Can’t be Evil
Updated: Jun 23, 2022
Proper 7, Year C, RCL, Track 1 Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
The author and a leading figure in the emerging church movement, Pastor Brian McLaren says, and I paraphrase, so many of us think of salvation as something that happens to us after we die. But the word salvation derives its meaning from the Exodus story. When the children of Israel were liberated or saved from slavery, they were saved from the oppressive forces that abused them, which put pressure and stress upon them. Saved and salvation, he says, means liberation.[i]
Looking at the man who approaches Jesus, the first thing we learn is that this man has demons, is wearing no clothes, and is not living at home but in the tombs. It is clear that this man is oppressed by outside forces. Whether these forces are truly demonic in nature, a mental illness, or a legion of Roman occupiers doesn’t matter for the story. Recognizing that there are forces causing the man to act out in unacceptable ways which creates fear in the community is what is important here. Christ comes in and removes these forces and restores this man to community. He says, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."
What we discover is that this man is not only saved in the future because of his faith in Christ but that he is saved in this life at this moment, for through Christ, his life has been restored. By removing these outside pressures, the man returns to a right mind and spirit; puts on clothes, goes home, and is restored to community.
I hope that we can see that this man is not evil. Even in the midst of his torment, the man was not evil. It was the external forces that were evil, that cause him to act the way he did. His actions may have been harmful, or evil, but he – himself, his very being, was good. He was just waiting to be healed; to be liberated. Just waiting to have those forces removed so he could be free to live life again.
I doubt it is hard to see in our own lives, that when we are under pressure, when outside forces press down upon us, we don’t always act in the best interest of others. We may behave poorly or act out when the stress of work or relationships is put upon us. Other forces such as addiction, abuse, and neglect can remain with us for a long time. Though it is not always possible, we may find that when someone has been liberated from the oppressive force, we can reconcile with them. And hopefully, we can see that this evil person was never truly evil. The new person is the same, the same child of God, but liberated or saved by the lifting of the outside force. After all, when God created humankind, he said we are very good.
If we can begin to recognize this idea of inherent goodness in people to be true, both in our lives or those whom we love, then I wonder if we can begin to recognize this in the people who don’t know or who get under our skin; maybe it’s a protester, or a politician, someone on the streets, or in the news. Can we begin to shift our thinking and see them no longer as evil but as children of God who are acting out because of some force putting pressure on them? And if we can do this, maybe then we can begin to figure out, how we can remove the oppression that is making these people act the way they do.
Now, when the possessed man was saved, the rest of the community, who are likely Gentiles, no longer feared this man but they do fear this Jewish Rabi. We don’t know exactly why they have this fear. Maybe their fear stems from existing tensions between them and the neighboring Jewish community. This incident may make them question their religious practices or their worldview. After all, the liberated man is telling everyone what Jesus has done for him. Or, it's possible that Jesus did something that was thought to be impossible. And what is almost certainly true, is that we humans tend to fear the unknown. I believe fear is a burden that many of us carry. If we fear someone or a group of people, and it’s not due to us being somehow oppressed or abused, we may need to look within ourselves.
Jesus said, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?” (Luke 6:42)
In Judaism, you become Jewish by birth. Much like for the heir of a king, birth imparts specific rights and duties. Through your bloodline, as a descendant of Abraham, you also are part of the family of God’s chosen people. The primary sign of this relationship is circumcision, though there are or were other more obvious symbols such as the types of clothing worn, hairstyle, and Sabbath devotion. (Think of Orthodox Jews)
Paul sees the Judaic law as restrictive, a burden to be carried, or as he says today, it was like imprisonment and a disciplinarian. Paul tells us that Christ freed us from this burden and our faith is not black and white. It is more than a set of rules to be strictly followed. Faith in God, through Christ, equalizes all people, creating a family bond just as strong as blood. No longer is it your bloodline that makes you children of God, but your love for Christ and the waters of your baptism. It is these that make you heirs to the kingdom. Through the bonds of baptism, we are one body, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
To be honest, and in our current Christian context, I’m not sure there is a division between Greek and Jew. Though we know the Jewish people are still discriminated against. As of June 19, 1865, recognized by today’s Juneteenth Holiday, we may no longer have slavery but if we are honest with ourselves there is still discrimination against people of color. And while the difference between males and females has come a long way in the last two thousand years, we would be foolish to think that it has become an even playing field.
I was at a clergy conference around 2016, in which the bishop announced how well the Diocese of Texas was doing concerning the number of women priests. If I recall correctly, it was about 50 percent or better. What the bishop didn’t like was that few if any women were serving as rectors of cardinal parishes, the large prominent parishes in the diocese. He stated that he was going to make sure this didn’t continue any longer by only accepting female rector nominations from these parishes.
For a moment I was struck with a bit of fear and a sense that his statement was unfair and discriminatory. I was recently ordained and why shouldn’t my call to such a parish be acceptable. After the meeting, I thought about it and prayed about it, and it came to me how unfair it has been for the many women who applied to these parishes over the last 20 years and were continually seen as unacceptable. Would it be fair if I were to be turned down just because I’m a man? No. But what is more important is that the culture needs to change. If we are to give equal opportunity to women, it’s not fair if men continue to get these positions. I would need to sacrifice to lift the outside force off of these women so that they can live a full life in God's church.
Paul used these categories Greek, Jew, men, women, slave, and free because the tensions between these groups were the greatest barriers in spreading the Good News or growing the Church. For example, some Jewish converts thought Christianity is only for Jewish people. You had to be Jewish before you could be a Christian. Paul spends a fair bit of time convincing the churches that we have to get past our fear and differences to see our commonality. All people can be Christian if they desire.
I think if Paul were with us today, he might include other divisions that keep the Church from growing. He might say, there is no longer black and white; straight and gay; young and old; republican and democrat. He would instruct us to look at our commonalities and to understand where our fear for the other may come from. If we don’t recognize our fears and feelings, how can we welcome all people into the body of Christ? If we can’t recognize the oppression of others, then how can we begin to lift external forces to free others to be whom God has called them to be?
[i] Brian McLaren, A Sermon for Every Sunday, c30: The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C(2019), June 23, 2019