Title: What are we doing here?
Text: Luke 8:26-39, 1 Kings 19:1-15
Date: June 20, 2010
Author: Thomas Lehman
Eight years ago I took up a new hobby: I gamble. I have never purchased even one lottery ticket, and I don’t sneak off to Las Vegas or Atlantic City or the nearest Native American casino during the week. However, I gamble with the editors of the lectionary, and this time they have dealt me a most difficult hand.
If we were to require a preacher to show a substantial understanding of the assigned Gospel passage before preaching on it, I might have been found unfit to prepare today’s sermon. Jesus and his party are walking in a Gentile village, where they encounter the village maniac, a man possessed by many devils. Jesus commands the devils to leave the poor man, and they in turn beg to be installed elsewhere. Without explanation, Jesus obliges, by sending them into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs at once run into a lake and drown, at great loss to their herdsmen. But the man’s sanity is instantly restored, and he asks to follow Jesus.
For me, this account of the demon-possessed man in Luke chapter 8 raises many questions and presents few answers. Almost every result of the man’s healing is negative. Because no suitably happy ending can be squeezed out of the story, it will never occupy the Disney movie makers. The loss of the demon-possessed pigs infuriates their herders, who spread the story. The village crowd, unmoved at the sight of the healthy man now free of demons, asks Jesus to get out of town, and Jesus tells the adoring man whom he has saved that he is not to follow him, but to return home and tell everyone what Jesus did for him. Never mind that the villagers already know the story. Every possible happy ending is denied. I think of the cynical line that says “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Even the most astute New Testament scholars, who build their reputations by finding truths that escape ordinary laymen, are troubled by this story. Remembering that Mark’s gospel is generally recognized as the first to be written, one scholar grumbles that “The conclusion of the episode … remains in Luke (8:34-39) as convoluted, clumsy, and opaque as it is in Mark” (Bovon, Luke, p. 323). “The story is not without its negative fallout” (Craddock, Luke, p. 117).
I consulted at least half a dozen lengthy commentaries; the writers analyze the story in considerable detail, but are able to draw from it few positive lessons, if any. One troubling aspect is that the accounts of this story in the gospels have different spellings for the name of the village, and neither village was close to a lake. It is hard to imagine a herd of pigs, even demon-driven pigs, sprinting very far to drown themselves.
The story, especially what is said about pigs, has clear political and cultural significance. Observant Jews throughout history have considered pigs unclean, and do not eat pork. The Jews who followed Jesus would have thought it perfectly acceptable for him to destroy the herd of pigs; never mind the total loss to the Gentile swineherders. (NIB p 187, paraphrased)
Because of the herd of pigs, we know that the story took place in Gentile territory. As Ben Dillon pointed out in his sermon on May 2, Jesus took his message beyond the boundaries of Judaism.
A commentator writes: “For both contemporary Judaism as well as for the early Jewish Christians, the pig was the signboard of the Gentiles … the Gentile power with which the Jews were then most in conflict, the Romans, were given the title of pig” (Bovon, p. 329).
Luke 8:30 reads as follows: Jesus asked (the demon), “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into the man.” Legion of course means many or it refers to the Roman legions, i.e., the demonic oppressors. (Tannehill, Luke, p. 146).
We may well ask what scornful name is applied to our soldiers by Iraqi families who have suffered the loss of civilian family members in what the Pentagon euphemistically calls “collateral damage.”
The entire story can be read as Jesus’ action to release a person tormented by depression, fear, anxiety, etc. All that was left of the man’s mind was a boiling cauldron of conflicting forces. Though it is an old story, modern versions can be found.
The healing of the demon-possessed man went terribly awry to produce a triumph of the law of unintended consequences. However, we might be able to learn something from it, for it appears that a human life is infinitely worth saving, even at the cost of disturbing the lives of others. More generally, we see that Jesus did not back away from a difficult situation, as we may be prone to do, and that the Bible, as is often the case, reports a tough episode with surprising candor. The gospel writers surely wanted to cast Jesus in a positive light, but they did not back away from the story as told to them.
I am far more drawn to Elijah’s tribulations as reported in today’s passage from 1 Kings. Elijah was a larger-than-life man of God, who has been called the quintessential prophet. Before I take up the story of Elijah in today’s passage, please note that our understanding of the word “prophet” has sometimes been inaccurate. A prophet is mainly a person who proclaims a message from God, especially to the Israelites during times when they strayed from the covenant they and God had made together. If, like me, you were first taught to think of a prophet as one who foretells the future, set that notion aside. The prophets sometimes dreamed of a coming Messiah. At other times they suggested what would happen to God’s people if they failed to turn back to God, but that’s little more than a parent telling a child where persistent bad behavior might lead. Prophecy as a career would seem to be unpopular, and so it has been, though today we have nearly 100 senators and 435 representatives ready at any moment to predict catastrophe if the policies of the other party prevail. Much of what they say is unworthy of the term “prophecy” no matter how it is defined.
Felix Mendelssohn’s dramatic oratorio Elijah is familiar to me, and I strongly associate some of the lines in today’s reading with specific arias and choruses. Listening to Mendelssohn for two hours is by far the best way to appreciate Elijah as a courageous man of God. It’s an inspired musical setting of a powerful story.
Elijah has been furiously defending the God of Israel against heathen gods at a time when the people had turned away from God. Elijah killed the false prophets with the sword. He alone is given credit for this, but it is safe to assume that he had at least a small force of men under his command. Queen Jezebel tells Elijah in a convoluted sentence that God should kill her if she fails to have Elijah killed within 24 hours.
Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, was such a consistent scoundrel that her name has entered our own language to denote a wicked, shameless woman. To call someone a Jezebel is the worst kind of insult. Her profoundly evil nature was already well documented by Chris Gooding in last week’s sermon.
Elijah, sensibly enough, responds to the death threat by escaping into the wilderness. He eventually makes his way to Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai, so we have Elijah following in the footsteps of Moses, who received the Ten Commandments there.
Deeply discouraged, Elijah tells God “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Older translations read “Take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers,” a jarring line that is no way to celebrate Fathers Day. Surely it was not aimed at Fathers Day. At first God does not respond, but in time God says “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet answers “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah shows us that a prophet’s life is a lonely and most unrewarding career.
It’s time for Divine action; Elijah is told in verses 11-15 to “‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14He answers by repeating his mantra: ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus;
In the passages following this one, Elijah proves himself a great prophet as he puts to shame the prophets of the false gods. Let Mendelssohn tell you about it. Like Jesus in our gospel story, Elijah tackled a difficult situation. His courage brings to mind Martin Luther, early Anabaptist martyrs, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elijah finally heard the voice of God in “a sound of sheer silence” or as a commentator suggests, in “a sound of fine silence.” Mennonites have not generally had a great leader or prophet who can speak for all, or tell us what to do. Instead, we try to hear the Holy Spirit locally by listening carefully to each other when we are discussing our shared future.
This very favored congregation has not been blown around by a great wind, nor shaken asunder by an earthquake, nor consumed by fire. Such tragedies have struck elsewhere. As far as I know, no one has even been directly touched by the great global recession. We are among the most fortunate people on earth. However, God can still ask what we are doing here. Lacking any dramatic, 100-decibel message, our duty, like that of the prophet Elijah, is to listen closely to see what a persistent God whispers to us, and to set out to do it. Is our future open? If so, may the quiet word of the Lord move us to action.