This week the Narrative Lectionary serves up the story of the poor Gerasene man who Jesus freed from demons. Jesus - perhaps with a twinkle in his Jewish eye - cast the demons into a nearby congregation of non-kosher pigs.
This week the Gerasene demoniac appears in Mark 5:5-14.
The same story, from Luke 8:26-37, was offered by the Narrative lectionary last June.
In one of those unholy coincidences that agitate preachers, especially lay preachers and deacon interns like me, it so happens I preached on the Luke version in my church (St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y.) in June, and I am scheduled to preach the same story this week.
I realized immediately that I have nothing new to say on the subject. I said everything I could think of in June.
Naturally, I turned to my spouse, the Divine Doc M, for advice. Martha – who, among other things in her vita, once served on the board of Habitat for Humanity – suggested I borrow an exegesis from Habitat founder Millard Fuller.
Millard drew a connection between the demoniac and the Prodigal Son, based on the idea that when pig slop began to look appetizing to a kosher-keeping Jewish young man that signaled that his soul was in turmoil. He no longer had a sense of self.
Martha adds: “Millard wouldn’t have said or maybe even know this, but that thought dovetails well with Thomas Merton’s idea of the authentic self vs. the false self. Part of the healing was to get rid of the symbols of his spiritual turmoil. In Merton-speak, he was restored from a false to an authentic identity, which is our identity in God.”
So God’s love that rescues demoniacs, prodigals, and the rest of us who stray, and restores us to our authentic identity in God.
I should quite while I’m ahead. But Mark’s gospel adds a postscript that does not appear in Luke. In Luke 8:26-37, the people of the Gerasenes were so afraid of Jesus’ power that they asked him to be quiet and leave. The curing of the demoniac was a story that threatened their lifestyle, and they didn’t want to hear it.
But Mark writes:
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him but Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.” (Mark 5:18-20).
Given the number of times Jesus told a cured person to “tell no one” about the miracle, it would appear that proclamation is a matter of timing.
The question about when to tell and when not to tell has become increasingly complicated today because churches, politicians, and other public institutions have so much good they want people to know about – and so much unsavory stuff behind the scenes they won’t want anyone to know. Whether to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is a public relations decision. And as one who was a church P.R. decider for many decades, I can avow that you never know whether you are making the right decision or not.
I can say that too many high ranking bureaucrats believe secrecy is the glue that holds church, society, and government together.
If so, we’re in big trouble. Three may keep a secret, Benjamin Franklin said, if two of them are dead.
That insight is hardly surprising from one of history’s garrulous gossips, but most of us prefer to think secrecy is both essential and holy.
The 2015 film Spotlight dramatized Boston Globe journalists courageous efforts to penetrate the archdiocese’ impermeable wall of silence protecting predator priests.
The archdiocese – in fact, the whole church – strove mightily to keep clergy child abuse a secret for fear the reputation of the church would be irredeemably harmed. Only later was it obvious is would have been better if the whole truth had been revealed much earlier. It’s too bad Cardinal Bernard Law stifled the whistle blowers in the archdiocese. In institutions that fear the truth, the whistle blower is the most valuable person on the staff, the proper counter weight to the rest of the staff that believes that if there is something sinister to hide, the less said about it the better.
It’s astonishing how many otherwise intelligent people think secrets can be immutable. When I was 18 I was given a “secret” security clearance by the Air Force, the result, I immodestly think, of FBI interviews with my teachers and admiring contemporaries. I could have had a “top secret” clearance but didn’t, so I suspect my history teacher, Mr. Dodge, hinted to the FBI that I was a liberal, or my chemistry teacher, Mr. Palmer, leaked documentary evidence I was mentally sluggish. Even, I took my security clearance seriously and never told what I knew: that my Air Force base in England had tactical nukes stashed in Quonset huts.
No doubt the Baader Meinhof Complex had its suspicions, but they never heard it from me.
Our justice system is also based on the idea that people can keep secrets.
I cringe (secretly) when I’m on jury duty and the judge orders that the facts of the trial cannot be shared with anyone, including our spouses. Yeah, right. Even as I nod obediently I know I can’t wait to get home to the Divine Doc M to spill all the details, not only about the obviously guilty defendant, but about the sweet imbecilities that flow from the lips of lawyers and my fellow jurors.
I also cringe when school boards or church boards meet in “executive session,” which is to say, in secret. I was never the best investigative reporter in the world, but I rarely had difficulty finding out what goes on behind closed doors. There are three types of people who emerge from executive sessions: people who reluctantly reveal the details; people who can’t wait to reveal the details; and people who never talk about the details because of personal integrity or because it makes them feel powerful to know something others don’t. The third type is never much of a hindrance for reporters because the other two categories are so densely populated.
