“Society,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” [“Self-Reliance”] When Emerson wrote his essay “Self-Reliance” he was thinking primarily about the way in which the social world seems to squelch the individual. What is true for larger society is true for smaller groups as well. While Christians always live in the creative tension between community and individuality, we all have experienced the pressure to conform, sometimes in ways which are toxic to everyone’s interests. Have you noticed that when one member of a family becomes healthy, the other members of that family often become sick? The same can be said about other social groups, too.
Today’s Gospel [Luke 8.26-39] relates the story of Jesus’s journey to “the country of the Gerasenes”, an area near Galilee populated more by gentiles than Jews. In this story, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man by casting the “legion” of demons out of him into a herd of swine who then drown themselves in the lake. The story is saying two theological things about Jesus: first, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. It’s no accident that the demons recognize his divinity before regular people do. Second, the story emphasizes the way Jesus’s power extends even beyond the Jewish community. As a good Jew, Jesus probably had few compunctions about drowning a herd of pigs in a lake. But that there are pigs in the story at all shows that we are watching something happen outside the friendly confines of the Jewish world.
Fans of the late J.D. Salinger may recall that today’s Gospel is the only Bible passage mentioned in "The Catcher in the Rye". Here is how Holden Caulfield touches on this story:
I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. . . I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples . . . ["The Catcher in the Rye", p.99]
I quote this passage because our friend Holden can point us to something happening in this story that we might not see at first glance. Holden identifies with this demon-possessed man. He sees something of himself in “that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones”. Holden, of course, has run away from prep school. Yet he still wants to be connected—to his family, to his friends, to the vulnerable children of the world. Holden Caulfield is sensitive to the way in which emotional disturbance lives within a social and family context.
After Jesus casts the demons out of the demoniac and into the pigs, he does not exactly receive the thanks of a grateful nation. The swineherds would be understandably unhappy: Jesus has just destroyed a large assortment of their finest pork products. But the Gerasenes, the townspeople, react neither with gratitude nor with rage but with fear. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Jesus has come among them, performed a unique and nearly impossible act of healing, and the people respond as if he were radioactive.
What this tells me is what I already know from the experience of my own extended family life and other groups: it tells me that health can be more frightening than illness. Some families, some communities, are held together by pathology. And when one of the members of the family begins to get well, to move out of pathology and into wholeness, from illness to health, the reaction of the household is one of panic. Somehow Dad’s alcoholism or Mom’s depression or Junior’s Vampire fixation served as a unifying force for the family system. When Dad joins AA or Mom gets psychiatric help or Junior discovers lacrosse, when in other words the individual begins to heal, the family doesn’t always send them a thank-you note. Their newfound health disrupts the equilibrium of the system. Because all systems always favor stasis, one member’s move into health and wholeness can threaten to swamp the whole enterprise. We see this tendency act itself out today in the country of the Gerasenes. This crazy naked demon-possessed man was carrying all the pathology for the whole town. He was what family systems psychologists call the “identified patient”. When Jesus took that identified patient away, the community had no further reason to stay together. So he effectively scared the town to death. Without their demoniac, what were they here for?
In curing the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus was asking the Gerasenes to grow up and find a new reason for being together. They couldn’t take it. It would not surprise me to learn that immediately after Jesus’s departure, another one of the Gerasenes was taken over by a brand new set of demons. They would then have their stasis back. Now they would be able to rest easy.
We do this in families all the time. We are often willing to sacrifice one person’s interests for the larger group’s well-being. We also do it in larger human communities. We did it, most famously, to Jesus. As Christians we live in the hope that, having suffered for us once for all, Jesus has liberated us from the need for scapegoats and sacrificial victims. But that hope always lives in tension with the realities of human sin. And if I know anything about families, it is that they are the place where hope and sin always exist, perhaps symbiotically, together.
I went to seminary at the age of 23—a more common practice in those days than it is now--and I still remember the first sermon I heard there. In it, the dean said to us, “If you want to be a Christian, you need to start by forgiving your parents.” From the perspective of my current age, I can see why a seminary dean would say that to a group of women and men in their early twenties. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, if you weren’t having problems with your parents you weren’t alive. But the longer I live the more I understand the wisdom of that. “If you want to be a Christian, you need to start by forgiving your parents.” Over the course of my life and work I have come to know countless people of every age still burdened by childhood resentments.
One of my beliefs about Jesus’s teaching is that he always calls his followers into greater maturity. All of the systems that Jesus criticizes are structures that foster dependence. Jewish groups like the Pharisees have set up the Law as an inflexible guide to life, vainly hoping that correct, legalistic interpretation of the Torah will release them from the burdens and complexities of ethical decision-making. And gentile communities like the Gerasenes live in the vain expectation that by projecting all their sin and guilt onto one man they will be safe. In all cases, Jesus calls us to live, in Luke’s words, “clothed and in our right mind”. No legal, moral system can absolve you from the responsibility of living a just, compassionate life. No one person should carry the shadow burdens of an entire community. Children play these games, but adults must not. The call of Jesus is a call into maturity—to taking responsibility for our own lives and actions, to seeing the other not as a victim but as a companion in the quest to live a loving and abundant life.
Today is Father’s Day, and because contemporary life is the way it is, many fathers and children do not get to spend as much time together as they would like. The American work week continues to expand, and so do the academic and athletic expectations we place on our children. It's a wonder families have any time together at all these days. The most common complaint about fathers in this culture is that we are absent. But I know many fathers who find the time to be present to their children, and I know how grateful all of us are to the example of parents who have worked to balance career, family, and social responsibilities. So let's hear it for fathers and mothers and all the generous adults who give of themselves so that their children may become secure, grounded, mature human beings—the very kind of people Jesus calls us all to become.
“If you want to be a Christian, you need to start by forgiving your parents.” In healing the demon-possessed man, Jesus called the Gerasenes into maturity. They didn’t get it, but you and I can. It may be temporarily satisfying to lay all of our adult troubles at the feet of our parents or someone else, but ultimate health and wholeness consist in taking responsibility for our lives and our selves. There is no system, no relationship, that can absolve us of Jesus’s call to live free, compassionate, abundant lives.
Your parents did the best they could. You can, too. On this Father’s Day, let us resolve to love them, forgive them, accept them, and do for each other the best we can. If we are faithful in at least giving that a try, we will with the healed man in today’s Gospel, return to our homes and declare with grace and joy just how much God has done for us. Amen.