Counting the Cost

Sermon from June 23rd, 2013. The text for the week was Luke 8:26-39. Blessings on you, your families, and your ministries this week.

Counting the Cost

It wasn’t that they weren’t happy that Jesus had freed this man of his demons. It’s that it cost them two thousand head of hog to do it. The destruction of 2,000 pigs would mean a fortune in lost income, and maybe the collapse of the local economy. It’s not that they didn’t think the man deserved to be free. They just didn’t think he was worth it. Luke has a way of laying things bare like that. He often depicts the way market forces are opposed to the coming Kingdom. How Paul preaching an invisible God would cause the idol-makers in Ephesus to riot. How justice doesn’t happen without connections, and the only way for a widow to win in court is to be so annoying in her persistence that the judge would rather take the blowback on the other side than see her again.

They had known the man with the demons for years, they knew his roughness, his dirtiness, his refusal to feel shame. They had tried to bind him, cage him, and contain him. Eventually they had learned to live with him. The same way they learned to live with all of the other demons in their lives. They settled in. They used him. They told their children to eat their vegetables or they might turn out like he had. They felt good about themselves for trying to help him, tying him with ropes and chains. And then they felt relieved when he broke through them, so that they could feel good without it interfering too much. “We tried,” they’d say, and then go back to the protective cocoon of their busy lives.

Eventually, they even came to depend on him. The way the church depends on the sins of the people who aren’t there so that we don’t have to think about our own. He was whatever they needed him to be, someone to laugh at, a place to direct their anger, an excuse not to visit the cemetery. Maybe just someone to reassure them that life could be worse. “Thank you God, that I am not like him. Thank you, God, that I am normal.”

Normal is one of the more dangerous words of the English language. Nothing is more isolating than being told we are not normal. And few forces compel us more powerfully than the desire to be normal, to fit in. And so they thanked God that they were normal. As if their demons were somehow okay when his were not. As if shame did not control them as tightly as the Legion controlled him. As if their desire for pleasure was any less self-destructive than his affinity for sharp rocks. As if the ropes and chains they placed on their anger and hate were not broken just as easily or often. As if any one of us does not have a legion of demons of our own, pulling us this way and that, so that as Paul says, we do not do what we want, but we do the very thing we hate.

The whole demon possession thing is where most of us get hung up with this story. That sort of thing does not happen in this day and age. So we wonder how we should understand stories of demon possession in the Bible. Some suggest that it’s a difference in medical knowledge at the time, that what they called demon possession we might call schizophrenia, or eplilepsy, or borderline personality disorder. Or you might say that while ancient peoples tended to externalize their problems, we prefer to internalize them, giving them names and ascribing them to various chemical imbalances in the brain. Luke, however, is not concerned with whether or not demons exist. He is in search of the answer to a much deeper, more pressing question. “How do we get rid of them?”[1]

Or perhaps even more basely, do we want to? Or have they become so familiar to us that we’d rather hang on to the comfortable vice than venture forth into uncharted freedom. When Jesus comes to Gerasa he demonstrates an authority more powerful than they have ever seen before. He has authority on heaven and on earth, to banish the demons from the man, to send them into the abyss or anywhere  he chooses. The power of the demons that they had lived with for so long, that they had become accustomed to, that they had learned to use, coopt and manipulate, was nothing in comparison to this power that had just stepped off of a boat on the Sea of Galilee. This was a power that they could not coopt, control, or manipulate. It is no surprise that it made them very afraid.

No, it wasn’t that they were unhappy with Jesus for casting out the man’s demons. They didn’t ask him to leave because they were angry that he had healed this possessed man. But having seen the disruption caused by the demons of one man, a man who had hurt no one but himself, a man whose sins were limited to the shouts among tombstones, they couldn’t help but wonder what kind of disruption this kingdom would bring into their own lives. If the price of his freedom was a small fortune, how much more would it cost for them?

Later in his Gospel, Luke tells us of a parable Jesus told about the kingdom of God. If you have a hundred sheep, and one goes missing, do you leave the 99 out in the wilderness to go in search of the lost one? For centuries, interpreters have read this passage in the light of John’s passage about the Good Shepherd. They say this is what a good Shepherd would do. But it’s not. You probably know better than I do how vulnerable sheep are in the wilderness. Any real shepherd worth his salt would make sure and secure the 99 before going off on a wild goose chase to find one that’s probably dead anyway.  But the story isn’t about ranching. It’s about the kingdom of God. Of all the things that Jesus said, Luke hung on to this one because it tells us something about God, something essential to our relationship with this power of goodness greater than ourselves, something the people desperately needed to hear.

Luke made sure to write this parable down because it tells that God doesn’t count the cost. As Isaiah says, he will trade whole nations in exchange for us. God is unafraid of the demons that lurk in our troubled souls, God is not turned away by the depth of our wretchedness. Whether its 99 or 2,000 or his own precious son, God will give them up in a heartbeat so that we can be freed from the demons that plague us.

Luke has a way of laying things bare like that.

[1] Pigott, Kelly, “What Are You Afraid Of?,” Review and Expositor no. 107 (Summer 2010): 414.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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