Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As 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. When 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”— for 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.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 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. Then 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. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then 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. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The dictionary defines a scapegoat as “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.” This phrase seems to have originated from the Leviticus commands about the removal of sins from the nation of Israel. In the Bible, a scapegoat comes from a pair of goats, one was sacrificed (this was not the scapegoat) and the other was released into the wilderness carrying the sins of the community away (this was the scapegoat).
In our gospel story this morning, we see a man scapegoated by his community. He is sent into the wilderness so that the community does not have to see the way they have failed to support him. The Gerasene man has spiritual, emotional, and physical issues and his community kicks him out, making him a scapegoat, rather than dealing with the systemic issues.
This is a common occurrence even today. Communities scapegoat the problems of the community onto individuals or a small group in order to not deal with it themselves. How many political arguments are over immigration as the reason for the United States’ issues instead of dealing with healthcare or education? How has our community scapegoated the unhoused community by pushing them into the corner of our city, out of sight and out of mind, instead of dealing with the lack of housing and jobs?
The problem with this scapegoating method of “dealing” with our issues is that it never actually addresses the systemic issues of white supremacy, homophobia, racialized capitalism, and wealth hoarding. And as Christians, we follow Jesus who always searches for and finds the scapegoats, the outcasts, the oppressed and sides with them. In fact, Jesus sides with the scapegoats so much that he becomes the ultimate scapegoat on the cross in which we are called to never scapegoat another again!
So what is the antidote to this scapegoating? I think it is twofold. First, Jesus comes calmly to the Gerasene man who screams at Jesus saying, “What do you have to do with me? I beg you, do not torment me.” How often is this the oppressed person’s reactions to Christianity in our culture? They see the Christian coming to “help” and assume that we will torment them, forcing a patronizing worldview on them or telling them they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But Jesus bucks this trend and instead addresses the high stress of the man in a non-anxious and non-threatening way by simply and tenderly asking, “What is your name?”
Many interpretations of this passage do not extend care and grace to this man until after the exorcism, but Jesus perceives him immediately as a sympathetic human being. Jesus does not wait for the healing before caring for him. Jesus does not wait for him to be off of drugs, to fix his mental illness, to find a house before coming to care for him. Jesus goes to him exactly as he is and starts a relationship.
“What is your name?” Jesus asks with probably more affection and care than that man had received in a long time. In the words of theologian Damon Garcia “The stories of Jesus’ exorcisms are stories of Jesus reaching out to those who are dehumanized, and rehumanizing them.” (Damon Garcia, “Liturgy that Matters – June 19, 2022: Luke 8:26-39”, enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.) Jesus seeks to free those being tormented and dehumanized on the margins of society. Today we are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps to build relationships with those who are scapegoated, those who are outcast, those who are oppressed and marginalized.
The second antidote to end scapegoating is to work together to end the interlocking systems of oppression that keep people down, that throw people away, that commit violence on the most needy. Yesterday, a group of us gathered here in our sanctuary to virtually join in the national March on Washington with the Poor People’s Campaign. We gathered to demand change from our political officials. We demanded change because in the words of the march, “There were 140 million people who were poor or one emergency away from economic ruin before the pandemic. Since March 2020, while hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions are on the edge of hunger and eviction, and still without health care or living wages, billionaire wealth has grown by over $2 trillion.” (March on Washington website) We also put together support kits to share with our unhoused neighbors at the Alabama Street encampment. By building relationships across class lines and by uniting our liberation with the liberation of every person, we follow Jesus into a community of care and a kindom of love and healing.
When we stop scapegoating, we discover that the issues we put on those individuals are actually the issues of our whole community! Following Jesus requires us to go out to the margins of our community and build relationships. We must move beyond our church walls and into the world that is in desperate need of relationship and solidarity. By rehumanizing and building relationships, we start to follow the way of Jesus, and then by working to end those systems of oppression, we begin to bring forth the world that Jesus died to create, heaven on earth. Let us, as those seeking Christ’s way, follow this path Jesus has laid before us and build a better world.