When we read stories of Jesus casting out demons, we come up against the great chasm that separates western secular culture from the worldview and culture of Hellenistic Palestine. There are some in America who believe in the reality of demons, Christians who seek through prayer and other rituals to cast evil spirits out of people they believe are possessed by demons. There was even something of a media stir a few weeks ago caused by speculation that Pope Francis had performed an exorcism on someone at a service in Rome. Some Vatican officials were quick to deny it. Most of us, however, regard the notion of demons and evil spirits as relics of a pre-modern, pre-scientific worldview and we’re probably pretty quick to interpret the symptoms of someone like the man in our gospel story today as some form of mental illness.
So when we hear a story like this one of the Gerasene demoniac, we probably dismiss it, don’t even pay close attention to it, because it is so alien to our worldview and context. Some of us, if we want to make sense of it, will try to psychologize it—to seek some deeper meaning in the contours and details of the story and interpret it as having to do with our “inner demons” or some such. While there is some merit in such approaches, it is important to recognize that for the gospels, the fact that Jesus cast out demons was an absolutely central aspect of his ministry. It was clear evidence that he had power over the forces of evil. It was also a sign that his ministry was ushering the reign of God.
This story operates on several levels. First of all, geography. While the precise location of the city isn’t clear (Matthew calls it Gadara), Jesus is clearly operating in Gentile territory—for the first time in Luke. The presence of a herd of swine is evidence of that. He and his disciples have crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and at the end of the story, they will return to Galilee. It’s almost as if the point of the journey was this encounter, this healing.
The second level is that of the demoniac. His description, naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs.
The third level is that of the demons, and the herd of swine. When Jesus asks the demon for its name, they reply, “Legion, for we are many.” Fearful that Jesus might return them to the abyss, which in the ancient world was the dwelling place of demons, they ask him to cast them into a nearby herd of pigs, and promptly stampede into the sea to perish. The name Legion brings to mind the Roman army and while it’s likely that we are meant to think that there are as many demons as soldiers in a legion (6000), it’s also possible that the story as a whole is meant to convey a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, one of the legions stationed in Palestine had as its figurehead a boar, and more generally, a fertile sow was one of the ancient symbols of Rome. So while Jesus is confronting the powers of the demonic, he is also confronting imperial power in this story.
The story ends in an odd fashion, completely consistent with its overall strangeness. The man is restored to his senses Luke describes him sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. When the people see him healed, they are fearful and beg Jesus to leave them. He does so, returning by boat with his disciples to Galilee. But before he departs, the healed man begs Jesus to allow him to come along. Jesus tells him no, instead, he should proclaim what God had done for him, so the man returns to his home, “proclaiming throughout the city all that Jesus had done.”
There is a great deal that is intriguing in this story, but what I’m most struck by this week is the fear of the city’s residents. They see the demoniac clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, and they are afraid. Now many commentators will say that their fear was caused by the news of the pigs being drowned in the sea, or by the possibility that their economic livelihood was at stake if Jesus continued to perform such mighty acts among them. I’m not so sure.
Jesus is a foreigner here, an outsider. He comes for no apparent reason, or perhaps only for this reason, to encounter this man who was possessed by demons. He heals him, restores him to his senses and to his community and in so doing he isn’t threatening a way of life or economic well=-being, he is threatening the very order of the universe. He demonstrates his power over the forces of evil, demonstrates that many of the assumptions the inhabitants of this place held dear, can no longer be taken for granted. If the demons obey him, what else might he be capable of? What other trouble might he stir up?
Now the story begins to challenge us and our assumptions. As hard as it may be for us to believe that Jesus cast out demons, it may be even harder for us to believe that Jesus Christ continues to work in that way in the world today. It’s almost unimaginable to us that the reign of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years ago and demonstrated with his mighty acts, may be in our midst already. It’s hard to believe that our faith, our community can work miracles like Jesus did; that we have power over the forces of evil in the world; that we can restore people to their right minds.
In fact, of the characters in this story we’re more like the Gerasenes than the possessed man. We’re more like those people who saw evidence of Jesus’ power and proclamation, grew fearful, and asked him to leave their country. It’s likely that we’re more comfortable in the place we are, whether as individuals or as a congregation, than we would welcome the frightening, world-changing power of Jesus Christ in our midst.
As a congregation, we are at a crossroads. In a sense, we may even be living among the tombs, if by tombs we mean the monuments previous generations built for themselves. Jesus comes to us, comes among us, and offers us new life, the vision of a way forward into the future. Will we risk following him into the unknown, with no signposts to lead us forward? Will we risk the possibility that as we follow him into the future, we will experience new forms of life, new ways of being, encounters with all sorts and conditions of people? Or will we ask him to leave us alone, so we can continue to live among the tombs?