26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes,£ which is opposite Galilee. 27As 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. 28When 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”—29for 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.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now 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. 33Then 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.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then 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. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then 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. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus£ sent him away, saying, 39“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.
When I was a young boy on Halloween, we had one friend who lived close by to a cemetery that backed up on a dark forest. Many of the houses to which we went trick-or-treating faced this cemetery. We used to dare each other to step onto the cemetery property on the dark, cold damp, Halloween nights ( We were only 8 or 9 years old). Can you imagine how creepy this location was—how horrifying when you let your imagination run wild? Of course, none of us ever did step onto the cemetery proper. We would have been mortified to do so.
In today’s lesson from Luke, we start out in a cemetery. Cemeteries are places of death and drought. Jesus encounters a man living here—in the cemetery. No sooner had he landed in this foreign country, Jesus is accosted by a man who was tragically manic. This man screamed all through the day and night.
This demoniac must be someone’s brother, friend, maybe father or son. Otherwise why put all the trouble to constraining him? They might have exiled him were he a stranger; or worse. His family and friends have tried to restrain him with chains, but he had broken them apart. They’ve put him under guard, in a place where only death reigns. A barren location.
Yet to show that Jesus has power over even death, even the wastelands and cemeteries of our lives, Jesus performs a miracle, extracting this man out of an evil situation; the way a dentist removes an abscess or a cancer surgeon removes a tumor. In the Gospel of John 3:20, Jesus says, “…all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (3:20) The moment Jesus appears, the dark powers which have come to control the man in our story begin to cry out. How long have the dark powers controlled this man, his family, this area?
Confidently, Jesus, the light, asks the demons, this evil, this dark power–which has taken control of this man, “What is your name?”
The answer would have caused the gathered crowds to gasp in horror and shock, in a way that goes over our head today. The Answer, “Legion” is a play on words. In contrast to the barren cemetery, where there is no life, no future, no hope, Legion means—a multitude, crowd. So, the only things that thrive in this death-full environment are the Legion of demons—growing like bacteria in the dark.
Yet, there is a second meaning to Legion that would also have shocked the crowd. Legion is the name for a Roman army division in the ancient world, of about 3,000 to 6,000 soldiers. Legions were the tools by which the Roman Empire kept their boot on the neck of the locals. It was the Legion which forced you to pay your taxes at the tip of a spear. It was the Legion that dragged off political prisoners to execution. It was the Roman Legion that was the foreign occupiers. The Tenth Roman legion was well known as one of the more successful legions, in fact, the Tenth may have been the Legion that conducted the census in the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth that brings the Holy Family to Bethlehem. And the Tenth Legion traveled far and wide to shore up the support for the emperor and were known to fight the Jews most viciously. Now, their symbol was a boar; a pig.
Jesus, in performing this exorcism, is not only destroying the evil in the heart of one man, he is symbolically destroying the military power of Rome. In other words, when the Legion of demons enters into the pigs/swine/boars, Jesus has put the crowd on notice that the oppression of the Romans will end. The power of Rome will drown in the sea.
This explains the one puzzle that has always bugged me about this text—verse 35. When the townspeople hear about this healing, they are afraid and ask Jesus to leave. Always seemed like an odd response to me.
Yet, when you realize that Jesus is symbolically saying to Rome, ‘Your time is up, your days are numbered’; the people are afraid of what the Romans might do when they hear about this. Jesus is doing much more than curing a demoniac here, he does that too, of course. However, he is putting everyone on notice from the Roman Coliseum down to Pontius Pilate’s quarters that God is in control.
Even and especially in those places where God seems absent, missing. Absolutely, totally isolated from and rejected by society? God is there. If you think God is absent from your workplace, God is there. If you think God has abandoned our cities to violent crime, God is there. This healing is one of the worst, most hopeless cases Jesus encounters. Perhaps only Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, both of whom had already died, were more dire.
To all unclean spirits Jesus says, Come out. We live in the shadow of this healing. We Christians know that our freedom is coming and it began with this Jesus—who heals even the most hopeless of cases.