When was the last time you were afraid? And I mean, not concerned, not unsettled, not nervous, but really and truly afraid?
I had a moment of downright fear a couple of weeks ago. My husband and I were on our way back to California at the end of our road trip, and we were just gunning down Highway 50 through Utah and Nevada, and, by the way, the speed limit for the most part is a very generous 70 miles per hour; and maybe you’ve heard it, Highway 50 is the ‘loneliest highway in the U.S.’; it’s hundreds of miles of road with barely a town along it. There is barely any traffic.
As we were traveling along Highway 50, we encountered some freak weather. There were thunderstorms and diluvial downpours that I can only describe by using this wonderful German word, ‘Wolkenbruch’, which literally means a breaking of the clouds, interrupted by moments of sunshine.
I was behind the wheel as we climbed yet another mountain range in Central Nevada. It was only about 6 p.m., but it looked like night was falling, it was so dark, just something looming above us. There was yet another ‘Wolkenbruch’, but all of a sudden the rain turned to hail. Within nanoseconds, the road was a covered several inches deep with hail and turned into a slick and slippery mess.
I lost control over the car. Of course my first instinct was to hit the brakes, but that didn’t do any good, but just made me veer into the other lane – thank God Highway 50 IS the loneliest road in the U.S., and there was no oncoming traffic. Eventually – which means, within a split second or so – I remembered the right thing to do in such a situation: don’t break, keep foot off the gas pedal, try to steer against where the car is going. After what seemed like an eternity, we came to a stop, we didn’t end up in the ditch, we didn’t hit another car, we were unscathed.
After we came to a stop, I was shaking. The whole thing probably didn’t take more like 5 seconds or so, but I remember how many things went through my head during that time. And, yes, during those 5 seconds I was seized with fear. Mainly because I had no control over the situation. There were forces at work that were much more powerful than little me. There was nothing I could do, really, and that is scary.
And I think this is one of the aspects of fear: that we feel powerless whenever we are afraid. Or, the other way around, we are afraid because we feel powerless. We are afraid when we are confronted with a devastating health diagnosis or experience how someone we love goes through a life-threatening illness. We are afraid when we feel threatened. We are afraid when we encounter – or have a brush with – death. We are afraid when we are confronted with forces that we, despite our intellect, our faith, our willpower, our behavior and actions, cannot overcome.
On the surface, today’s gospel story is about healing. And, yes, that’s one important aspect of the story. But on another and a deeper level, it is a story about fear. Which seems strange, but then maybe not.
In today’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples have just crossed over into foreign, non-Jewish territory via the Sea of Galilee. And it sounds like the moment they leave the boat, they encounter a madman, someone who is possessed, someone like many of the people we encounter here in the streets of San Francisco: not in his right mind, plagued by some mental illness, raving, half-naked if not entirely naked. Someone you want to avoid.
And the Gerasenes do the same we still do today with people like him: get him out of their sight, avoid him, they don’t and maybe can’t deal with him. I think it is very telling that the possessed man lives among the tombs outside of the city walls and even is bound and shackled there – to his people, he is as good as dead. Out of sight, out of mind.
We don’t hear if the people of Gerasa are afraid of this man. It sounds more like he is a nuisance to them. They tie him down, he breaks loose – oh no, not again! -, stirs up a commotion, he gets confined again, and so on, and so on. It sounds like the Gerasenes have found a way to manage the situation, to bring it under their control.
Now we know that the demon who possesses the man is very much afraid of Jesus and his superior power. The demon knows their time has come, that they can’t resist, that Jesus has come to bring life and healing where there is death, regardless of nationality, faith, and status – remember, the possessed man is a pagan foreigner in the eyes of the Jewish people – and they surrender. They only beg Jesus to let them go into a herd of swine. And the poor sows, driven mad themselves, are drowned in the lake. What a spectacle! And what an awesome display of the power of Jesus Christ! I mean, he didn’t even have to do anything, really, just show up, and the demon was intimidated. Hallelujah, praise the Lord!
