Friday, January 30, 2009

Read it again... for the first time!

This year I have challenged the teenagers in my youth ministry to join me and my leaders in reading the bible in a year. I admitted I would not be checking that they are caught up, or rewarding anyone that commits. I simply told them it was something the other leaders and I were excited to do, and challenged them to join us.

Every Wednesday when we gather together for youth, at our information station is a small, sealed black box with pads of paper and pens surrounding it. I encourage anyone with questions they are too embarrassed to ask, questions their accountability leaders can't answer, or anything they wish discussed to write something on one of the pieces of paper and anonymously inserting it into the question box.

After every series (usually once a month) we have a night we called "Unplugged" where we do worship acoustically... we pack 40 chairs into as small a circle as we can make and go through the questions that have added up. It's always the highlight of our month because we always have deep, meaningful conversation about a variety of topics I may not have thought to address.

I was very encouraged to see that this month, half the questions in the box pertained to specific bible passages that had been a part of the reading in our yearly schedule.

One question seemed simple enough, but drew great discussion and insight into an often overlooked portion of scripture. The question was: Why did Jesus bother to ask the demon his name in Matthew 8:28-34? And why did Jesus cast the demon into a herd of Pigs?

We know this story. Jesus and his disciples take a boat into the region of Gerasenes where they are greeted by a demon possessed guy (one specifically, though Matthew notes 2 of them) who Jesus delivers. The story is recorded in Matthew 8, Mark 5 and Luke 18.

Mark's account is likely the most detailed. Here is the account:

1They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me!" 8For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you evil spirit!"

9Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many." 10And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

11A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them." 13He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

14Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

I love this story for so many reasons. Of course, the text doesn't actually answer either question that was asked. But we can speculate.

First of all we know this man must have been in this condition for a while because it says he had often been chained but broke free, often been held down, but was too strong and he cried out every night. Legion means 1000-- so I think one of the reasons Jesus asked the demon it's name was to highlight to those watching, this man had been suffering all this time under the oppression of 1000 evil spirits. What did they do to help this man? Chain him, pin him and banish him from the community.

Now why did Jesus cast the demons into the herd of pigs? I've heard a few theories on this, perhaps the pig owners were Jewish, and Jesus did not approve of them profiting from the sale of unclean animals to the Gentiles. My difficulty with this is that scenario doesn't seem like Jesus.

One of my youth commented that pigs are unclean, so perhaps Jesus allowed the demons in the pigs to make the statement: "let the unclean spirit be with the unclean... it doesn't belong in this man, who is made in the image of God."

I really liked that speculation. It seems more Jesus. The tragedy of this story is that this man suffered outside the community, a loner and no one cared to help him. When Jesus alleviated his suffering, it's not only a miraculous deliverance, but it's a statement about the worth of man. Made in the image of God is our health and our ability to connect with our creator with a sane mind not more valuable than our possessions? (the pigs)

A beautiful passage in this story is when the farmers run back and see the formerly demon possessed man kneeling at Jesus' feet "dressed in his right mind". And yet the people from this region's hearts are too hard to see what Jesus was trying to teach them. They make him leave the region! Imagine how the guy delivered felt... he is finally able to think clearly and not cry out or cut himself with stones and the man who just healed you is getting the boot!

Well Jesus does leave... and rightfully the man wants to go with Jesus and the disciples. Why would he want to stay with the people of Decapolis who clearly don't care about him? Yet Jesus tells him to stay. I had never really asked why before, but doesn't this seem cruel?

But verses 18-20 say:

18As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

Notice Jesus, the Son of God, wasn't welcome in this region, and yet this man was able to go and show people what god had done for him and "all the people were amazed"! Jesus heals the man, and uses him to spread the gospel where he himself can not.

Isn't that a great story?

The comment made after we took the time to really examine all the aspects of this passage by another youth was, "the power of redemption really comes out when you read the bible as a story".

Many of my youth were raised in the church, and the biblical stories are familiar to them... but the consensus last night was that as we continue to read the entire bible this year, we're going to read it as though it's brand new... read it without Sunday school answers swimming around in our heads so that the nuances and power in them can show us something new about the God we serve.

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