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The Value of a Life

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

A sermon on Luke 8:26-39

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.)

What is the value of a human life? It’s not a simple question. Especially when you consider the variety of contexts in which it arises:

- from debates about end-of-life protections and rights, to those about when life begins;

- from budget decisions about safety net programs, to the profits we allow in the private prison industry;

- from campus responses to sexual assault, to the way our justice system responds to police-involved shootings;

- from approaches to health care reform, to policies about refugees....

What we believe about the value of human life, and especially about whose lives matter, are at the center of most of the divisive political debates that are fracturing our country. Our answers to the question of the value of a human life have deep consequences.

Our gospel story today does NOT give us a clear answer to that question. At least, it doesn’t offer us an equation for calculating human value, or provide an articulated moral principle that can be dropped into any given policy debate to settle it once and for all. What it gives us is a story… a story about how Jesus valued the life of one tortured, outcast man.

Let me review that story for you:

The story is set in a Gentile territory, across the sea of Galilee from where Jesus has been teaching and healing. Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the sea through a storm – a storm that Jesus calms with a word.

But as soon as he sets foot on land, Jesus is confronted by a different kind of chaos. A wild man confronts him. A man so tormented by destructive, evil forces that he is beyond all control. He lives among the tombs, naked and raving.

He once belonged to the city, but the people there have given up on him. Thrown him away. The only way they can imagine to deal with him is to chain him, and keep him under guard. But that cannot tame his demons, so he breaks free and is driven into the wilds, again and again.

It would seems that this man’s life has no value. No deserving of care and concern. He is only to be feared and locked away. What else can they do? It’s a genuine question… I don’t judge the people of that area too harshly, because what can they do? His problems are legion – numbered in the thousands. His case is too complicated for the solutions they have to offer. They have simply done what human society usually does when confronted by apparently insoluble problems – they’ve responded with fear, and with efforts to protect themselves. They’ve defined him as subhuman so that they can turn their backs on him and feel safe.

But Jesus responds differently. When this unstable man approaches him aggressively, shouting at the top of his voice “what have you to do with me?” (vs. 28) Jesus’s response is to humanize him, to ask him “What is your name?” (vs. 30). In her commentary on this passage, Debie Thomas makes the point that, in asking this question, “(Jesus) begins to recall the broken man to himself. To his humanity, to his beginnings. To his unique and precious identity as a child beloved of God.”[1] Where the people of the town have seen only a problem, a sub-human to be guarded and chained, Jesus sees a beloved child of God.

And Jesus is not confounded by the complexity of the man’s challenges. When the man can respond to Jesus’s question only by naming the magnitude of his torment, by claiming that his identity is that of the legion – of the army – of demons that possess him, Jesus is not phased. He engages the insoluble problem and negotiates the man’s freedom. He sends the demons into a nearby heard of swine, who then rush into the sea and are drowned.

But this precipitates a new problem. Because those pigs were valuable to the people of the town. One resource suggests that the value of such a heard, in today’s terms, would be something like half a million dollars.[2] And so, the people responsible for the herd get understandably upset. They’ve witnessed a stunning miracle. But they’ve also lost a fortune, and so the story that they go running into town to tell is not the story of a healing, but the story of a catastrophe. And the people who come rushing to see for themselves do not witness the good news of Jesus’s power, but rather it’s threat. They are afraid. Afraid of what this kind of power and this way of valuing human life, might do to them.

Jesus has done what they could not do. He has met the need that they could only try to protect themselves from… but there has been a cost. A heavy price. And, apparently, one’s man’s life… one man’s healing and restoration was not worth that price. The way that Jesus values one human life is too expensive.

So they ask him leave.

To be honest, there’s a lot that really bothers me about this story. I don’t understand why Jesus negotiates with the demons, instead of just banishing them. If he could control a storm, then surely he could control a legion of evil. I don’t understand why Jesus could not or did not find another way to free the man, a way that didn’t require loss of livelihood and thus almost certain suffering for others. It feels unjust to me! If I was a member of that town, I probably would have responded with fear along with everyone else. And, in that response, I would have missed out on the gospel as a result. I don’t understand why the story has to unfold this way.

But I do understand that Jesus was unequivocal and unapologetic about the suffering man’s life and dignity.

I understand that, in this healing, Jesus took the position that this one man’s restoration was worth any economic cost to his community.

I understand that Jesus’s answer to the question of the value of a human life was uncompromising, and it was extravagant. No matter how wild, or dangerous the man seemed to those who saw him as other – his life and dignity had deep and unassailable value to Jesus.

And so, if we seek to live our lives as followers of Jesus, I think this story has at least two consequences for us.

The first consequence is the one that might be hard, or at least stretching, because it’s the one that challenges us to confront the ways that we value, or fail to value, other human lives. It’s asks us if we would be willing for our community to sacrifice a half-million dollars for the healing of one person, and a person that we can barely recognize as human. It’s asks if the preservation of our livelihood, our way of life, is something we are willing to lose for the sake of healing the deep and persistent suffering of someone who scares us.

It’s the necessity to ask the question: do I value human life the way that Jesus does? Am I that unequivocal? Am I that uncompromising?

These are devastating questions, at least for me.

At this point in writing the sermon, I actually had to stop. Because I didn’t know how to keep writing when I knew my answers to those questions were “no.” And I didn’t know where to go from there.

It happened to be Thursday, June 20, which was also World Refugee day. So, I went and found the joint statement issued that day from ELCA Presiding Bishop Ellizabeth Eaton, and Krish O-Mara Vignarajah, President & CEO of Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services. The statement highlights the biblical call to welcome the stranger, and the strong Lutheran tradition of offering such welcome. It calls-out the very serious ways in which our country is currently failing to offer welcome to desperate but beloved children of God, and it offers links to resources from LIRS and the ELCA AMMPARO program to help people like you and me get involved.

I went to the links. And I made a donation (much, much smaller than half a million dollars), and I signed up for advocacy alerts....But I stopped short of signing-up to volunteer. Because… time out of my already stretched schedule is apparently the limit to my valuation of the life of the stranger.

That truth could have sent me into a shame storm… if it weren’t for the second consequence of today’s gospel story about the way Jesus values human life:

Because this story also tells us of our own value to Jesus. If Jesus could look at a man whose only sense of his own identity was the magnitude of his demons, and Jesus could see in that man a beloved child of God worth ANY cost to save... then that’s how Jesus sees us too. In our most shame-filled moments. In those hidden cracks inside our souls where every rejection, and every failure, and every word or action of abuse that we have every received tries to lodge itself and whisper to us that we are not worthy. When all our self-protective armor is stripped away and we stand naked and broken before Jesus, begging him to just leave us alone, to leave us to our pain....

Jesus looks at us with love, and says “what’s your name? Can you remember? Can you remember that I have named you ‘child of God’? that I have called you mine forever? Here, let me show you. Let me show you that your worth has no limit. I will heal you."

In our day to day lives, we might not be able to love as extravagantly as Jesus does. I hope we try. I hope we ask ourselves the hard questions, and take seriously this story’s challenge to truly value every human life.

But when we fail, as we sometimes will, may we also remember, just how deeply Jesus values our lives too.

Thanks be to God.


[2] Sermon Brainwave podcast #668.

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