Luke 8:26-39; Gal 1:11-19; Luke 16:19-31; Jeremiah 31:31-34
This weekend, the Orthodox community is united in remembering James, the brother of the Lord, but we have different gospel readings: Luke 8:26-39 for some of us, and Luke 16:19-31 for others. Both gospel readings, and the epistle appointed for St. James touch on similar themes, fortunately. The reading from Galatians 1:11-19 gives us an inside look into the experience of St. Paul, his connection with James and the other apostles, and his understanding of the gospel as something delivered by God himself. Our passage from Luke 8:26-39 narrates the striking story of the man possessed by 60,000 (a “legion” of) demons, who were afraid when they came into Jesus’ presence. The man’s exorcism speaks strongly of Jesus’ identity as the God-Man, the one whose very presence frees us. And Luke 16:19-31 tells the cautionary tale, in which the dead rich man begs the Lord to send Lazarus, safe in the arms of Abraham, to his still living brothers to warn them against a godless life— but to no avail, for God has already spoken clearly enough for them to understand.
Then there is the case of James himself, who knew Jesus as a brother, but who had to learn more of him! We think, then, about God’s imposing presence in our world, made all the more vivid through His coming among us in the flesh. We are directed to consider how we come to know the Lord and to recognize his will for our lives.
The demonized man actually heard and saw Jesus during his earthly ministry: he begged for Jesus to let him become a regular disciple, but instead the Lord sent him to witness in his own area! St. Paul never saw Jesus before his death, but God has his ways and means, doesn’t he? This zealous Pharisee, who thought he knew the Law, was brought up short by a vision, an apokalypsis (that is, an unveiling, a revelation) of the Lord. He was abruptly turned around so that he preached the very gospel that he had been rejecting. The rich man’s brothers, in Jesus’ parable, also did not see Jesus face-to-face, but they did have the Law and the prophets— enough to put them on a path of justice, preparing them for the further light of God, the time when one would “rise from the dead.” If they would not listen to the easier lesson concerning justice, they certainly would not listen to the gospel of transformation from the risen Lord! And James, who knew Jesus as a family member (probably he was Joseph’s oldest son from a previous marriage, but some think he was a cousin), at first is not among the disciples. We hear from but St. Paul, in his famous list of 1 Corinthians 15, that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection, and after that, we find him with the disciples. In fact, he appears to preside over the assembly of the council in Jerusalem in the book of Acts.
God deals with each of us differently, but He does speak and act so that he can be known. The prophet Jeremiah explains that, in the new covenant, knowing the Lord is not simply a matter of being taught by others, but of being illumined from within the heart:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34)
That day came when God the Son assumed human flesh, lived in Israel, died at the hands of those rejecting him, rose as the firstborn of the dead, ascended to present our humanity to God, and sent the Holy Spirit as a tangible promise of glory to come. No longer, since the coming of Jesus, was Israel like a child to be taken by the hand, directed by the Law and all its surrounding oral commandments, taught by sages in an external way. Instead, God’s people were put in a new place where they could indeed be in intimate union with God the Son, as wife to husband. All the members of the household were to be forgiven of what separated them from God, and to know Him more and more fully. As the prophet says elsewhere, they were to have the stone taken out of their hearts, and to be given hearts of flesh; they were to be inbreathed by the very Spirit of God.
Moreover, though Jeremiah does not disclose this mystery here, the intimate communion with God was to be extended to ALL humanity, and no longer restricted to Israel. To have God the Son as a brother would depend not upon the accident of birth, but upon the miracle of a new birth, made possible through the sacrificial ministry of Jesus, and enacted by the pouring out of his Spirit, who gives new life. No longer would a mere earthly brother say, in an external manner “Know the Lord,” to those less informed. Rather, God the Son, our true elder brother, Himself dwells among us, and teaches us, from the greatest to the least. As the book of Hebrews puts it, “It was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren (Heb. 2:10-11).”
Consider Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In Luke 16:19-31, we hear the sad story of a very rich man (not even named!) who ignored the plight of his neighbor, Lazarus, but used his whole life to further his own selfish desires. We might think that this man was a pagan, unaware of his social responsibilities for his brother. But the Lord reveals that he had access to “the Law and the Prophets,” but ignored these, and so he also ignored Lazarus at his gates. In fact, even in the torment of separation from God, his only use for Lazarus is for that man to be his servant—to bring him cold water for his relief, and to go and warn his brothers about their selfish lives. The Lord responds that those who will not listen to the written Word of God would not even respond were they to see someone rise from the dead!
St. Paul was, of course, one who cared a great deal about the Law—so much so that he seemingly idolized it, and was blind to its fulfillment in the Christian community. God yanked the blinkers off, as the apostle himself tells us:
Brethren, I would have you know that the Gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people; so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when He Who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were Apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other Apostles except James the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:11-19).
St. Paul offers the clearest example we have of someone who was directly taught by the Lord, who appeared to him even as he was on his way to persecute the Christian community. But he does not dwell so much on the dramatic experience that he had as on the One whom he has come to love. Even in this personal witness to his life, St. Paul’s words are replete with theology: notice how he begins by saying that he did not learn the gospel from an ordinary man, but from our risen Lord Jesus, God the Son! “I did not learn it from man, but from an unveiling of Jesus as the Christ.” Then, the passage closes with his speaking of Jesus as a human, one who had human relatives, including St. James the Just. Jesus is, then, both God and man, and has spoken to the apostle, telling him that he, once a Pharisee, must take the gospel to the Gentiles! St. Paul, once a zealot for the Law, and James, the brother of God himself, meet in Jerusalem, and are no doubt both amazed at the huge plan of God for the entire world!
