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.
Today we begin the season after Pentecost. Called “Ordinary Time”, it lasts until Lent. The liturgical color for this season is green, and the gospel readings return to Jesus’ life and ministry journey—this year, according to Luke. This long season is called “ordinary” because the scriptural readings are ordered, fixed by calendar dates. When Easter is early, as it was six years ago, we join Luke’s Jesus in chapter 7 with the healing of the Roman Centurion’s slave in Capernaum. Since Easter was relatively late this year, we land in the startling gospel I just read from Chapter 8.
So we move sharply this year from the joyful celebrations of Resurrection and the birth of the church on Pentecost to the hair-raising story of Jesus’ confrontation with evil embodied.
Until now, Luke’s Jesus has been teaching and healing in synagogues and communities around the Galilee, attracting disciples and growing crowds of admirers. Inexplicably, Jesus has decided to cross the Sea of Galilee, going for the first and only time in Luke into a hostile, foreign, Gentile land. On the way, he awed the disciples when he calmed the storm-tossed waters that threatened to sink their boat. That sign of Jesus’ cosmic power over nature herself was a foretaste of his power with the demon-possessed Geresene man.
Commentator Jeannine K. Brown noted: “This is not Jesus’ first encounter with demons…yet…this demon-possessed man threatens with superhuman strength and tortured madness.” Jesus meets that tragic, terrifying figure: an outcast, tormented, naked and living in the tombs. In a spectacularly dramatic scene, Jesus calls the demons out of the man and casts them into a herd of swine, who then hurl themselves into the sea.
Imperial Roman Army
As with previous exorcisms, the demons recognize Jesus and cry out to him. But here, they identify themselves as “Legion”–an unmistakable reference to the largest unit of the Imperial Roman army. That gives this healing story in an allegorical dimension as a battle between the forces of heavenly and earthly power.
Commentator Judith Jones wrote about more of the first-century reverberations of the story, allusions that Luke’s original audience would have understood, and which have been hidden from modern readers.
For example, she noted:
- the author of Luke/Acts uses the same word when “the demon ‘seizes’ the man”, again in Acts (6:12; 19:29 ) “when Christians are arrested and brought to trial”. [Also] “The words for the hand and foot chains, for binding and guarding [here], are the same ones that Luke uses in Acts when the disciples are imprisoned. In short,” she wrote, “the language of the whole episode evokes the experience of living under a brutal occupying power.”
- Jones also wrote, “the region of Gerasene is the setting of a horrifying historical event….during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt…. Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region (Josephus , Jewish War, IV,ix,1). Many…buried in [those] Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.”
- Finally a word about the swine, where Jones also saw a double meaning. Since they were ritually unclean for Jews, casting the demons into the herd would have seemed fitting to Jesus’ main audience. A pig was one also of the emblems on the banners of the tenth Roman Legion. That mounted force, the “most feared” of them all, took part “in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, took the lead in reconquering Palestine, and was stationed in Jerusalem after the war”. That was the time when the gospels were being composed. So the word “Legion” evoked savage violence, slaughter, and brutal oppression to the Jewish people.
Abuse of Power
Now, I want to shift from the first century to our own, in light of the revelations of the past week. Let us return to the gospel’s central message about the use and abuse of power. It is vital and urgent today.
The Roman authorities abused their power over those whom they ruled. The demons who have possessed the man reflect the terror and violence the Romans used. In the man’s pitiable condition he embodies the isolation and utter hopelessness that abusers foster in their victims. Throughout history those who abuse power—including perpetrators of domestic violence–use the same tools: intimidation, fear, isolation, terror, and violence. We heard about Ahab’s murderous violence against the prophets in the lesson from 1 Kings today; Hitler’s aerial blizt campaign against Britain in WWII, and Putin’s current terror campaign against Ukraine are a couple of the modern military examples.
Abusers are bullies. They count on their victims’ hopeless, helpless submission. Courage, faith, and truth are weapons essential to defeating them. Courageously standing in the power of faith and in the power of truth, Jesus confronted and defeated the forces of evil, the demons that had possessed the Gerasene man.
Jesus calls us to follow him in standing up to abusers of every kind with courage, faith and truth, knowing that Jesus stands with us when we do.
That’s what Vice President Mike Pence did on January 6, 2021. Armed with faith and truth, courageously he held firm in his oath to defend the Constitution. He defied the pressure that President Trump exercised on him in the many days before, and in thinly-veiled threats on the day itself. Then, incited by President Trump, with violence and terror, members of the mob who stormed the Capitol came perilously close to capturing Vice President Pence, whom they have confessed they intended to kill.
On January 6, 2021, Vice President Mike Pence faithfully fulfilled his Constitutional duty, certifying the legitimate election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. The record is now clear that in so doing, he risked his life; and he rescued American democracy—for the time being.
On Thursday of this past week, before testifying to the House Select Committee, the distinguished conservative Federal Judge J. Michael Luttig warned us all that the events of January 6 were but one incident in “a deadly war for American democracy” that continues today. As the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, did, I urge you all to read and re-read Judge Luttig’s thoughtful, impassioned statement, released that morning.
There, Judge Luttig called us not to turn away from the challenge of this moment. As troubling and terrifying as it is to face what really happened on January 6, we must seek the truth with courage and faith. We are not helpless or hopeless. We are not powerless. Nor can we afford to be cynical.
Each of us has a part to play in securing our democracy for the long term. Judge Luttig wrote: “we begin where the reconciliation of all broken human relationships, be they broken from war, anger, betrayal, or love, begins — by talking with each other, and listening to one another again, as human beings and fellow citizens who share the same destiny and the same belief in America and hope for her future.”
The first steps for me are recognizing and exorcising the demons of divisive thought and speech in myself, seeking God’s forgiveness for my own part in our divisions, carefully grounding my opinions in truth, cultivating compassion for those with differing views, and finding the means to reach out to heal the wounds that those demons that have inflicted on this society and that threaten to destroy our democracy.
Reconciliation is at the heart of our call as Jesus’ disciples. With courage, trust, and faith, let us follow where Jesus led.
Let us pray, adapting words from Psalm 43:
Holy One, send out your light and your truth that they may lead us and bring us to your holy hill. Help us to put our trust in you, who are the help of our countenance and our God. Amen
* With thanks to Professor Flora Keshgegian