“An Unlikely Outcome”
June 19, 2022
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, 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” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion;” for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So, he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.
Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So, he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So, he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.***
Somewhere along the years of Sunday School, I recall encountering this odd biblical story, which I suspect involved a flannel board with some interesting character and pig cutouts. I recall the story’s name: the “Gerasene demoniac” probably because I could not pronounce either word or because it sounded like the name of a heavy metal band.
It is quite a story. A demon possessed man relegated to the cemetery outside of town, occasionally shackled so he could not get into town and scare children. When he meets Jesus, everything changes as Jesus casts the demons out and they move into a herd of pigs that immediately hurl themselves off a cliff.
I ask, why were children were allowed to learn this story in Sunday School? Sure, it taught them about Jesus’s power. But that simple lesson does not account for all the strange elements. It is likely Luke intended a greater takeaway.
To figure it out, we need to go back to Nazareth when Luke begins the story of Jesus’ ministry. Remember, the scene of Jesus in the synagogue reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 61:1–2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 18–19)
This “year of the Lord’s favor,” refers back to Leviticus 25 and the year of Jubilee which God commanded of Israel to celebrate every 50th year. This was to be a year when land is redistributed, debts are eliminated, slaves are redeemed, prisoners are released; a year when all things are reset, restored, renewed, recovered, reestablished, reconciled; a year of remembrance, rest, restitution, repentance, and rejoicing.
According to Jesus’s commentary on Isaiah in the synagogue that day, this declaration of Jubilee was “good news” — literally, “gospel” — to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.
After Jesus read this scripture, Luke tells us the eyes of everyone in the room were fixed on Jesus. As he sat down, he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Initially, people are amazed at what their hometown boy was saying. But not long after, an angry mob forms, tries to throw him off a cliff, but Jesus escapes unharmed.
Four chapters later we read “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.” Then Luke tells us Jesus and his disciples sail “to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee.” There He encounters a demon-possessed man from the town. Aware of the issue, Jesus commands the evil spirit to come out.
With startling emotion, the man falls at Jesus’ feet and shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Later on, it is the demons that beg Jesus repeatedly not to send them into the abyss.
Beyond the demons, think about the plight of this man. He has been banished to the edge of town, sometimes chained and kept isolated so no one had to deal with him. Everyone was willing to send this man away to his death.
So, when Jesus encounters this guy, things change. He sees him not as a terror to society, a felon or predator. He steps into the man’s world and addresses him as a fellow human being.
“What is your name?” Jesus asks.
To Jesus, this naked, shackled demoniac is a person with a name. But the man has been stripped of his personhood. He has taken the town’s perception of him and made it his name: “Legion.” (For people in the ancient Roman world, “Legion” had only a literal meaning: a unit of approximately six thousand Roman soldiers, the occupying army.1) Thus, the term legion refers to any large number of beings; a multitude.
Next the demons speak, pleading with Jesus to not order them back into the abyss. Nearby is a heard of pigs and the demons “begged” Jesus to let them enter them as they departed the man. How curious they knew Jesus had such power. But that is precisely what happened and the pigs ran themselves off a cliff and into a lake.
The formerly possessed man is ecstatic. He understands that Jesus gave him his freedom and released him from oppression. He quickly gets dressed and returns to sit at Jesus’s feet — immediately taking the posture of a disciple. He is so committed to Jesus and his good news that he “begged to go with Jesus” just as earlier he had “begged” Jesus not to torture him.
But instead of making this man a disciple, Jesus makes him an evangelist, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Isn’t this just like Jesus? To choose a person most people would consider unholy, unredeemable, unworthy — and commission him to proclaim what Jesus had done for him. Going forward, this man would fill the town not with demons, but with the spirit of joy and new life, proclaiming to the townspeople — the same folks who feared, shunned, trapped and shackled him for years — how Jesus had released from him from bondage.
The townspeople react immediately and “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes were seized with great fear.” They were fearful that Legion might be faking it — that this healing is a hoax so he can be free scare their town. Fearful that all this Jesus goodness for some might be bad for business for others. They ask Jesus to leave.
Jesus obliges. He gets into the boat — perhaps stopping momentarily to shake the dust off his sandals before he sets sail. It seems sad, doesn’t it?
As the story closes, the good news that has enlivened the once banished, imprisoned man is a threat to those who are not poor, brokenhearted, captive or imprisoned.
So, where is there good news for us in this strange and troubling piece of scripture? I see resurrection enacted for the once shackle and shunned man who wastes no time being grateful for divine grace and mercy and who accepts the commission to share good news — especially to the ones who imprisoned him; the guilty, hard-hearted and resistant to good news townspeople.
1 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2008), pp. 190–194.
Image: Arthur Robins