The Beautiful Struggle: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Second Week after Pentecost
Second Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 8:26-39 and 1 Kings 19:1-4,8-15
1) This week begins nearly six months of “Ordinary Time” (from “ordinal,” or “related to a series”), a chronological set of stories narrating Jesus’ life, this year selected from the Gospel of Luke. From ten thousand feet, the Christian Year appears divided almost in half: about six months of holy seasons (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide), and about six months of Ordinary Time. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, or a pair of lungs breathing in and out, the church alternates between these two movements each year: high holidays and everyday life, the joys of celebration and the grunt work of growth.
2) Jesus has been traveling the countryside, healing, teaching, and raising the dead - in effect manifesting the new era, the Great Jubilee, that he proclaimed at the outset of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). The atmosphere of this week’s passage is full of both amazement and fear: Jesus has just single-handedly calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and then admonished his disciples for their lack of trust (Luke 8:22-25). Now they come ashore, and Jesus immediately encounters a man possessed by demons.
3) For Luke and his contemporaries, the world is riddled with demons who distort creation and overwhelm hearts and minds. Human beings are cast as porous creatures open to spiritual influences: Jesus himself is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), and many are possessed by unholy ones. On first glance, this way of understanding the world can seem archaic and foreign. But on the contrary, any number of death-dealing forces today are often experienced as "possession" or being "caught up" in dynamics that exceed our intentions or control. Think of how addiction overwhelms individuals and families; how racism shape-shifts over time between explicit and implicit forms; how anger consumes; how envy devours; or how sexism creates pervasive cultures of degradation. We may or may not call addiction or racism “demons,” but they are most certainly demonic. They move through the world as though by a kind of cunning. They seem to resist our best attempts to overcome them. And as we make those attempts, the experience can be less like figuring out an equation and more like wrestling with a beast.
4) In the story from 1 Kings, Elijah has hit rock bottom. He’s a prophet, but the people don’t listen - and now Queen Jezebel threatens him with death. In his mind, at least, he’s all alone: the other prophets have perished, and he’s next on the list. Though he’s long been “zealous for the LORD,” he’s now exhausted, defeated, and afraid (1 Kings 19:10).
1) Jesus suggests to his disciples that they sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (a sizable body of water, about 8 miles by 13 miles). That far shore was Gentile territory, which adds to the story’s sense of adventure and uncertainty.
2) One of Luke’s goals in this story is to underline God’s power over death-dealing forces in our lives, no matter how invincible they may at first appear. But the story’s other driving theme is just as important: the healing and liberation central to Jesus’ mission is epitomized here in microcosm. The man begins homeless, naked, isolated, shackled, living among the tombs and therefore considered perpetually unclean (compare Numbers 19:16), and out of his right mind. By the story’s end, he is welcomed, clothed, unchained, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet. He goes from outcast to insider, pariah to apostle, homeless to feeling right at home.
3) In their conversation, it’s ambiguous whether the man speaks to Jesus, or whether the demons are speaking through him; the man and his demons have become virtually indistinguishable. Jesus asks him his name, and the man says, “Legion” - a term that simultaneously signals his fragmented, chaotic state and alludes to the Roman Empire. A Roman “legion” was six thousand soldiers. The man is not so much possessed as occupied, and his fractured, subdued state mirrors the situation of the land and people under Roman imperial occupation.
4) The demons immediately recognize Jesus’ authority, beg to be spared - and remarkably, rather than simply banishing or destroying them, Jesus grants what they ask, giving them permission to leave the man and enter a nearby herd of swine. What’s Jesus up to here? The answer lies in what happens next. Since the swine subsequently plunge into the sea, the demons vividly demonstrate the self-defeating, self-destructive essence of all death-dealing forces.
5) All this is too much for the Gerasene townspeople; they are terrified, and insist that Jesus leave at once. And for his part, the healed-and-liberated man first asks to follow Jesus, and then - at Jesus’ instruction - stays and becomes an apostle to the Gentiles in his city. In a glimpse of the kind of early Christian thinking that eventually gave rise to the doctrine of the Trinity, Luke tells the story this way: Jesus tells the man to “declare how much God has done for you,” and the man promptly sets out to declare “how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39). In Jesus, Luke implies, we come face-to-face with God.
6) In the story from 1 Kings, Elijah is devastated and afraid: he retreats into the wilderness, and calls on God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). Instead, God feeds him. Eventually Elijah makes it to Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai), as if seeking out - like Moses - his own face-to-face encounter with God. But while he witnesses divine power in the wind, earthquake, and fire, God is “not in” those phenomena - and what follows is sheer silence, as if to say, God is in the silence. Or more pointedly: Elijah, even when you fear that I am absent, when you feel most isolated and alone - even there I am with you. I am with you in the absence, in the silence, in the struggle. Now go - we have work to do!
1) Jesus’ ministry involves risk and adventure - not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of the health and life of the world. And so this week is a perfect time to challenge ourselves, as individuals and as congregations: How can we more boldly and effectively stand against the world’s death-dealing forces, in ourselves and in our neighborhoods? Are we following Jesus, filled with the Spirit, into the fray? Are we willing to venture out to unfamiliar shores, so that outcasts may become insiders, and broken communities made whole?
2) These are not idle questions. Jesus’ mission has a particular shape and direction toward healing and liberation, and the church is called not just to proclaim this mission, but to advance it. For Luke, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means follow him into the storm, into the shadows, into “the tombs” themselves (Luke 8:27). He means follow him into the good-and-difficult work of building up from ruins, of freeing the captives, of living with dignity - in short, the work of salvation (from the Latin, salvus, “health”) in our hearts, in our homes, and in our communities. The good news of the Gospel is that this life-giving mission is already underway, and God calls us to take part in the beautiful struggle of restoration.
3) Beautiful, yes, but very much a struggle. Both Elijah and the Gerasene man find themselves profoundly isolated, cut off from relationships - and the ultimate effect of what God does for them is to restore them to community. The Gerasene man becomes part of the Jesus movement, an apostle to the Gentiles; and Elijah is renewed in his prophetic vocation, including both a successor (Elisha) and a broader group of seven thousand Israelites (1 Kings 19:16-18). Taken together, these passages make a vivid case that salvation is social: the whole point of God’s healing liberation is to restore us to neighborhood, to call us back to life!