Commentary on Luke 8:26-39
At first glance, Luke’s version of Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac simply portrays Jesus as a healer sent by God.
After casting out demons, he will go on to heal a hemorrhaging woman and a twelve-year-old girl. More subtly, however, the story reveals Jesus as one with cosmic authority, able both to calm the chaotic waters and to free people from occupying powers.
Immediately after Jesus calms the storm, prompting his awe-stricken disciples to ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” they sail to the region of Gerasene, where they are confronted by a demon-possessed man. Naked, so overcome by violent impulses that he cannot be restrained even with chains and leg-shackles, excluded from the city, living among the tombs, he shows all the signs that the ancients used to diagnose possession by an unclean spirit. When he sees Jesus, he recognizes him and demands to know what there is between them. What does Jesus, the son of the most-high God, have to do with him? Then he begs Jesus not to torture him.
Is it the man talking, or is it the demons? The man himself may not know where his identity ends, and the possession begins. What is clear, however, is that Jesus will not allow the unclean spirits to keep on tormenting the man. Already, even before the man addresses him, he has commanded them to leave. Now Jesus asks the man’s name, but it is the demons who reply: “Legion,” they say, “for we are many.”
Until this point, the story sounds like a simple healing miracle. For people in the ancient Roman world, however, “Legion” had only one literal meaning: a unit of approximately six thousand Roman soldiers, the occupying army.1 Suddenly an exorcism takes on social and political significance, and Luke’s word choices throughout the story invite a closer look. When the man confronts Jesus, Luke uses a verb that he employs elsewhere of armies meeting in battle (Luke 14:31). When the demon “seizes” the man? That’s a verb used elsewhere when Christians are arrested and brought to trial (Acts 6:12; 19:29). The words for the hand and foot chains, for binding and guarding, are the same ones that Luke uses in Acts when the disciples are imprisoned. In short, the language of the whole episode evokes the experience of living under a brutal occupying power.
Furthermore, the region of Gerasene is the setting of a horrifying historical event. According to Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa (Jewish War, IV,ix,1). The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.
When the Legion occupying the demoniac encounters Jesus, it begs not to be consigned to the abyss. Rather surprisingly, Jesus permits Legion to enter into a herd of pigs instead. Jews regarded pigs as unclean, so this detail is a reminder that Jesus is in Gentile territory. It may well carry a more political meaning also. One of the emblems of Legio 10th Fretensis — used not only on banners but on everyday objects such as coins and bricks — was a pig. The 10th Fretensis participated in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, took the lead in reconquering Palestine, and was stationed in Jerusalem after the war. For the people of the area, pigs would have seemed a fitting destination for Legion. Here the story takes a darkly humorous turn, for Legion, thinking that it has avoided the abyss, promptly charges into the deep and drowns.
The pigkeepers witness the whole scene and run to spread the news. When they return with people from both the city and the countryside, the liberated man is sitting calmly at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. After hearing how he has been freed, the people do not celebrate his good news. Instead, overwhelming fear hems them in and holds them captive (the verb here is syneicho, used in Luke 19:43 of armies and in Luke 22:63 of the men guarding Jesus). Freedom is too dangerous, too costly. Though Legion has been expelled from the demoniac, the memory of Legion still controls his community. The Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave them. Jesus goes away as they have asked, but not before commanding the man to return to the city and explain what God has done for him. The man obeys, spreading far and wide the good news about the mighty work that God is doing in Jesus.
From the moment that the demoniac first confronts Jesus, the whole episode invites us to consider what Jesus has to do with the forces that occupy and control us. This way of reading neither denies the possibility of demon possession nor diminishes the miraculous healing. Instead, it challenges us to think more broadly about Jesus’ sovereignty over the powers that destroy human life.
How many people in our world are haunted by a traumatic past and tortured by memories? How many live unsheltered and inadequately clothed because of social and economic forces that they cannot overcome, no matter how hard they struggle? How many are imprisoned, regarded as barely human, excluded, cast out? How many are enslaved by addictions no longer knowing where the addiction ends, and their own selves begin? Where do the governing authorities separate people from their families, denying them the opportunity to seek better lives? Where do occupying armies still brutalize entire communities and hold them captive to fear?
Jesus comes to challenge and cast out every power that prevents us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image. Jesus claims sovereignty not just over our souls, but over our lives here on earth. Many among us resist that news, finding deliverance from Legion too frightening, too demanding, too costly. But those whom Jesus has healed and freed know that his liberating love is indeed good news, the gospel that he commands us to proclaim throughout our cities and towns. Still today God is at work in Jesus, bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
1 See the masterful discussion of Mark’s account of the Gerasene demoniac in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2008), pp. 190–194. In my opinion, Luke’s word choices make his telling of the story even more politically resonant than Mark’s.