asks: Where is your faith? This question too, given first to the disciples, lingers in the air as the demon-possessed man is healed, as the townspeople react negatively and ask Jesus to leave. We might like to think that if we were present in Jesus’ day, that we would react positively to what Jesus was doing. But, if we put ourselves into the position of the various participants in the narrative, perhaps we might we a better sense of why they didn’t. In the disciples’ case, imagine being tossed about in a near sinking boat, or in the townspeople’s case, imagine being terrified by the unpredictability of a violently possessed man. In both those cases, we surely might feel very very small, very powerless. From this vantage point of smallness, the mercy and power of Jesus might also seem like just another thing that we cannot control, as large and disconnected from our own sense of agency as the howling wind, or a legion of spirits. No wonder the townspeople wanted Jesus to leave. They were afraid of yet another thing that they could not control. Fear was compelling them to ask some very uncomfortable questions like…in the face of all this uncontrollability, who am I? What am I? The wind is invisible and destructive, the spirits are legion, and Jesus is incredibly powerful….and so I must be…nothing. What do we do with that realization?
And doesn’t that get right to the heart of our deepest spiritual questions: Who and what am I? How do I hold and experience my sense of self? How do I relate to my own life, to God and to other people as a result?
One important principle of Swedenborgian thought is the connectedness of the spiritual and natural worlds, that there is a basic continuity between them, that they are not separate things. We don’t escape this world to enter into heaven as if it is some place completely or categorically different…rather we will recognize ourselves in the next life, which is part of the reason why we believe personal transformation and how we relate to our own “selfhood” is so important to our spiritual progress. Our reading for today highlights the struggle and the fear that is elicited from our ego when we attempt to give over to God’s providence what is due, to recognize that our selfhood is pure gift and that God is the source of all. We read earlier:
…These people who credited everything to their own prudence (we could even call them overly invested in their own image) flared up so violently that fire came from their nostrils. "You're talking paradoxes and madness," they said. "Surely this would reduce us to nothing, to emptiness. We would be some idea or hallucination, or some sculpture or statue." (DP 309)
Do you hear that fear? “Surely this would reduce us to nothing.” Perhaps we can resonate. And I think this might be one of the complicated things that the villagers of Gerasene were feeling. Were they wondering where their own agency might be in the face of a man subject to a legion of demons, but who is equally subject and reliant on Jesus to save him? Perhaps they just didn’t want to think about what that meant, didn’t want to grapple with it. It was too much. Swedenborg continues:
 All I could say in response was that the real paradox and madness was believing that we are the source of our own life…Further, this is like people who are living in someone else's house, with someone else's possessions, and convincing themselves that they own them as long as they are living there.’
Maybe the people at Geresene didn’t want to think about the fact that their selfhood was metaphorically, someone else’s house, someone else’s possession. This is understandable of course, we are all very invested in our selfhood. We want to OWN things, physical things yes, but also to own our accomplishments as a way of proving our worth, proving our existence. We say: I own that, I did that…..look at this evidence of my healthy individualism, my moxy, my focus, my hard work, my brilliance. But of course, we all know that this MY is always part of a WE, whether it is the WE of a family, workplace, society….or just the WE of ourselves and God. Our individual selves are always, always, found in a matrix of relationship.
And sometimes we forget that, we forget about the people looking after our children, the people collecting up the trash, picking our vegetables, building the bridges and the roads, the people keeping us safe and the electricity flowing, the people who made our shiny new possessions in perhaps less than humane working conditions…And we forget the most amazing thing….that God is letting us live in God’s house! This body, this world, this life is a most incredible gift, like an air bnb that we get for free and forever. This is why we praise, to remind us of the truth of God’s generosity, to prevent us from becoming like those seagulls in Finding Nemo, going around saying “Mine! Mine! Mine!” to everything around us. Because that is the madness, that is the absurdity, trying to co-opt something that could never truly be ours, forgetting the true blessing is that we are given this house, this life, to live in, no questions asked.
But this begs the question: how do we live in this house that is not ours? What does that look like, psychologically? What are we supposed to do, detach completely from ownership of anything in our life? Float about not caring about any of it? Well, that is not actually what the healed man is told to do. At first, he wants to come along with Jesus. He DOES want to detach from his life as he has known it. We might wonder: how could his old life have any meaning for him now? But Jesus says, go back to your house, go back to your life. Go back to your house that is filled with “someone else’s possessions,” go back to this house filled with gifts from God, see and feel your gratitude there in your life, and there in your life tell people how much God has done. God does not wish for us to abdicate the responsibility of our lives, the blessedness of our connections or the uniqueness of our context. God wants us to be IN our lives, with gusto, just not to grasp them in fear and desperation. Yet, how do we find that balance?
There is a philosophical idea that has been helpful to me in thinking about this, an idea known as the “deconstructive embrace.”(1) Yes, we embrace this metaphorical home, this life, this selfhood. God has invited us with love into it, and we are allowed to love it too. We are allowed to take up space. We live in our life, we use it, and we take care of it because it is a glorious and wonderful gift. But we don’t grasp it, we don’t allow ourselves to pretend that we own it, we actively, constantly, “deconstruct” the illusion that we might have built it, we abdicate being the source of life. We hold this life, this selfhood, with a knowing, deconstructive embrace. We hold, but lightly, with love and gratitude.
And so when Jesus asks: “Where is your faith?” may we recognize that it is not located in ourselves, in our own selfhood, but that our faith is located in the giving nature of God, in all the forms of connectedness that give glory to the kingdom. When we know that the house isn’t ours, when we know that our very existence is based on an God’s act of radical hospitality and love, then perhaps, we can welcome Jesus, and the all transformation he brings, to stay, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel.
(1) Attributed to Gayatri Spivak, in Mayra Rivera’s The Touch of Transcendence, p114.
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. 30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
Divine Providence #309
Allow me, though, to pass on something I have heard from people in the spiritual world. These were people who believed that their own prudence was everything and that divine providence was nothing. I told them that nothing is really ours unless we want to call "ours" the fact that we are one kind of subject or another, or one kind of organ or another, or one kind of form or another--that no one has any "self" as people usually understand the word "self." It is only a kind of attribute. No one actually has the kind of self that is usually meant by the term. These people who credited everything to their own prudence (we could even call them overly invested in their own image) flared up so violently that fire came from their nostrils. "You're talking paradoxes and madness," they said. "Surely this would reduce us to nothing, to emptiness. We would be some idea or hallucination, or some sculpture or statue."
 All I could say in response was that the real paradox and madness was believing that we are the source of our own life and that wisdom and prudence do not flow into us from God but are within us, believing that this is true of the good that comes from caring and the truth that comes from faith. Any wise person would call this claim madness, and it leads into a paradox as well. Further, this is like people who are living in someone else's house, with someone else's possessions, and convincing themselves that they own them as long as they are living there.