Scripture: Luke 8:26-39
The longest, most detailed, and most vivid miracle story in the Gospels is about an exorcism.
Us moderns are always a bit embarrassed by this sort of stuff. Our enlightened, materialistic worldview rules out supernatural occurrences from the get-go. We know, of course, that, really, beneath all that we can’t currently account for, a scientific or psychological explanation waits in the wings. Surely any talk of demons and the devil today is just the metaphorical leftovers of a more primitive time—and since they’ve been left out so long, they’ve spoiled, and ingesting beliefs like this could really make you sick.
And yet, for all our enlightenment, we’re no better off as a people. A ubiquitous, irrational, evil influence just seems to be an unshakeable fact of life. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles laughs when one of the witches calls him Satan. He says of the title,
It’s dated, called a fable; people are clever,
but they are just as badly off as ever:
the Evil One is gone, the evil ones remain.
This realization prompted Immanuel Kant, the man who literally defined the Enlightenment, to keep the concept of radical evil in his philosophy, to the utter astonishment of his admirers. But to take radical evil seriously, I suggest, means two things 1) we need a deliverance that exceeds our abilities, and 2) what the Bible points to really does tally with our experience and may have answers that our culture can’t offer.
The Land of Opposites
In Luke 8, we meet a man who had demons. The description is matter-of-fact; at this point, Luke doesn’t expect his readers to be surprised, so he mentions this without fanfare or warning. He had demons like he may have had anything else: a pair of donkeys or a purple tunic. Here, we enter, what Swiss theologian Karl Barth called, “the strange new world within the Bible.” Here, we join Jesus on the other side of the lake, or as our text literally says, the place that is “opposite Galilee” (NRSV).
In the Gospels, Galilee is the center of Jesus’ ministry, the place where the kingdom of God is breaking into the world, where the world is being made right again. The region of the Gerasenes is opposite Galilee. I take this as more than a geographical description; it is an existential description of a place where nothing is as it should be. Think of something like Narnia. It is the land of opposites. It is what Augustine called “the region of dissimilarity” writ large. It is, in fact, our world, and all of us are Gerasenes. As soon as our eyes adjust to the dimness of the light here, what at first seemed strange and supernatural, we begin to make out as something familiar.
The picture is all too recognizable—something self-destructive, socially isolating, mentally disturbing. The man is naked, alone, seized by something he does not understand, and driven into, what the NRSV evocatively calls, “the wilds” (v. 29). He is deprived of three signs of humanity: clothing, community, and self-control. The demonic has so colonized him that it occupies his name and takes over his voice. This is a picture of the powers that diminish our full humanity, that seize and ruin us. The people of his city don’t help: their solution is to lock him up, and when that doesn’t work, they accept his ravings and learn to ignore him as they pass him by on the streets.
Destroyer of Legions
The first real shock in this story is the demon’s name—Legion. This is also the name of a Roman military unit of 6,000 soldiers, an allusion that would haver been unmissable to a first-century audience (Americans: imagine if the demon’s name were “Stars and Stripes”). The powers that affect us are not so irrational after all—they are organized, trained, and strategic. The only thing worse than chaos is ordered evil, a kingdom of darkness ranged against us. The good news is that Jesus crosses over into this realm of chaos to route the forces that dominate and dehumanize us.
As soon as Jesus, Son of the Most High God (v. 28) steps ashore, victory is certain. The Legion admits defeat before the fight begins because the presence of Jesus is the victory of God. The incarnation is the Triune God’s Normandy, the day when Jesus stormed the beach of this world. The Son of the Most High has come! The demons blurt out what we too often forget. God has taken on flesh and entered the fray. That is why we sing at Christmas: “chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease!” This story in Luke, for all its mythic trappings, is a narrative depiction of the heart of the gospel.
On this beach opposite Galilee, there is no struggle, no clash of swords, no incantation needed. The force that threatens and torments us, now finds itself threatened and begs not to be tormented. Jesus unmasks the total powerlessness of this Legion. With a word, he orders them out, proving that his command out-ranks whoever has been commanding them before.
Jesus comes to liberate us from all that terrorizes us and to restore our true humanity. Jesus doesn’t blame us for the influences that take advantage of us. He knows what is troubling us and doesn’t judge us for that. That is why he prayed on the cross, Father, forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing (Luke 23:34). That is why he came to love and liberate us, to seek and save that which is lost (Luke 19:10).
Ministry of Liberation (Jubilee)
Just a year or so before this encounter, this Nazarene carpenter had made a stunning claim, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to proclaim release to the captives… to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
This is a reference to what Leviticus 25 calls the year of Jubilee. Every fifty years, on the Day of Atonement, a ram’s horn was blown, and liberty was proclaimed throughout the land. It was a nation-wide reset button—everyone bound by economic oppression was returned to their possessions and families (v. 10). Jesus’ one-word conceptualization of his own ministry is “Jubilee.” Jesus is the cosmic reset button. He restores afflicted human beings to the possession and enjoyment of their God-intended portion—typologically speaking, the enjoyment of the all-inclusive Christ and the church life. In Jesus’ mind, salvation is much more than forgiveness of sins; it is a return to what we were made for—to glorify and enjoy God forever in a just and beloved community.
