Layers of Unclean

How can we relate to a story like this? The central character is a man who wanders around a graveyard at night possessed by many demons, howling like a wolf, inflicting injury on himself and breaking chains? This sounds like a monster movie, but it isn’t. This is a story about disorder and uncleanliness. It is also a story about order restored, and someone being made clean again. This story invites us to consider the disenfranchised members of our society for whom Christ died. It also has more to do with you and me than one might think.

We must begin, though, with what this story originally meant to the listeners. This story goes to great lengths to show us how unclean – and Godforsaken – the man in graveyard is. To the original listeners of this story, being unclean was a big problem and I don’t mean forgetting to take a bath. Scholars of anthropology and religion will tell us that the oldest symbol of evil that is available to us is the symbol of being “unclean.” Specifically, bearing a stain of some kind. In Jewish culture, one had to be clean in religious and moral practice to be acceptable to God and community. This was referred to as ritual purity.

When one became ritually unclean through moral or religious transgressions – or through illness or being victimized by others – then one’s humanity, one’s identity, was soiled. One carried a stain that was not easily removed, alienating them from God and community, resulting in great shame.

In this story, the central character is absolutely buried in uncleanliness.

Look at the levels of ritual impurity: the story takes place in a Gentile land, considered unclean. The Gentile man is possessed by demons, who are well known to be very unclean. He is living in a graveyard, which renders him unclean by his association with the dead. The impurity establishes that this man is profoundly isolated: from God and from his community – a community that clearly banished this man to loneliness in the graveyard out of disgust and fear.

This is also a story about chaos and disorder. In addition to a stain, one of the other oldest symbols of sin and evil is chaos. Since antiquity, the sea has been a symbol of evil because it was viewed as capable of great chaos. Just think of a storm at sea. Such a storm destroys all kinds of things people have built, and plans, too. It is no accident that the demons in our story today end up in the sea, where they belong. Like a ship tossed about in a storm at sea, the man in our story today is possessed by thousands of demons, pulling the man every which way, leaving him to wander aimlessly in the graveyard, howling at the moon.

There is no purpose to this man’s life – only randomness, chaos, and the shame of having no purpose or value in the world.

The man possessed by Legion today is an example of both symbols of evil: chaos and uncleanliness. In a very poignant image of self-loathing, the man bruises himself with stones. We might be tempted to think this man is like a wild animal, but a wild animal would never do that. Only a person who is living with the deep shame of being profoundly unclean. This glimpse of broken humanity is heart breaking and it is why the man in the graveyard is not really a monster.

And God through Jesus enters into the many layers of unclean to make this man clean. He drives out the chaos and re-establishes order and purpose in this man’s life by sending the demons into a herd of pigs. This does not seem fair to the pigs, who are driven by this sudden madness over the cliff, literally, and into the sea to drown. But to the mind of an ancient Palestinian, Legion belonged in the sea, where chaos reigned.

We don’t know what led to this man ending up in such dire circumstances, but when he meets Jesus, we learn that this man’s core relationships have been restored – namely, with God and with his community. The restored man has purpose again, namely, to tell others what Jesus has done for him.

So, what are we to make of this story? What does this sad, thrashing wolf man have to do with our lives? As it turns out, quite a bit.

People who are stained and unclean are plenty in our world. And Jesus has something to say about that. First, I want to challenge you to consider how our society creates individuals like the one we see in this story.

I’ve been reading a book entitled, “The New Jim Crow,” which I would like to highlight at this time – partly because MLK day was just a few days ago, but mostly because this book is all about a large population deemed unclean and resigned to the graveyard of society. It is an incredibly compelling and persuasive read. The basic thesis is this: the nation-wide “war on drugs” in America, going all the way back to 80’s and continuing into the present day, has produced a devastating mass incarceration of African Americans, and to some extent Latinos. White people have been mostly unaffected by the aforementioned “war on drugs.” Now, one might say, “well, crime is more prevalent in certain ethnic and socio-economic groups.” Oh, but here’s the catch: statistics show that the selling and using of illegal drugs on a per capita basis is relatively equal among all ethnic groups and socio-economic classes. In the war on drugs, black communities have been systematically targeted for a whole host of reasons, while the much larger numbers of offenders in white communities is largely ignored. The result is that as a nation, we have far and away the highest incarceration rate in the world, largely for non-violent crimes committed by a certain race of people. This mass incarceration of African Americans has destroyed or severely damaged many of their communities and kept large numbers of black people in a separate world from that of white America, denying them the fruits and benefits of society, much like the Jim Crow era did a hundred years ago.

And here’s the “unclean” part: once a black person has been convicted of possession of an illegal drug, the system conspires to make sure that person is “stained” for life. So, first they must serve time, and in a majority of cases, it is for non-violent crime of possession of a drug or selling. Other countries generally don’t incarcerate for non-violent crime. And when they do for something like marijuana, it’s no more than a year. In America, a young black man on a first-time arrest might see ten years in prison. Eventually, they get out of prison and must look for a job, but they must do so with the permanent stain of “felon.” Well, very few employers will hire a felon. Nor can a felon vote or serve on a jury. So how does a young black male who made a mistake, make something of his life when he can’t get a job and is seemingly banned from society? He’s been stained for life – stained as a “criminal” – and this often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of dwindling options that destroys lives and communities. You wonder where the violence comes from? Indeed, some communities become far too much like graveyards.

Jesus is all about making people clean again, so they can join the workforce and raise families. God calls us to join him in that work of racial justice, of faith active in love. What does that look like for we who partner with God in the world to give life to our neighbor? Even our neighbor across the river in North Minneapolis? Eventually it means dismantling the institutionalized bias that targets certain people, but not others.

Who are others in our midst who suffer from being unclean? Who do you see as you reflect on this?

Let’s finish today by personalizing this some more, though. Let’s shift gears and look at very subtle ways we wrestle with being unclean. I’ve worked with parents who want their kids to have faith, but if the suggestion is made that they pray with their kids or open up their Bibles with them, there is often a hesitation. What do you think it is? “I don’t know how to pray well enough. I can’t pray in front of my kids.” Or, “I don’t know the Bible well enough. What if my son asks me a question and I don’t know the answer?” Or, maybe, “I’m not a good enough Christian to offer anything to anyone.” The stain of not being a good enough or knowledgeable enough Christian! What is unspoken here is clear: “Either I’m not close to God or God’s not close to me.”

It should encourage you to know that God has come near to you and has no plans to leave your side. God’s love for you is not based on your skill or knowledge but on how much you matter to God. Faith is simply believing in that God – the one who shows up in all of the most humble dimensions of your existence.

In a similar way, people often feel that their daily life and work have nothing to do with God. Those places are far too “ungodly.” Yet, God declares your daily life and work to be sacred ground. God is at work there with you, nurturing life and creating a more trustworthy world with you and through you. This means we all have callings on Monday and Tuesday. Our lives are not a secular graveyard of mundane and meaningless matters. We are all participants in the life of God. Jesus has made that abundantly clear! Amen.


Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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