The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Begging Jesus

Anything But the Abyss!

By Nanette Sawyer

Gospel Reading: Luke 8:26-39

For Sunday, June 23, 2013:  Year C—Ordinary 12

Even more than Twitter, Jesus changes everything. He upsets the socio-economic situation, brings outsiders to the inside of communities, and gets himself run out of town doing it. I think about how women who were effective healers during times of witch craze were often targeted. After all, if someone can heal, maybe they can also make people sick.

What are the townspeople in this story afraid of more: Jesus taking away their livelihoods, changing the social economic situation by (killing) allowing the pigs to die, or, his apparent capacity to control demons?  If a person can cast out demons, maybe they can send demons into you, too. Was this what the townspeople feared when Jesus sent demons into pigs?  As for the demons themselves—oddly it’s their fears that take centerstage.

Who Do You Love More?

Did Jesus think this whole scenario through? Why did he allow the demons to negotiate their own futures? Why not just send them to the abyss, as they feared? And by the way, did they end up in the abyss anyway after dying by drowning? We know from other texts that demons live in “waterless regions.”  It seems tragic that the pigs had to die, but on the other hand, I too would choose saving one man instead of saving a herd of pigs.

But is saving the one man enough? The story doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. (And that is the way of the Bible.) It doesn’t tell us, for example, how the swineherds will be redeemed and saved, now that they’ve lost their livelihoods, through no fault of their own. It doesn’t seem fair and seems kind of random, that they were the ones to sacrifice their income in order that the man (and the world) be rid of a whole lot of demons. Doesn’t Jesus love the swineherds, too? Or is their sacrifice relatively small compared to the relief of the man who is healed and restored to his community and his home?

Anything but the Abyss!

I find it fascinating that the demons don’t want to be sent into the abyss. I guess I tend to think that demons come out of the abyss. Or that they dwell there—that it’s their neighborhood. But I think of an abyss as a deep place that does have a bottom, and perhaps that’s wrong.

Some definitions of the abyss say that it is a bottomless pit. Think about that for a moment. Think about falling into an opening and then falling and falling and falling and falling. I can understand why I would be afraid of this, and why John Calvin would be, too. Apparently he was somewhat obsessed with fears of the abyss.

But why would a demon fear this so much that they would beg Jesus not to send them there? This also gives me a much bigger thought: demons have fears. I’m so aware of demons creating fear that I’ve never really thought about them having fears. Perhaps fear is the vulnerability of a demon. Perhaps that is why they create so much fear all around them.

Empathizing with Demons

To think about this weakness in “demons” makes them more relatable. Being afraid is something I can relate to.

Maybe in this sense, the demons are not so different from us. Maybe the demons and the man inhabited by demons turn out to be very similar characters in this story and in the story of life. Our fears can drive us, causing us to act unreasonably and anti-socially; causing us to take away the livelihoods of others; causing us to create chaos and fear; causing us to throw ourselves at Jesus’s feet asking, what are you going to do with me?

The Hardest Question

Are we the demons Jesus has to negotiate with so that we might stop creating suffering in the world?

How do you read?

Pastor NanetteNanette Sawyer is the founding pastor of Grace Commons (formerly known as Wicker Park Grace), an emerging faith community that began in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. She currently serves both Grace Commons and St. James Presbyterian Church as solo pastor. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she has blogged at The Christian Century’s lectionary blog, the Emergent Village Blog at Patheos, and at She has a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Studies, where she has also taught as adjunct faculty. She is the author of Hospitality: The Sacred Art.


  1. Jim Hatherly says:

    Thank you for these comments, Nanette. I work as a chaplain in a correctional facility with an addiction program for drug and alcohol issues. people often speak of the notion of ‘spirits’ of addiction, and what powers hold them to forces of self-destruction or other forms of harm, to tohers or family, etc. The demons have both personal and social power. They are both internal (we choose to give them a role in our lives, if even to help us avoid pain) and external (they seem to have an outside authority). There is no true healing until, as they say, a person ‘bottoms out’, which takes enormous faith and self-emptying and a relinquishing of the notion of saving yourself. There is a threshold of fear to cross, and I take this as being like the fear of the abyss. The demons are the last fear to be faced and even they don’t want to go there. But healing cannot occur until we do. up to that point, all we are looking at are shortcuts.

  2. Jim, Thank you so much for your comments. Well said. I’ve been mulling them over since yesterday, thinking about the demons that haunt us and how hard it is to let them go, how hard to imagine a new kind of life for ourselves.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the video blog that Mark and Russell did for this post, but it’s relevant to this conversation, too. They talk about how societies make certain people into “monsters” so they can externalize their fears onto that person. (I’m paraphrasing, so hope I’m putting that right.) That’s what I got out of their video post, anyway.

    This social aspect of “demonizing” people adds another layer of fear to the whole situation, because then we could possibly become the demon, the monster, too. Making other people the “monster” is also a way to “prove,” or cling to the tenuous hope, that we are not monsters ourselves.

    To continue thinking about the demons, I would say, demons don’t want to fall into nothingness. They want to exist. If they can’t live in a human, they would rather live in a pig than die.

    So maybe we could think of it as Jesus “helps” the demons to die, so the human can live a more whole life.

    I really resonate with your words, Jim, about crossing a threshold of fear and relinquishing the notion of saving ourselves. There is a higher power here, but it’s not easy to give up our illusion of our own power, our illusion of control over demons and forces of nature.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. Drew Downs says:

    Nanette, great post! In focusing on the image, and exploring it, I am pulled out of the that physical question (what happens literally) and the metaphorical (what is Jesus trying to teach us) and the theological (what does this reveal about God) and into the poetic. The abyss as endless is paired with the pigs sent over the cliff. Regardless of the notion of ending, there is a falling here–a falling that brings with it the everpresent sense of fear.

    I am stewing about a sermon that wrestles with the poetic of the text and none of the “answers”. Thanks!

  4. @ Drew. Nice. That helps me! I love how you named the physical, metaphorical, theological and poetic questions/experience of the text. Thanks!

How do you read?