At a deeper level, for us today, the Jubilee means more than the forgiveness of sins or liberation from demonic forces (whether supernatural or systemic). It means the transformation of our human nature and human living. God’s full salvation deals with what we’ve done AND what we are. Augustine gets at this when he says, “He who justifies is the same who deifies.” Salvation uplifts and renews our humanity through union with Christ, so that, as far as creaturely possible and by grace alone, we become the same as him in life, nature, expression, and function. In incarnation, Jesus is Son of the Most High (1:32), and through his salvation, human beings also become sons of the Most High (6:35). This ontological change is substantiated when we live out the divine attributes in our human virtues, a prime expression of which, for Luke, is compassion for others (6:36).
What’s with the Drowning of the Pigs?
Not everyone appreciates what Jesus does here. The Gerasenes are more concerned with their pig business which gets destroyed in the process. This part always raises questions. How should we think about this? Mark’s account tells us the number of pigs was 2,000, which according to many commentators was an extraordinary number, certainly a number that no single family owned. What if we think about this as a monopoly, an unjust, economic empire that had a strangle on the area, sank its competitors, and overworked and underpaid its employees? Only by mistreating its workers, cutting corners, and dominating the market could it amass such wealth. This too is part of the land of opposites. It’s this obsession with acquiring wealth at the expense of others that Jesus is against. Jesus is known to overturn tables. For Luke, money is called mammon, and it’s a god that demands our allegiance and worship (Luke 16:13). It possesses us, in ways just as real and destructive as vividly portrayed in the man in the first half of this story. This obsession with money that leads to dehumanizing practices is the greater demon possession in this story and, like so many modern ills, it’s hiding right in the open and no one can challenge it. Jesus upsets an unjust system that values mammon more than human beings, and because of this, they exorcise Jesus from their town.
Piercing the Abyss
The good news is that Jesus Christ has descended into the depths of our situation and defeated our demons. But one more thing should be said. In Leviticus, the Jubilee was announced on the Day of Atonement, and in like manner, Jesus’ message of liberation requires him to pass through the depths of our darkness on the cross and descend into the abyss.
This is the one obvious editorial change that Luke makes to Mark—this mention of the abyss (v. 31). In the Bible, the abyss is the prison and holding place of all evil (Rev. 9:1-2). In the Apostles’ creed, the church confesses, “He descended into hell” (ad inferna). Peter says that in death Christ went and proclaimed his victory to the evil spirits in prison (1 Pet 3:19). These are different ways of referring to this very abyss in our text. By the time Luke recorded this story, Paul had already written in Romans 10, “Do not say in your heart… ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ That is, to bring Christ up from the dead.” So here again, first-century Christians reading this story in the worshipping congregation would make the connection between Luke’s narrative and apostolic doctrine and think: “The heart of the abyss, the darkest depths of chaos and evil, has been conquered by Christ. Christ has been there, conquered it, and risen out of it.”
As impressive as this crossing into the region of the Gerasenes is, the Gospel announces that Jesus has made a more daring crossing into the region of death itself and rose victorious. The cosmic exorcism of evil and restoration of our humanity required no less.
As Barth beautifully puts it:
The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a person who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor.
Jesus has defeated evil on our behalf so that we can live in faith, hope and love. Faith in what God has done in Christ. Hope for what God will do in this world through us. And love for those around us who may despair in their struggle and who have been forgotten by their community.
1. M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, p. 149.
2. Goethe, Faust, trans. Walter Kaufmann, p. 249.
3. Immanuel Kant, Religion with the Limits of Reason Alone.
4. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 28.
5. Bovon calls attention to the Greek here and calls the place where the exorcism occurs “this land of ‘difference,'” but he doesn’t elaborate the point; see, Francios Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, p. 323.
6. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, p. 122.
7. Bovon, p. 327: “Existence that has become inhuman without God is here vividly characterized.”
8. Witness Lee makes the striking claim that, “In reading the Gospel of Luke, we need to have the view that the jubilee declared in chapter four is the key to interpreting the entire book”; see, Witness Lee, Life-Study of Luke, p. 192.
9. Echoes of the Jubilee can be heard in Jesus’ final command to this man: “return to your house” (v. 39), which sounds a lot like Lev. 25:10, “each of you shall return to his family.” The Lord restores this man’s humanity and returns him to his community with good news to proclaim. The language of the text would have carried further resonances for the worshipping church reading this—the man becomes a disciple (“sitting at the feet of Jesus” in v. 35 foreshadows Mary in 10:39) and an apostle (“sent him” in v. 38, foreshadows the twelve in 9:2).
10. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 49.2.
11. Witness Lee, CWWL 1994–1997, p. 345.
12. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 223.
So glad you would defend the archaic thought that the world includes demons and spiritual realities. Seems like a master stroke of the enemy to make our world doubt even the possibility of his existence. If there is nothing but the cosmos and no possibility of spiritual, supernatural things, then man has no need of forgiveness and certainly no need of a Savior God.
May your labor be blessed and reach a great number of your lost and dying generation.
Grace be with you,
LikeLiked by 1 person