Unclean Vessels - thrive UMC Official Blog

Unclean Vessels

Today we’re revisiting a story that we touched on at the very end of our last series. As we were reading the book of Jonah, we took a couple of quick breaks to compare the Jonah story with a story about Jesus found in the gospel of Luke.  In both cases, one of God’s prophets found themselves on a boat in the middle of a storm.  And as we closed that series, we took a very quick glance at how Jesus was in ministry with foreigners on the other side of the storm. 

            We’re going to go back to that story from Luke again to see how it ends.  And as we revisit it, we’re going to pay special attention to the man Jesus ministers to.  Our reading comes from Luke, 8: 26-39.  Jesus had brought calm to the storm with a mere command.  Let’s listen with open ears.  This is what it says:

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss.[b] 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.

34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying,39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.

            So, on the other side of the lake, Jesus meets a man possessed by demons.  But of course, this man is not Jewish, like Jesus and his disciples, but he is instead a person who is culturally and ethnically Greek.  And as I had mentioned in the last series, the popular sentiment was that Jewish people resented Greek people at a very deep level.  And the reason for this was because a while before all of this the Jews and Greeks were fighting for control of the land.  And the Greeks won, and to gloat their victory, a Greek King came into Jerusalem and desecrated their temple with the sacrifice of pigs (unclean animals) to Zeus, as a deliberate act of terrorism and humiliation.  Then on top of that, many Greek values and customs offended Jewish values and sensibilities. Greeks would routinely engage in public sport in the nude, whereas, for the Jews, the human body was sacred and private. Jews thought Greeks worshipped idols, and they ate barbaric, unclean foods, and when it came to their sexual practices, they were –as a whole people- generally pretty slutty and perverted. So by almost every conceivable standard, Jews had every justification for steering clear of anything and everything Greek.

            Anyway, Jesus is Jewish, and so are all of his disciples, and they journey to this unclean Greek land.  And right away they meet a Greek man who is possessed by demons. And these demons have left him naked and living in a graveyard (an unclean place), and he’s so out of control that he has to be shackled to keep him from hurting everyone around him. We can imagine that, as this part of the story was being told aloud to a fully Jewish audience, someone in the back would have gone: ‘so you’re saying he was just a regular Greek!’ Because that was the Jewish stereotype of all Greeks they were shameless, savage, and unclean. Therefore, stay away!  But Jesus goes, and this story draws attention to the demons.

By the way, I want to point out just one of several very interesting details here.  The gospel of Mark tells a story very, very similar to this one.  In fact parts of it are identical, almost word for word.  But in the beginning of the Mark story, the man just has ‘unclean spirits’ –akatharto pnumati in the Greek.  But in Luke, this Greek man is held captive by demons –diamonosi.  They’re very different words, for very different things.  But remember, were using Greek words in a now Greek setting.  And in the original Greek context, demons were not understood to be evil agents of the devil or Satan as we tend to imagine today.  Instead, demons were more like demi-gods.  They were gods of a slightly lesser status, and most of the time the Greeks thought of diamonosi as being helpful.  To get just a bit more specific, demons were agents of the fates –and the fates were the supreme and completely mysterious power of the Greek religious understanding. Not even Zeus, the chief of their gods, could oppose or really even access the fates. And whatever destiny the fates determined for anybody –be it human or god- it was going to happen, and there was pretty much nothing anyone could do about it.  So basically, what this story is saying is that this man Jesus meets is totally and utterly hosed.  The fates have cursed him, not even the gods can help him, so you had better stand clear.  

Jesus approaches this possessed man asks him, “what is your name?”

But does the man tell Jesus his name?  No, the man no longer has an identity of his own, because the demons –the powers of fate- have completely taken over. They answer for him.  And what do the demons say their name is?  “Legion.”

Now, within the world of the Roman Empire, the word ‘legion’ means only one thing. It does not signify a mere numerical quantity, but it refers directly and unmistakably to the Roman military unit of elite heavy infantry.  In Jesus’s day, a legion consisted of five thousand armed, professional soldiers, populated exclusively by Roman citizens.  So when the demons announce their name, the whole story suddenly tilts, because now we know we’re talking about the violent machine of empire.  The diamonosi –the divine agents of fate- reveal themselves to be the sword of Rome. 

            We’ll come back to that in a minute; but first, let’s take a look at what happens next.

            After they tell their name, the demons then beg Jesus not to cast them back into the abyss. They plead with him to have permission to go to the pigs instead.  And get this: Jesus gives them the okay!  So these demons leave them man, go to the pigs, and the whole lot of them rush down a cliff, fall into the lake and they all drown.

            What a bizarre turn of events!  I wish I would have thought of it a little earlier in the week; I would have called this sermon: “Demons Waste the Bacon.” That’s a much better title; but alas.

            So this is an incredibly weird story, right?  It seems like Jesus came all this way –weathered the storm and all that- just to spoil their neighbor’s pork-chops.  But it’s weird to us only because we’re not first century Jews!  If we were hearing this story as first century Jewish people, we couldn’t help but make some very uncomfortable associations in this story.  And the first is the Jewish stereotype against all the Greeks. They look at their ethnically Greek neighbors, and all they see is slutty, idolatrous, savages.  And they see that, because they just have the image, and they can’t see the power that moves them. 

