Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Recalling a relatively recent movie, we could call this study “Four miracles and a sending.”

June 20, 2010

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Commentary on Luke 8:26-39

Recalling a relatively recent movie, we could call this study “Four miracles and a sending.”

Luke’s story is lengthy, dramatic, and common in its basic form to that of Matthew and Mark. It will not surprise any preacher or student of the Bible to learn that there are subtle and important differences among the three evangelists. 

The story of the demoniac is part of textual unit that runs from 8:22-9:6. These verses contain four miracle stories followed by the giving of power to the twelve to go out to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” two processes at which they succeed (9:2, 6). This unit precedes the feeding of the five thousand, Peter’s confession, and the Transfiguration story—the climax of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

The focus of the four miracle stories and the sending of the twelve is twofold:

  • Jesus gives the necessary power to the twelve before sending them off to do ministry.
  • Jesus has the power to give to them, as shown by the different kinds of miracles he accomplishes.

Luke follows in many respects Mark’s ordering of these stories (Mark 4:35-5:43). Mark, however, tells the story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth after this unit. His version would better be titled, “Four miracles and a rejection.” The stories in Mark do not demonstrate the power that Jesus and his chosen followers wield in the service of God’s reign. The point of the stories, including that of the demoniac, is quite different. Matthew includes these same stories from Mark’s gospel, but separates them and distributes them throughout his gospel. The demoniac shows up in Matthew 8:28-34 after Jesus stills the storm.

Focus on Luke’s story
Two important lead-ins to the story of the demoniac occur in Luke 8:21 and 25:

1. In 8:21 Jesus redefines family by stating that his family consists of those who “hear the word of God and do it.” It will be clear at the end of our text that the demoniac has become part of Jesus’ family.
2. Then, the disciples succumb to fear in the raging storm, Jesus asks, “Where is your faith? We will see in our story that fear is displayed by the demons, by the community who had lost their pigs and re-gained one of their people. Faith will be displayed by the demoniac who hears the word of God and does it (8:39).

These lessons will be of importance to the twelve who will “hear the word of God and do it,” when they follow Jesus’ commands to go heal and proclaim in 9:1-6. There is a cumulative effect of all these miracles that deepens and clarifies the power of faith for them and for contemporary hearers as well.

A number of points need to be made about this story to make it the dramatic revelation of Jesus’ power that it is:

  • The story takes place in a Gentile context. Jesus has gone to the east side of the lack where cities of the Decapolis are scattered. The local folk keep pigs. We are in Gentile territory and Jesus will heal a Gentile. It is no small matter that the demons in Gentile territory obey Jesus. (see below).
  • The demons (who are invisible powers whose activities range from annoyance to harassment and destruction) recognize Jesus. Such spirits or powers were understood to be abundant across the cultures of the ancient world. Each group of lesser powers obeyed a greater power. When Jesus consigns these demons to the pigs, he demonstrates the universality of his power by commanding demons who are likely to have served a non-Jewish master. Jesus’ power is greater. (Compare the healing of the slave girl from the Pythonic spirit in Acts 16:16-18). The Messiah of the God of the Jews has power that is not limited to Jews alone, but is universal.
  • The man’s community has tried to preserve both him and themselves from the power of the demons. Shackling and guarding him allowed them to feed him and keep him alive while keeping themselves safe. When unshackled, he leaves the world of the living for the world of the tombs. His life under the power of demons is a paradox of being shackled in a fearful community or freed in a terrible loneliness.
  • When the demon (who is the one in dialogue with Jesus) leaves the man, his life is re-ordered. Unshackled he is able not only to be in the presence of other persons, but even to sit at the feet of Jesus. Real human freedom is lived in human community under the power of self restraint.
  • Furthermore, real human freedom is a gift and is expressed by discipleship. Sitting at the feet of someone is a clear expression for being a disciple (Compare Mary in Luke 10:39 or Acts 22:3).
  • The demoniac has been saved.  In verse 36 many translations (including the NRSV) tell us that demoniac had been “healed.” This is certainly correct. We are again looking at the Greek word that can be translated as either saved or healed. We need to ask ourselves why we see such a difference between these two words in English. The man is healed from his demon possession, from the horrible slavery that had bound up his life with the dead in the place of tombs. He is at the same time saved from that horrible slavery, freed to re-join his community, able to sit quietly to learn, and strong enough to articulate both desire (verse 38) and assent to his own vocation.
  • While this man wanted desperately to follow Jesus and was prepared to hop in the boat even as Jesus was pulling away, he was sent back to his city. This is not the way Jesus addresses many who seek to follow him (compare 9:57, 59, 61). We cannot generalize about what Jesus asks of his followers. Vocation is unique to the one called. Often it seems that we are called to do that which we do not want to do. How unbelievably difficult it would have been for the demoniac to return to his home town where he was so well known. People would have watched him carefully for a long time. He probably would not have married. Not only had he been mad, but his cure had cost the townspeople their living.
  • Notice that Jesus commands the man to go home and declare how much God has done for you.” The man, however, testifies to what he know—how much Jesus had done for him. There is a great freedom and strength in witnesses to what we know instead of always pressing ourselves or others to say more than we truly can. The man told the truth as he knew it (Compare the once blind man in John 10). 
  • Finally, we dare not ignore the difficulties in this passage—very real difficulties for all disciples. These difficulties beset us from the inside and the outside. One of them is fear. What we do not understand, what interrupts our relatively orderly lives, even if it is for someone’s good, frightens us. How can this be? What might this be? Where does this power come from? What if it turns against me? What does this power want? All good questions that make science fiction movies so fascinating and scary. These are the questions of the demoniac’s townsfolk.
  • Add to the fear the fact that their economy has been destroyed by the loss of their pigs and we can understand why they can’t run Jesus out of town fast enough. What would farmers do in my own Midwestern location if someone destroyed their livestock? They would be unlikely to look around to see who benefitted from that destruction or to commend it, even if they did understand. The lives of families are at stake. When the healed/saved demoniac returns home, he is very courageous indeed.

Since his situation is that of most of us, that is, we return home to say what the Lord has done for us, this passage confronts us with the need for courage, the difficulty of going back home to speak with people who know us well about our own salvation and healing, and the power of the Lord to free us for such a life.