“Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” (Luke 8:37a)
Fear plagues us. Like children convinced there are monsters under our beds, the unknown scares us. Yet, conversely, the known can be just as scary—if not more.
Over a week ago now, former NSA consultant Edward Snowden leaked the confidential government program “PRISM” to the press. From time immemorial, as human beings, we have feared the unknown reaches of power over our lives. George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, is but one example of such fear. Some have argued that the surveillance enabled (if not enacted) within the bounds of PRISM amounts to an internet age realization of some of these fears. But what are we afraid of—really?
The people in the gospel reading were afraid of Jesus—or were they? It seems unlikely that an aging—30 was on the edge of the anticipated life expectancy in 1st century Galilee—stranger, arriving in their territory unarmed, in a fishing boat, would have been perceived as more dangerous than a known madman whom they themselves had repeatedly shackled and put under guard.
Yes, Jesus had performed an inconvenient exorcism. There had been collateral damage with the loss of the pigs. But this was a time and place where exorcisms, albeit not common, were performed. It was a time and place where livestock—to madness, to famine, or the whims of the occupying army—were lost. These were not unknowns to the people of Gerasa. What was unknown, or perhaps, just made known, was the name in which these were done:
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” the demon possessed man (or his demons?) confronts Jesus after he commands his unclean spirit to leave (Luke 8:28).
The text is unclear who is speaking here, but the number suggests the man at this point. Later, when Jesus instructs the same man—freed of his demons—to return to his home and declare what God has done for him, he makes this same identification between God and Christ—
“So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39b)
Is it possible that “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes” included the man from whom the demons had gone as well? Is it possible that even this man—healed and in his right mind—fears Jesus? Is it possible that prior to being healed, this man himself (and not his demons) confronts Jesus—preferring the torment of what he knows over the unknown implicit in Jesus’ unsolicited intervention? Is it possible that this man, who sits at the feet of the man who set him free, was afraid of Jesus? Is it possible that he was afraid of the power he knew Jesus to represent?
Fear plagues us. I have a friend who teaches basic internet classes at a senior citizen center. Recently, she taught one of her students the difference between running a “Google Search” and directly entering a URL. She showed the same woman how to print her internet directions, rather than writing them down by hand for an upcoming extended road trip. In return, the woman thanked my friend by telling her, “Now I feel safer on the internet.” But we all know how perilous that safety really is. Incessantly, we warn children about it—“Internet Safety”. There is a whole industry designed to keep children safe while using the world wide web. There are countless campaigns directed at parents, children, and others that warn of the insipid dangers of the internet. Sexual predators, identity theft, cyber bullying, pornography, damaged reputations…now we can add potential government monitoring to the list. But is it really a surprise? Or, indeed, a danger at all? Or, perhaps, like the people in today’s gospel lesson, are we less afraid of what has been (or could be) done and more concerned by the power that controls it?
Letting onto just such fears, former Vice President Dick Cheney, on Fox News Sunday this week, speculated that Snowden’s retreat to China might indicate prolonged connections with the communist government and that, indeed, Snowden could have been working with the Chinese government prior to releasing this information. Even if he wasn’t, Cheney points out, the danger of what Snowden could reveal to China now remains tangible.
In any time, in any place, there are demons to fear. There are those things and people and ideas that we prefer to keep in shackles and under guard. But they have an annoying tendency of breaking loose. And when they do, the question is not solely the immediate consequences (a madman healed, perceived privacy compromised) or even the economic ones (how many pigs or dollars lost?), but more pressing: by what power has this been done? Who is in control—really? Is it the people of our surrounding country? The ones who possess the shackles and the chains (our governments, intelligence agencies, police)? Is it strangers from another country (Judea, China, or anywhere else)? Or is it—perhaps most frightening of all—the Son of the Most High God whose power transcends all of us?
The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.
[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]