In the Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost in Year C we are back in the middle of Luke’s Gospel. Luke 8:26-39 is the story of the man who was possessed by a legion of demons — demons who ended up possessing a legion of pigs.
It is a rich story, but a hard one to draw a single message from. I think that is because Luke gets a bit befuddled with the time line as he tells the story. He knows more than Jesus or the disciples did at the time, and both later and earlier matters get filled in. Some examples:
- Jesus encounters the demon possessed man immediately as he steps ashore with his peeps (vs. 27a). But Luke weaves in all kinds of back story about the man: where he lived, what the demons did to him, and what the community did in response (vss. 27b, 29).
- The formerly demon-possessed man asks to come along, and Jesus tells him to stay put — but this is after Jesus seems to have left already, at the request of the community.
- Then, when Jesus and the disciples are really gone, Luke reports what the man did afterward (vss. 37-39).
Plus there are just so many fascinating reactions from so many characters.
Here’s my idea: Why not look at the narrative three times, through the eyes of the three primary characters or groups Jesus encounters? They may each have something to teach us.
The story of the community
The story that frames all the action is that of the gentile community where Jesus landed in the boat.
They had a troubled member. If he was alive today most people would have said he was mentally ill. Or they might suspect he was abusing some really nasty drugs. The guy was simply not sane — and the name for the condition was demon possession.
He was prone to tear off his clothes, and run into the wilderness. They had to do something about him. Maybe their consciences got to them, because they went out to the wilderness and brought him back.
But then what do you do with a violent naked lunatic when you get him back to town? There was no controlling him.
Somebody had a bright idea: chain him up on the far edge of town, down among the tombs.
So they did.
And when in his rage he broke the chains, they caught him again and chained him up again.
What can you do? They had a debt to this man, since he was one of them. But they had absolutely no way to help him.
So the man’s saviors became his oppressors. They made him live — if you can call it living — naked, in chains, in a graveyard.
But then a rumor reached the village: Someone drove all the pigs jump off the cliff. It was down by the tombs.
Must have been the guy with the demons.
This was bad news. That herd of pigs was a family’s business. How were the owners supposed to survive if some crazy guy kills the herd?
The madman had clearly gone too far.
Half the people grabbed their pitchforks. The others brought torches. They marched to the tombs.
And there was the troublemaker.
they found the man
from whom the demons had gone
sitting at the feet of Jesus,
and in his right mind.” (Luke 8:35 NRSV)
Perhaps you would think the crowd would be happy. I mean they were tired of his demon-driven antics. They were tired of taking care of him. Sort of.
They were afraid. Luke says so twice. Changing the status quo, even for the better left them scared.
And they were itchin’ for a fight. Somebody had to pay for those pigs.
Then they heard the story. Jesus had healed the man.
They had to admit this was a good thing. But still… those pigs.
They just couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus’ miracle had such a negative economic impact. They told him he had better leave town.
And you know, it is kind of like that in the world.
Sometimes the community doesn’t really want its problems solved. Changing the status quo makes people afraid. And it is costly.
- If we were to do what is needed to solve the problem of global warming, it would be costly.
- If we were to do what is needed to solve the problem of gun violence it would be costly.
- If we were to do what is needed to solve the problem of white supremacist movements, it would be costly.
Solve any one of those problems and you’re likely to be told to leave town.
But it would surely be worth it.
The story of the demons
This is also a story that can be told from the perspective of a huge number of demons.
We are not told how they found their way into the man. We only know this: The man said they were a “Legion.” In the Roman army that was about 5000.
Somehow the legion took up residence in a man whose name is now forgotten — they subsumed it with their evil presence.
Maybe it started with just one. But that first demon brought a friend. Then the whole first string of Hell’s world cup team came for a visit. The guy seemed a willing host, and the underworld wanted an outpost, so eventually a whole bunch of others moved in.
The interesting thing, though, is that the demons seem to have entered the man to escape from where they had been before.
They called it
When Jesus showed up they new they were outmatched — the demons could always recognized Jesus, though Jesus never wanted their publicity.
But the demons knew Jesus was powerful.
They begged him not to order them
to go back into the abyss.” (Luke 8:31 NRSV)
So it turns out not even demons actually enjoy Hell.
They see a herd of pigs grazing on the hillside. That’s our clearest bit of evidence that this side of the lake was not Jewish territory. But for the legion of demons it was an opportunity:
…a large herd of swine was feeding;
and the demons begged Jesus
to let them enter these.” (Luke 8:32 NRSV)
The implication seems to be that outside of Hell the demons need a host. It’s a plot straight out of some TV shows I’ve seen.
More importantly, think about what the demons are doing:
- The demons are praying to Jesus.
- And Jesus answers their prayer.
