The Return of the Scapegoat - A literary reading of the Man of the Gadarenes

The story, recorded in Luke 8 of Jesus casting out a Legion of demons from a man is surely one of the most remarkable exorcism stories in history. The man had been living in the tombs, howling and bruising himself, chained and under guard for a long time.  Jesus sent the demons into a herd of some 2000 pigs, which then ran headlong over a cliff to their death in the Sea of Galilee. This is the literal reading of the story.

Humans speak and write in various ways.  We sometimes speak literally, but we often speak or write in a literary way that invites the hearer to seek meaning behind the words of the text.  For instance, if I were building a house and I asked my helper to cut me a 2X4, 48-3/4” long, I wouldn’t expect my helper to ask, “what do you mean by that?”  The request is a literal request and there is no need to seek some deeper meaning in it.  This is how many people approach the Bible.  They expect the Bible to only be speaking literally.  I think however, that the story of the Man of the Gadarenes literally begs to be interpreted in a literary way – like how you might read literature.

This is not to say that the story should not also be understood literally; just that the story might have more to tell us if we approach it as a piece of literature, like how you might approach something written by Shakespeare.

We might begin by looking for symbols – words that held a particular meaning at the time the story was written.  In this story, four words in particular are freighted with meaning – sea, cliff, pigs and stones.

In Scripture, the sea often represents chaos or the abyss.  Cliffs and stones represented ways that communities executed people, either by a mob crowding a person up to the edge of a cliff until he fell, or by everyone throwing stones at someone until they died.  Finally, the Jews considered pigs unclean.  This story takes place in a Gentile region among people that the Jews considered unclean.

This story begins as a classic scapegoat story.  The demon-possessed man is the town’s scapegoat; like a town drunk or someone the community ridicules and excludes. 

Scapegoats are people we compare ourselves to in order to make us feel better about ourselves. 

Luke tells us that this man was kept in chains and under guard, but that he would often break free.  The guards would recapture him and he would again break free. You might think they kept him in chains because he was a threat to the community, but Luke says that when he broke free he ran off into the wilderness.  So why did they keep him around? 

They kept him around because they needed him.

Communities often define themselves over and against someone else-some “other”.  In order to feel good about ourselves we need someone bad to compare ourselves to.  We need the town drunk, the demoniac in order to feel better about ourselves.  We sometimes scapegoat entire communities of people – people of different races, genders, religions, and LGBT folks etc. to make us feel righteous and good.

When the demoniac sees Jesus coming, he runs to Jesus, bows down before him and shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  This is amazing.  When the town’s scapegoat sees Jesus, he immediately recognizes him for who he is.  Even people in Jesus’ hometown couldn’t see this. 

This is what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim”. 

The people that we marginalize and look down upon have a different vantage point.  They see the world, and they see God differently than their oppressors do.  They actually have an intelligence that the whole community needs but forfeits access to when it sees itself as better than those they scapegoat.

Then Jesus asks the man for his name.  He answers, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  Did you see the switch from singular to plural in that response - the transition from “my” to “we”?  This is the voice of a crowd or mob, speaking with one voice.  These are the accusatory voices of the community.  Legion is the collective voice of this man’s community that has marginalized him for their own benefit…to make them feel better about themselves.

Over time, this tormented man has internalized all the sinful accusations of his community.  He has accepted their judgment of him and come to see himself as they have defined him.  All that is left now is to carry out of their righteous sentence…he begins “bruising himself with stones”. 

He begins to stone himself.

Today we call this self-harm.  Cutting disorders, anorexia, addictions, violent outbursts and more can be the result of being marginalized by a person’s community.  When people become convinced of their own worthlessness, and accept the judgments of others they begin inflicting on themselves the sentence they believe they deserve.

Then Legion makes a request of Jesus. “Don’t send us back into the abyss!” Or, don’t do something that will send our community into chaos!  When a community loses its center…the ones it defines itself against, all hell can break loose!  Jesus gives Legion permission to enter a herd of pigs and they rush over a cliff into the abyss.  The demonic voices of accusation are sent into such disarray that they destroy themselves in an act of pathological suicide.

I think what happened here in a literary sense is that when the man who had completely given in to the unclean, demonic voices of his community saw Jesus for who He is, the Son of the Most High God, he began to see himself for who he really was – someone who was loved and made in God’s image.  Then, the exodus of all the other accusatory voices could not be stopped.

The swineherds go tell the community what has happened and all the people come out to see.  When they see the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind they were “seized with great fear”.  Why?  Because they no longer had their scapegoat, and without a scapegoat to define themselves against, how would they know who they are?  Talk about an identity crisis! 

Rene Girard has observed that human communities become cohesive through this process of scapegoating.  It serves to create unity, but the unity is always found at the expense of a scapegoat.  It is a ‘negative unity’.  But Jesus gives us a new way to be human – the potential for a ‘positive unity’.  He prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one.  There is no scapegoat in the Trinity.

After this, the man from whom the demons had gone asks Jesus if he can leave with him.  Jesus replies, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Was Jesus being mean?  I don’t think so.  I think Jesus knew that the presence of this healed and restored man in his community would serve as a reminder, even a promise that there is the possibility of a new kind of unity – a new way to be human. 

In his book, “Compassion or Apocalypse”, James Warren writes: “…a herd of pigs charging over a cliff and falling into the sea – the same thing that had happened countless times in the ancient world to countless victims of mob violence.  The real excitement of Jesus’ miracle, therefore, is that for the first time in history it is the crowd, the mob, that is cast over the cliff, while the scapegoat goes free!  Rather than the scapegoat being cast out of the city, the city is cast out of the scapegoat, who now sits there “clothed and in his right mind.”

Perhaps this story has much more to say to us today than a simple literal reading reveals.  The return of the scapegoat, healed and in his right mind challenges us.  His presence among us asks us to reconsider how we form communities, how we define ourselves, and how we will live.

This blog is condensed from a message of the same name.  The entire message can be seen here.