Jesus was an itinerant preacher, turned away from his hometown because they didn’t like the message he had to deliver.

One day, Jesus’ wandering took him across the lake into the land of the Gerasenes, Gentile territory, to outsiders (Mark 5.1-20).

In search of a little R&R, Jesus finds himself instead drawn to a man in a graveyard. Isolated from the community, alienated from his family, the man is uncontainable. As far as the community is concerned, he is completely out of reach of a pure and holy God. He can’t expect to hear from God.

That’s the law for the ritually unclean. His uncleanness makes him one of society’s throwaways.

Three times, Mark tells us the man lives “among the tombs.” The community has figuratively buried him, if not literally. As far as they are concerned, he might as well be dead. He may be unrestrainable, but the man is definitely not free.

Legion. He is labeled as that which has inhabited him — a legion of demonic spirits. The community has tried desperately to keep him outside the community.

We do that, too. Assign others to places: inside or outside. We know who are the outsiders:

“She’s a drug addict.”

“He’s crazy.”

“She’s trash.”

“He’s … you name it.”

We put labels on people so that we don’t have to see them as persons. Sometimes we are not even aware of the labels we put on people, the ways we try to categorize others out of existence. We have a sense of who we are and part of the way in which we define ourselves is by who we are NOT. Like the Pharisee we pray: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18.9).

But Jesus sees us, sees the man. Sees the human being beneath the labels. The healing is dramatic. Jesus banishes the legion of demons into a herd of pigs that leap over the edge of a cliff. Ironically, the community reacts with fear. “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid” (Mark 5.15). “And they began to beg Jesus to leave the neighborhood” (v.17).

Too often, we’re like the unclean spirits and the townspeople who prefer the Holy Spirit to leave us alone rather than disturb our complacency. We don’t want anyone to disrupt our sense of who we are over and against others.

We, too, have developed a primal fear of our neighbor — especially neighbors who are different from us. Or neighbors who have a history. We put labels on people so that we don’t have to see them as human beings. Beloved children of God. Made in the very image of God. Icons of God.

When Jesus moves into the neighborhood, he rips off those labels and commands us to:

“Love your neighbor.”

“Love your enemy.”

“Love others as I have loved you.”

The Rev. Camille Josey is the pastor at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church.

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