That’s right. Jesus says “Yes!” to the prayers of the demons.
I suppose that those words could sound pretty dreadful, spoken in scorn by an enemy of Christ.
Here, however, it is simple exegesis. The demons made a request: Send us into the pigs instead of sending us back to the nothingness and darkness, the abyss which is Satan’s home. Jesus gave them what they asked for.
Now surely Jesus wouldn’t answer every prayer of demons. And he doesn’t necessarily do it for the reasons they wanted.
But Jesus is prone to editing even the best of prayers by the best of people.
Think of Augustine’s mom, Saint Monica, who prayed her son would stay in Africa. God answered — by sending him away from Africa to Rome, then on to Milan, where he came to repentance and faith in Christ.
Jesus answered Monica’s prayer by editing it. God said “No” about staying in Africa so that he could say a big “Yes” to her bigger prayer for her little Augie to become a Christian — the great Saint Augustine.
And Jesus put his own twist on answering the prayers of the demon legion. He sent them into the pigs, who jumped into the sea and drowned. Thereby they troubled no one any more, which was certainly Jesus’ good will for all concerned.
The story of the man
The third and most obvious main character for our story is the guy Jesus healed.
His story started long before this text.
He fell into bad spiritual company.
- Had he done something to express openness to the dark side?
- Had he sought the wrong kind of power?
- Worshipped the wrong gods?
- Was the the guy was poor and the demon promised riches?
- Was he lonely and the demon promised love?
- Or maybe the man began to compromise his ethics, chipping away at his own character by shortcuts and cheating, little white lies that morphed into bigger systematic deceptions.
One way or another, that first demon got in, and brought a deadly swarm of others along.
When Jesus asked the man his name he made a joke of it:
He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.” (Luke 8:30 NRSV)
Or maybe the poor guy had forgotten his own name, lost in the internal, infernal, crowd.
Anyway, whether he welcomed the dark hordes or was victim of a hostile takeover, it didn’t play out well in his life.
They drove him away from society
…into the wilds.” (Luke 8:29 NRSV)
But somehow society wasn’t willing to let him go. They came and brought him back from the wilds. Though instead of helping him they chained him up in a graveyard which was, strangely, located in the prime real estate along the lakeshore.
The demons weren’t happy about being chained. Somehow they preferred the wild. (Who wouldn’t?)
So the man found himself in a tug of war: the people keep chaining him down and the demons keep breaking free of the chains.
Then Jesus stepped off of a boat and into the graveyard.
One thing quickly became clear: Mr Legion was so swamped with the darkness that had possessed him that he couldn’t tell one kind of spiritual power from another.
That is to say, he looked at Jesus, God in the flesh, the very definition of goodness, and he was terrified.
…he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice,
‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?
I beg you, do not torment me’” (Luke 8:28 NRSV)
Poor guy. Jesus wasn’t out to torment him. Jesus was there to love him.
But that’s how we get to feel about our status quo — even when the status quo is being possessed by things that will, in fact, kill us. Change is threatening.
Then Jesus dealt with the demons — but that isn’t this man’s story.
The man’s story resumes after the demons are gone.
The man sat calmly at Jesus’ feet — he was in the place of a disciple, like when Mary chose to sit and learn rather than serving dinner with Martha.
Somebody found the poor fellow some clothes — under the demons’ influence he’d long since torn off his old ones.
And he was in his right mind for the first time in ages — he no longer confused light and darkness, good and evil, God and devil. He was able to connect with Jesus, instead of raving in the tombs. He’d found his way home.
When it became clear that Jesus was heading back across the lake, the man begged to come along. Jesus clearly was the source of new life, and this man wanted to be one of his followers.
But then Jesus said no. He had to go back to his home town. He had to face the people who chained him in the tombs…The mothers who dragged their children away from wherever he was raving… The children who snuck out to the tombs to get a glimpse of the crazy man. He had to learn to live with them — to love those neighbors.
But there was one thing more: Jesus gave him a job to do. He was ordered to
Return to your home,
and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39 NRSV)
But the man had had his eyes opened. Not only was he more confident and at peace being “in his right mind,” but by this time he really saw. So instead of following Jesus’ instruction to say “how much God has done for you,”
…he went away,
proclaiming throughout the city
how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39 NRSV)
And of course, the man was right. There was no contradiction. God had healed him of his demons. And that God who healed him was Jesus, whom the Nicene Creed tells us is
God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God…of one substance with the Father.”
This is Luke’s proclamation of the deity of Jesus. John says it rather more boldly. Luke tells it in a story, in the words of a pagan man who spent his life oppressed by 5000 demons. Luke has made him a theologian as well as an evangelist.
In Luke, Christ’s mission is always to the rejected, the marginalized — and here the revelation comes through them as well.
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