In church and denominational offices, there are many things that should be handled discretely – that is, kept secret – but there is little agreement what those things are. When I was a communicator for the Baptists, I thought it was essential to protect information about overseas missionaries that might compromise their safety. But my fellow church bureaucrats were also concerned to hide information that arguably should be public, such as the salaries, benefits and travel budgets of staff executives. Another secret area was the wide category of “personnel matters,” which was intended to keep evaluations and other awkward matters strictly between bosses and employees. But the personnel category may also hide when an employee is being treated unjustly by the employer, and more than one church organization cites “personnel matters” to hide the crimes of a sexual abuser in their employ.
And here’s the thing: the most carefully guarded secrets will always emerge, sometimes sooner than later. In the early days of my tenure as an American Baptist communicator, the photocopy machine was shared by the office of communication and General Secretary Robert Campbell. Whenever Bob announced a new staff appointment, he felt it necessary to embargo the news until appointees had a chance to inform their erstwhile employers they were leaving. He’d send his assistant to the lone photocopy machine to make copies of the announcement with strict instructions not to let anyone see it. But on more than one occasion, she would make the copies and leave the original in the copier. Quickly, the secret document would end up on my desk, giving me a chance to start gathering biographical information about the appointee for a news release, long before the announcement was official. I doubt Bob ever knew how I seemed to have an inside track to such things, and I never told him. I can keep a secret.
There are, of course, legitimate secrets, and no one wants to see leaks that will jeopardize the security of the United States or the lives of service men and women. The same goes for the church. But apart from the justifiable veil of the confessional, I suggest the church should operate as much as possible in the sunshine. For the most part, it might be said church secrets are ferociously guarded for the same reason academic politics are so vicious: because, as one institutional president put it, “the stakes are so low.” Surely persons in pews who contribute to missions have a right to know how much their church is paying its bureaucrats and whatever special benefits may accrue.
When it comes to secrecy, the church might look to the style modeled by Jesus, perhaps the most transparent figure in history. The incident of the curing of the leper early in Mark’s Gospel may have been a lesson to Jesus that secrecy is futile anyway.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45)
There may have been many reasons Jesus didn’t want the leper running at the mouth, and sermons of yore have noted a few: It was early in his ministry and he wasn’t ready to attract premature scrutiny from scribes and Pharisees; he was busy going about his ministry and he didn’t want to be mobbed by admiring masses if word spread that he was some kind of miracle worker; he wanted the man to focus on the cleansing rituals at the temple.
Whatever his reason for wanting the man to keep it under his keffiyeh, Jesus was not being off-handedly modest. He meant it. He warned the man “sternly,” according to Mark, which is to say: Go away and shut up about it.
But if a secret paper discovered on a photocopier is worthy of revelation, there is no way anyone is going to keep quiet about being cured of a dread disease. The fact that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word,” leaves little doubt what happened. The cured man leaped into crowds snagging every sleeve he could grab, perseverating the news. And he must have been convincing, because curious people swarmed to Jesus “from every quarter” and Jesus “could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country.”
Because of the passionate public relations campaign of a cured leper, Jesus went overnight from being an articulate carpenter to a national celebrity.
It was inevitable, of course, but perhaps it happened before Jesus was ready for it. He’s a little like a small business owner who has to scramble when the demand for his product exceeds early projections.
Certainly that’s the way it should have been and, besides, what were the alternatives? To take sick people into hidden corners to discretely cure them, or to clandestinely pantomime the reign of God? God sent Jesus into the world to be visible, to be apparent, and to let the truth ring out. The scenario of a secret messiah was never part of the plan. And once the word got out, Jesus never had another quiet moment unless he hid in the country.
That’s the kind of translucence Jesus models for the faithful. For the record, Jesus never ordered any of us to “say nothing to anyone.” Quite the contrary.
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:15-16), “but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The trick, and it is a big one, is to live our lives in such a way that people may see our good works and give God the glory.
But all of us will fall short on that score. If we are human, many of our works may not be good enough to shine before others. That’s precisely the reason secrecy has crept into the church, the government, and into our lives.
But we know in our hearts that secrecy is no way to honor Jesus who came to redeem us, or to serve God who calls us to proclaim the good news.
The church and its members will always have defects and sins they will not wish to expose to the world. But that is certainly no secret, and it is no reason to slam shut the door of secrecy.
As flawed as we may be, Jesus is calling us to follow the example of the leper who perseverated the good news of what God did for him. And leave our cherished secret security clearances at the door.
Blow, whistle, blow.