There’s a story, in each of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, of Jesus healing a man possessed by demons. You might have heard it. In one of the spookier lines in scripture, he says his name is Legion, “for many demons had entered him.” Jesus, the story says, expelled the demons into a herd of pigs which then drowned themselves. Seeing the man healed and “in his right mind,” the local people are afraid of Jesus and ask him to move on.
There’s more details, of course, and they vary between the gospels telling it. But for me, I’ve sometimes struggled to come to terms with what the story might say to us because of its original setting. Simply put, it was a different time, different place and I wasn’t there. I want to hear it speak to me not at a distance, but for today. So let me try and tell this story in a more contemporary setting.
I’d be tempted to place it in a large, modern day urban centre. There’s a person with extreme mental and physical health issues who lives in a park, maybe, or on the street, homeless and with no money or food. They probably talks to themselves, or appears to, maybe with some yelling, some anger and some tears. They grab scraps when they can, avoided, as best they can, by everyone.
Just as it was in the original story, they’d recognize Jesus for who he really is when it seems like the rest of us can't. It could be, I suppose, that they recognize Jesus because, when everyone else looks away, Jesus looks right at them. When everyone else is trying so hard not to see them, Jesus sees them for who they are, a person who needs help; a person who needs support; a person who needs connection. Jesus offers it and that makes all the difference. It also makes everyone else fearful.
Are they afraid of Jesus "power" or are they afraid that Jesus has shone a light on something they hoped they wouldn't have to see? Are they afraid that Jesus is setting an example others might follow? That's going to cost time and money.
Let's go back to the beginning. Like I said, I'm tempted to make this character a street person in a city, but I live in a small town in rural Alberta. If I put the story in a city, for me, I might as well put it two thousand years ago and halfway round the world. The stereotype of the person creates distance, too - you don't find "those people" outside the city, do you? - and if I can keep it at a distance, it can stay the tidy concept it is and not be the messy action it can be.
But that's just it. Jesus reaches out, asks their name and makes a connection. He, literally, names the demons that torment the man. He engages them and things get messy. The man is healed, restored to life - or at least begins the journey back. He even asks to follow Jesus, to continue their relationship. But Jesus says no, go and build relationships with others by sharing your story.
Healed of an illness, exorcised of demons, saved from evil - however you might see it, the real miracle here is that Jesus bridges the distance between society and the people it has cast out because they're different. Not different in appearance or culture or religion, but different in how they "be."
Jesus teaches us to engage everyone as best we can, where they are and how they are, to hear their story and help left them up. That can be scary, messy and complicated. It's no wonder we might be fearful and want him to move on. Don’t be afraid. We can do it together.