Fox Creek February 2020

Jesus as Ripley

Week of Sunday June 20: Pentecost 4
Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

People who are possessed are terrifying. Police, despite being armed with batons and capsicum spray, end up shooting psychologically disturbed people. The violently screaming person in the street, whether mentally ill, road-rager, or drug fuelled, is a dangerous unknown, and sometimes deadly. The man in this story lived naked among the tombs, and was abnormally strong. The flavour of truth pervades this story; I knew a mentally ill man who lived out bush on his own for years. He was fearsomely strong. Now calm and childlike, he was still scary in his otherness. If he had been angry…

Jesus has just shown his power over another deep, unpredictable aspect of life, which is symbolised by the sea. (Luke 8: 22-25) Now he faces a new peril; something from “the abyss.” He overcomes this, too. The man is found clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus. Everything in this story is carefully crafted. Jesus did not just cast out the demon. So cleverly that we could miss it, filigree is traced all over the story.  The man is clothed. He is in his right mind.  He sits at Jesus feet, the place of discipleship.

We should not let the careful crafting, or the alien cultural setting and form of the story distract us. We should listen to what the story says in "its own frame of reference." (Loader) This story is about the dis-integrating assault on life by naked, uncontrollable, mind un-hinging terror. It pits Jesus against un-reason-able evil. It is a terrifying story. It is also a thrilling story, because Jesus wins.

Those of us who are uncomfortable with the cultural baggage which surrounds demon possession, and who worry if we can sensibly talk about such a thing in our age, should take a trip to the video store for a copy of Alien. Un-controllable, un-reason-able, purely destructive- this is the dis-intergating force in Alien.  It’s not true, and yet, it is. Jesus is a Ripley, facing that other which lurks waiting to tear life apart. Cast into the horror movie of his day, Jesus is the conquering hero.

If we get into plot subtleties, or cultural presuppositions before Ripley’s travail has scared the life out of us, we miss the force of the story. The story is not an academic treatise on the power of Jesus. It is claim that Ripley will prevail. It is a claim for us, you and me, when life becomes a long nightmare of fear, or a sudden pants-wetting moment of terror.

When we see this claim, we can look at the screenplay without losing the story.

  • Jesus is in an-Other place, opposite (over against, says Petty) Galillee. 26
  • He meets a man of the city. 27 This is an odd description, given that we will be told the man is not of the city, but living among the tombs!  Petty is correct I think, that the story links back to Jesus compassion for outcasts; last week we read of a woman of the city. (7:36)
  • The man does not just have a demon, he is unclothed. This has been happening for a long time. 27
  • He does not live in a house but lives among the tombs. He has left the place of civilised living and lives in a malignant dangerous place. 27
  • He has preternatural strength. The power of the demon lives in him. 29
  • He was “driven by the demon into the wilds.” He was under its power. 29

All of this is the theme music, and lighting, and cultural referencing which transform a plain movie into an edge-of-the-seat horror.

  • The demon immediately recognizes Jesus for who he is, and tries to weasel its way out of trouble. 28,31
  • But entering the swine it finds it is dispossessed of its new home, because the swine rush into the lake and are drowned. 33

I remember my son when we went to the Drive-In and saw Jurassic Park. When the T-Rex lumbered out of the dark, my son piled into the back seat in terror.  But then, the lawyer was eaten off the toilet seat, and he climbed back into the front seat, laughing.  The drama has humour for the spits. But the spits humour has its own purpose, just as it did in Jurassic Park. Fancy thinking a pig was a place to take refuge! How low can you go!  And what was the point? This demon is so foul even the pigs can’t stand it, and would rather die. This adds insult to what follows.

There is a political edge, too. The name of the demon was Legion, “for many demons had entered him.” 30 A Roman legion consisted of some 5,000 men. "Legion’ was not [only] a term meaning many, but a designation for one of Rome’s armies. The one stationed in Palestine had a boar on its standard." (Loader)  Rome is a part of the evil which afflicts this man.  Empire, says Luke,  partakes of, or is a carrier of, mind un-hinging, dis-integrating evil . Those of us who live under the protection of Empire, or who have given our allegiance to the new Empires, the multi-national corporations, should be brought up short by this.  This is not a John Wayne movie, with a hero who reinforces our self image and national stereotypes... not hardly.  Jesus is his own man; God’s man, indeed. He is telling us that the Empires we think hold the world together are un-Godly, and destructive in the worst way. Empires belong with the pigs- although even the pigs will reject them.

So the question is whether we will be like the Gerasenes.  Will we be filled with fear by this man and not make him welcome?  Will we beg him to leave because, really, we would prefer to be under the thrall of the legions? Are we God’s, or do we belong to something else?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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