As the demon leaves him, the man who was afflicted is restored to health – and to life. He becomes what we call ‘normal’. And one would think that this would be a reason to rejoice for the people who have had to deal with him and his insanity for who knows how long.
But something really weird happens: as the people of Gerasene see the man, clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, they are afraid, we read. Why, in the world, would they be afraid, now?
Now one reason may be that they are intimidated by the power of Jesus Christ, just like the demon was intimidated. And they are not alone in that, since we have quite a few folks in the Bible who are afraid as they encounter the divine: Mary as the Angel Gabriel appears to her and tells her that she is about to conceive the Son of God. The shepherds in the field as they encounter the angel of the Lord and the heavenly host. The women who come to the empty tomb on Easter morn and are greeted by heavenly messengers. To react with fear to the power of God seems to be only natural.
But I suspect there’s something else going on as well.
As absurd as it may sound, the situation has gotten out of control for the Gerasenes. They had learned how to deal with the demon and with the situation, the lines were drawn very clearly – we are here, and there is the madman, the other – yes, the man was possessed, but at the same time he was also demonized by the people around him and treated quite inhumanely.
And now? The people of Gerasa are confronted with a new reality, the reality that they now have to deal with a human being, an equal, someone who cannot be demonized and ostracized anymore. They probably also have pangs of guilt – what, if this guy remembers how we treated him? – and guilt is a very unpleasant sensation, because we would have to admit our mistakes, but more often than not rather find excuses for our behavior instead of assuming responsibility.
The people of Gerasa just don’t know what to do with the healed man. How can he be integrated into society? Is there room for him? Is there a way to treat him as a fellow human being, after all?
Another reason why they many be afraid is that now, they can’t just focus on this man and his demons anymore, I mean, what a wonderful distraction from anything else that’s going on, right? We see it in politics right now, how sensational distractions are created that we are all drawn to like moths to the light, while there is a lot of stuff going on behind our backs. Who knows which demons, which so far had been undetected, dwell among them, which now are in danger of being discovered? All this is scary stuff, and it’s no wonder the people ask Jesus to get out. Who knows what else he is going to turn upside-down? Things are out of control!
On the other hand, the whole situation is scary for the healed man as well: There is a very good reason why he asks Jesus if he can go with him and follow him and get away from that place – I think he knows that there is no room for him now in the fabric of the community, that it will be hard to be accepted. But Jesus doesn’t make it easy for him or his people: he tells the man to stay and talk about the great thing that happened to him – and by doing that, he challenges the Gerasenes, to deal with the healed man, to tackle their prejudices, their guilt, their own demons, their fears – and to be transformed, healed, themselves.
This is the mission, this is the gift of Christ: the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God. The healing and wholeness and life for all. And God knows this isn’t easy – after all, God died on the cross for the gift of forgiveness, healing, and new life. Why would it be easy for us to be transformed?
I believe we as part of a larger society have a lot in common with the people of Gerasene. We live in a society where it’s become so easy and so frighteningly commonplace to demonize and dehumanize people who look or think or live differently from us.
We try to bind and shackle anyone who is painted as a threat or a menace, be it quite literally or in a figurative sense – heck, we even put little children who are apprehended at the border in cages and deny them basic care and needs, as if they were some dangerous animals!
We seem afraid what might happen if we actually treated people we tend to demonize as equals, as fellow human beings, created lovingly in the image of God – that somehow, something would be taken away from us that we hold dear, be it values, customs, or privileges – that the world would potentially be turned upside down, and who would want that?
Let me tell you who would want that: Jesus Christ. God’s vision of the eternal kingdom is a vision of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. It is a place where the gates to the new Jerusalem are open at all times and where fear has been eternally conquered by love.
This is the vision. This is God’s promise. Love will conquer all. Do not be afraid. Amen
Picture by Tertia van Rensburg on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German