            The second and far more uncomfortable association this story makes is with the original prescription for Yom Kippur –the day of reconciliation.  This is the most holy day of the Jewish year, where all of the sins of the people of Israel for the entire year past are cleansed, or sent away, so that they can be restored to a right relation with God and with one another. We can read about it in Leviticus, chapter 16 –it’s so fascinating.  Anyway, a part of the ritual on the day of reconciliation is that two goats would be brought to the high priest.  And lots would be drawn to see which goat would be dedicated to become the sacrifice for God on behalf of the people.  The second goat, on the other hand, was dedicated to Azazel. Here’s a quote from Leviticus 16: 10: “10 But the goat selected by Azazel’s lot will be left standing alive before the Lord in order to make reconciliation upon it[d] by sending it away into the wilderness to Azazel.” So what would happen is that, after the Lord’s goat was offered and it’s blood was sprinkled by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the high priest would later come out, put his hands over the head of Azazel’s goat, and confess all of Israel’s sins over it.  In this way, the sins would be transferred from the people, onto the head of the goat.  And then the goat was sent out into the wilderness. 

            Oh, and if I had another half an hour, we’d talk more about Azazel; but for the sake of today, what we need to see is simply that this is how the ancient Israelites dealt with sin.  Sin was a real thing for them.  It had a kind of weight to it –its own gravity and foul stench that they believe offended God.  It didn’t just evaporate into thin air. It wasn’t something you could just pray away.  So something had to be done with it.  That’s where Azazel’s goat, the scapegoat (which is where we get the term, by the way) comes in: it was the vessel that carried the sin away –off into the wilderness where it couldn’t keep polluting your cities.  This yearly ritual was a powerful visual reminder of how reconciliation works: first you have to bring a good gift –a sign of good faith- to the one you’ve been estranged from.  And second, you’ve got to do something with that terrible baggage you’re carrying around.  You’ve got hurts and insecurities and resentments and skewed moral score cards because of what’s happened in the past.  And you’ve got to send them away. So the ancient Jewish people handled this by putting their sins on a goat, and giving that goat a firm slap on the behind.

            But what’s kind of funny about that whole ordeal to me is that one time the scapegoat came back. The sin-bearing goat returned to the people who had been feeding it.  So for the people, it’s like: oh no!  Our sins have returned, and God’s going to be driven away!  So at some point, they developed the practice of leading the scapegoat to a far-away cliff to throw it off, thus ensuring that their sins could never return.

            So we have to have that story in the back of our minds. If you were Jewish, you couldn’t be unaware of the scapegoat. If you were a good Jew, you would take a long trek to Jerusalem every year to have your sins taken from you and given to that goat.  Now, let’s look again at our story with the Greek man, the demons, and the pigs.  What’s happening here is part two of the reconciling act: the sin is being sent away.  It’s carried –this time not by a goat on Yom Kippur, but by pigs.  And from there, the demons hurled themselves off a cliff, and into a lake where they then drowned. Because, remember again, water cleanses.  It washes away the dirt.  And also pigs couldn’t bring the sin back, because they’re dead.

            So that’s part two of the reconciling act –where’s part one?  Was there ever a time when a pig –an unclean animal- was sacrificed in the temple, like the goat routinely was on Yom Kippur?  Yes!  Remember that terrible Greek king who stormed into Jerusalem and offered sacrifices to Zeus using pigs? It was an event so terrible and humiliating that Jews back then couldn’t talk about it without being blinded by fury –instead they called it the ‘desolating sacrilege.’ They wouldn’t mention the king’s name, or talk about the details, they could only bring themselves to say ‘the desolating sacrilege.’  

            In this story, Jesus, very subliminally suggests: that thing you call humiliation –your great horror and embarrassment  –that wasn’t an abomination. Jesus invites us to look again and see: that moment of our most profound shame can be our sacrifice of reconciliation, if we let it.   That can be the act that allows Jews and Greeks to stand before the presence of God and worship together. They’re not together because of what they believe or how they understand, but they’re together because they share this common earth and a common God.  The problem is just that they don’t recognize it all yet.  

             This is why it’s so important that the captivating power be named.  Because when it is revealed that name of their sin’s power is called ‘Legion,’ the Jewish people can see and know: that’s the one that holds us down too. That’s the one that keeps us feeling naked and wild and ashamed and feeling trapped and exiled in a dead place.  It’s because we’ve got the same demon.  The same unclean spirit that possesses you, possesses us.  And when we have the same sin, the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ necessarily fall away.

            This simple act of Jesus was a radical revelation to the Jewish people, because it gave them the eyes to see the sham of their own prejudice.  It brought all of their stereotypes and resentments about their Greek neighbors to the surface and then flipped it on them. It also gave them an opportunity to view a historical moment of shame differently, and to be freed from the hatred that comes from wounded pride.

  And at the same time, with this same event, Jesus showed the Greeks a tremendously radical revelation: here they thought that there was nothing to be done to alter their destiny.  They thought the fates had already fixed everything –and they knew that none of their gods had power over it.  But Jesus makes the messengers of destiny move with just a word.  And this wild man whom they knew to be a lost cause was redeemed.  He was restored to his right knowing.  And their response was to be terrified by the presence of Jesus, because he could do what even Zeus could not.  And he showed them that they could free them from the violence and the oppression that they suffered from the Romans. 

               Brothers and sisters, if it weren’t for this single moment in the gospel stories where Jesus paused his ministry to his own people, to leave his own land and weather a storm to go to a foreign people and confront their demon, none of us here today would be welcome to share in the holy act we’re about to receive in Communion. If it weren’t for that, we’d still be unclean vessels, like those demon-bearing pigs from the story.  Likely all of us come from the line of unclean blood, like those savage, slutty Greeks. But Jesus desecrated the prejudices and boundaries that kept Jew and Greek apart, so that we could be invited to share in the bounty of God’s kingdom. And the whole world was enriched because of it! We now have a globe-spanning tradition only because the faithful, from generation to generation, have followed the heart of Jesus and weathered storms to cross boundaries.  To meet the neighbors they’re called to love on their side of the wilderness! We are here because someone took a great risk to welcome us in!  Should we do the same for others?

            Let’s pray.