I have written before about tomb stories, in particular about Lazarus raised from the dead after four days wrapped up tight like a mummy. These tomb stories remind me of Coming Out narratives. My favorite tomb story is about the man who lived among the tombs (Mark 5 and Luke 8.)
According to the Luke version, “And he wore no clothes, nor did he live in a house but in the tombs…” He is diagnosed as demon possessed with chronic demonic fits: “For it had often seized him, and he was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles; and he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the wilderness.” Mark adds, “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.” Likely today this man would receive a different diagnosis, but back then people with mental illnesses, social disorders, epilepsy, and other unexplained diseases were simply called “demon possessed.”
Famously Jesus relieves the man’s suffering. He extracts the many demons from the man and hurls them into a nearby herd of pigs. The unsuspecting swine panic, run over the cliff, and drown in the lake. Reading the story in light of the many years I spent in the closet and in actively receiving destructive treatments to de-gay me, I related to the man’s isolation and even the self-harm. By the end of my time in the Ex-Gay Movement, I had become self-hating and depressed.
Matthew’s Gospel includes a similar story in it with many of the same details—demon possession, life in the tombs, deliverance at the expense of some innocent pigs. But Matthew adds a twist. In Matthew chapter 8 we read about two men living together in the cemetery. Soon after stories about Jesus healing a Centurion soldier’s personal servant and Peter’s mother-in-law, and then calming the sea, Matthew then narrates the demons and pigs story.
“When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way.”
I love that the New King James Version italicizes men and refers to them as exceedingly fierce.
As a playwright, I immediately feel drawn to the drama in this passage. Is their violent behavior just a ruse to keep prying eyes away from their life together? Did they recently rehab a tomb, making it warm and cozy, and there they chat and drink tea until they are interrupted by nosey, intolerant townspeople? How did they meet? Were these men pretending all the time just so they could live together? Were they two troubled people who found comfort in each other in a world that did not know how to help them or accept them? We will never know. Tombs are places of mysteries. What happens in the tomb, stays in the tomb.
I also wonder what happens to these men after the healing. In all three gospel accounts, the townspeople are more angry over the pigs Jesus drowned than they are delighted by the miracle he pulled off. Who is this Jesus? An anti-pork Jewish sorcerer? They pick up stones to hurl at Jesus and the disciples and demand these outsiders leave immediately.
At that moment in the Mark account, the solitary man, cleaned out of his demons then begs Jesus to let him join the crew of disciples and follow him. Jesus uncharacteristically says, no, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” Jesus leaves him behind as the angry mob breathes down the man’s neck. Wisely the man does not stay in his village. Mark writes, “And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.” Like many queer people in small towns in North America today, this man finds refuge in cities.
The Matthew version with the two men living in the tombs together does not reveal what happens to them after their deliverance. The townspeople, having heard about the pigs and the men, send Jesus packing. End of story. End of Matthew chapter 8. But that is not the end. That is the beginning of a new life for these two men. I like to imagine they continued to bind their lives together and went on tour sharing good news.
Deliverance from death, resurrection, and rebirth are concepts central to Christianity. For many LGBTQ people this story of the “demon possessed” tomb dwelling finding new life may sound familiar. The closet that held some of us was like a tomb. Once out of the closet, we begin to speak our truth. Similar to the conversion experience, when the believer can’t help but share Good News and bear witness to love and acceptance in God’s family, when LGBTQ people embrace their sexuality and/or gender identity/expression then find home, and build community, we tend to let the world know. That’s when the flags come out.
“Why are you flaunting your lifestyle?” critics ask me, but they are mistaken. You see I was dead, and now I am alive. I was weighed down with demons of self-hatred and a stockpile of rejection, shaming and shunning, but I came to my senses and have been coming out more and more as myself. What the angry townspeople judge as a flamboyant display served up to provoke others is really something quite serious and wonderful. Like so many of my LGBTQ kin, my queerness calls me to be a witness in the world.