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1st Sunday after Trinity

09 June 2022

19 June, Proper 7: Isaiah 65.1-9; Psalm 22.19-28; Galatians 3.23-end; Luke 8.26-39

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I HAVE mentioned before my admiration for the Bible commentator Joseph Fitzmyer. In this episode of the demoniac and the pigs, his comment on the puzzle of geography (Gadarene? Gerasene? Gergasene?) made me laugh out loud, which is rare when reading Bible commentaries: “A stampede of the pigs from Gerasa to Lake Gennesaret would have made them the most energetic herd in history!”

We do not know where this exorcism happened. But we do know that, for Luke, it demonstrates Jesus’s compassion for Gentiles. The mere existence of a herd of pigs indicates that we are not in Judaea. Mark says that there were 2000 pigs, which sounds like a great many, even for a modern livestock farmer. But it may be intended simply as indicating a large number.

The episode stands out among Jesus’s miracles as grotesque, perhaps because we quickly jump to visualising flying pigs. Galloping horses might have been majestic; pigs, not so much. But this element of the grotesque should not distract us. A deep darkness is at work, and the threat that it poses to human well-being is real. Jesus asks the name of the demon, and, in a chilling glimpse of horror, there comes a multiple voice from the possessed individual (the exact response varies between Luke and his source, Mark): “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

Here is an uncomfortable window into the dark side of fractured humanity. Films and dramas sometimes make use of this chilling effect by having one creature speak with the voice of another. This instance is yet more fearsome; for one being is inhabited by two voices at the same time, and speaks in both singular and plural.

To have no secure identity, no selfhood, is indeed a nightmare for any human individual. We are all patchwork personalities, stitched together from scraps of others’ opinions and expectations, interwoven with our own memories and character. To have two names is bad enough — when the demons speak, they give their name, Legion, not the name of the man whose being they have invaded. But to have no true individuality, wavering instead between singular and plural, is frightening. As an image of mental illness or a suffering soul, it is powerful.

And so is the response of the people who witness the death of the pigs and the destruction of Legion. They want Jesus to go away; for his power frightens them more than the demon-possessed man did. Their fear of what they cannot understand inhibits their ability to respond to Jesus. Whereas “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4.18), here, fear is a barrier preventing their falling in love.

Paul’s Galatian Christians have fallen in love already (Galatians 1.6), but he has to remind them of what they should be doing about it. Christian life ultimately transcends the earthly — Paul echoes Jesus’s teaching on male and female (v.28; Mark 12.25). But they also have to live in the present, as they wait “in joyful hope”.

Until the time of Jesus, they had the Law to guide them. The NRSV makes the Law a “disciplinarian”, which sounds rather negative. The AV is closer, and kinder: “the law was our schoolmaster.” The Greek word “pedagogue” is one that we know in English, where it can also be neutral, or have a negative tinge.

Our own experience of teachers colours our response to this. I have learned much from my teachers, although from a few the only lesson was not to teach, as they did, through fear, caprice, or sarcasm. In an unequal power dynamic (Matthew 8.9) such as that of teacher and pupil, I try to remember Jesus’s high expectations (Luke 12.48).

I now believe that no teacher really teaches anything. You cannot put facts into brains. All you can do is stir up the fire. That is what the Law could do, and did, for those who followed it, like Paul himself. It was a teacher: it gave him parameters, and enthused him with possibilities. But it could not put the blessed assurance of justification into his brain.

Isaiah had long before held out that hope, setting aside the teacher’s syllabus and confirming what every person called to faith knows: that God is there to be found, even by those who do not seek him. He calls to us, just as we call to him, “Here I am!” (Isaiah 65.1; 1 Samuel 3.5).

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