James, the LORD’s brother! What an amazing title! Like the title Theotokos, it may shock the pious. How can the LORD, the Existing One, the God who created all things, have a mother—or a brother? But he has been pleased to come among us. He did not disdain the virgin’s womb. He was happy to enter into a family with cousins, half-brothers, sisters. He was not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. And interestingly, in the strange new creation called the Church, we see a coming together of the natural and the miraculous. St. Peter, the awkward and blustery fisherman who first impetuously gave Jesus the title “Messiah,” joins with James, who at first most probably did not accept Jesus’ identity, but turned, it seems, when the risen LORD appeared to him. And they are joined by the most unlikely candidate, St. Paul, that ultra-Jewish Saul who had been persecuting them!
Though we might expect to find St. Peter heading up the apostles in the book of Acts, it seems as though James, the practical one, is the main rudder in Jerusalem. Known as James the Just, he makes decisions that concern the whole Church, helping the early Christians to understand how Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ can truly be one. That story is not without its bumps and challenges, but eventually communities such as Antioch, made up of faithful people from different backgrounds, witnessed to the new “oneness” in Christ. And it is from James that we receive a careful balance to St. Paul’s presentation of the gospel: James reminds us that faith and good works go together, and prevents us from twisting St. Paul’s Torah-free gospel into a license to do whatever we like! It is from the brother of our LORD that we receive this warning: “The very demons believe and tremble!’ (James 2:19)
And they do, don’t they? The gospel reading for Sunday, as prescribed for the Antiochian and Greek jurisdictions, is Luke 8:26-39:
At that time, Jesus arrived at the country of the Gadarenes, which is opposite Galilee. And as He stepped out on land, there met Him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What hast Thou to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech Thee, do not torment me.” For Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. [For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.] Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged Jesus not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged Jesus to let them enter these. So He gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gadarenes asked Jesus to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so He got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with Jesus; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city all that Jesus had done for him.
The reading is well-known, but replete with mystery. We cannot answer all the questions we might have. Some have worried about the swine, but St. John Chrysostom reminds us that what the demons did to the swine is nothing in comparison to what they wanted to do to the poor demonized man! Many details come together for us here, summing up what we have seen. First, Jesus cares about those in Gentile territory, even during his own ministry, though the outright mission to the Gentiles was not to be seen until after Pentecost. We know this, because Jesus deals with a man in an area where PIGS are being raised—this is not a Jewish custom, of course! St. John Chrysostom puts it this way: “For where His name was great, He did not greatly display Himself: but where no one knew Him, but they were still in an insensible condition, He made His miracles to shine out, so as to bring them over to the knowledge of His Godhead. For it is evident from the event that the inhabitants of that city were a sort of senseless people; for when they ought to have adored and marvelled at His power, they sent Him away, and besought Him that He would depart out of their coasts” (Homilies Matthew 28 ).
The people of that land recognized that something astonishing had happened, but they do not receive Jesus, but in fear ask him to leave—which he does, showing his great humility. God is patient, and the time to receive many Gentiles into the flock had not yet come.
The story tells us frankly, at both the beginning and the end, about the true identity of the LORD. The demons know who he is—the Son of the Most High, with power to destroy them and root them out of the world that they have tried to occupy! And Jesus himself tells the man to go home and “declare all that God has done for you.” Luke, that wonderful theologian, tells us that the man did not simply return home, but went through the whole city. And instead of saying what “GOD had done for him,” he said what “JESUS had done for him.” He did not CHANGE the message, of course, but he clarified it. For those who have seen Jesus at work, and in person, have seen God!
This mighty LORD, who with a single word can topple the thresholds of the evil one, came in humility to the broken man living among the tombs, and left meekly when asked to by those who lived there. He shows us, in his power and in his vulnerability, what it is to be truly human and what it is to be sons and daughters of the Most High God. Some of those who follow him he uses in their own contexts, humbly witnessing to his greatness. Others, like St. Paul, he wrenches from their chosen path, and sets them on an unexpected journey to witness in strange lands. Some, like Lazarus, he rescues from poverty and death, and rewards them for all that they have suffered. Others, like the Just James, he approaches in two ways—first, as a human brother, but then as the Risen Christ, calling them to follow him even to death!
The paths are different, but the communion with God is the same: He longs to come to each of us intimately, more and more closely, transforming us from the outside in, so that we resemble Him, and come to be our true selves, in the bewildering variety of the saints. God teaches us directly, by his Spirit. But, of course, he continues to use others who know Him to show us the way. Human beings helped St. Paul along the way, despite his startling vision—Ananias, for example, and the whole council in Jerusalem, when he eventually met with them. James the Just, himself, though he knew Jesus both “according to the flesh” and as the LORD, listened carefully to the others in Antioch—to St. Peter, to Paul and Barnabas, to those who agreed and disagreed—and came to a wise decision about a matter troubling the Church.
We still need each other! The difference between Old Testament time and ours is that now, in the LORD, we are all members of one body. Whether educated or not, whether brought up in a Christian (or Orthodox) family or not, whether young or old, the LORD is among us, among those who have been baptized into Christ! And so, the teaching, when it comes from others, does not come externally, but rings true with the confession that we have made and the voice of God within. We have received the true Faith. And we have received the Heavenly Spirit. Here, in Christ and in the Church, what we have received by Holy Tradition, and Whom we have received from the Father and from the Son, meet and agree. James the Brother of God, can be an emblem of that for us. He had known Jesus for a long time, and received the tradition of the apostles. He had a special visitation of the LORD at the resurrection. He was both a disciple AND an intimate brother of the LORD. About him, we sing:
Thou hast received the Gospel as a disciple, thou art invincible as a martyr, and bold as the Lord’s brother, thou dost intercede as a hierarch. O righteous James, pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.