The healing of the Gerasene Demoniac has to be one of the oddest episodes in the New Testament; it’s certainly one of the most memorable. Who wouldn’t remember a bunch of demon-possessed pigs running off a cliff? That’s not something you see everyday. (Also, it always leaves me feeling a little ambivalent about BBQ).
As odd as this episode is–indeed, because of its oddity–it has captured the imaginations of Christians for centuries. In the early church hymns were inspired by it. One of these deals with the affliction of the demoniac, saying “Then a man bereft of reason, /dwelling in sepulchral caves,/ bound with cruel and grinding fetters and/ with raging frenzy torn,/ Rushes forth and kneels in worship, as the saving Christ draws near.” (Prudentius, Hymn 9)
This hymn gets at the heart of the matter. It may be a strange situation, but the importance of it is defined by the fact that in this narrative we see “the saving Christ draw near.”
It is important to understand is that Luke intends his recounting of this event to stand as the second in a series of three miracle stories displaying the authority and power that Jesus exercises. These stories stand as a sort of triptych to the authority of Christ.
The healing of the demoniac is bookended by Jesus’ calming of the storm, a demonstration of power over the threatening and chaotic natural world (Luke 8:22-25) and the raising of Jairus’ daughter which demonstes his authority over disease, and even death itself (Luke 8:40-56). Like the other two stories, this story is about Jesus’ power and authority.
But I think Luke would be disappointed in us if we didn’t take note of some other important features of this section of his Gospel. This story recounts a unique instance in that it is Jesus’ only journey to a predominantly Gentile area. They travel “across to the other side of the lake” (8:22), and come to the country of the Gerasenes, which we’re told is opposite Galilee (v. 26). So the presence of the swine is explained by the fact that this is not simply an area where some Gentiles lives, but an area in which they made up a majority.
It’s also important to consider the fact that while this was an area where the population was dominated by Gentiles, but that it was also an area that was part of biblical Israel.
So we’re faced with this strange occurrence. Jesus comes across the lake, having stilled the waters, and reaches the other side only to be immediately confronted by a man in dire circumstances. Luke gives us a heart-wrenching description of the man’s life.
“For a long time” we’re told, “he had worn no clothes…” not only that, but “he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” Later, we’re told that “he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles” when the demons seized him “he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.”
This man was so totally alienated from others that he has been deprived of some of the most symbolically fundamental elements of humanity, clothing and shelter, to say nothing of self-control and reason. Chained, perhaps partially for his own protection, but probably out of simple fear, he is driven away from society to live among the dead.
I’m not sure what could make this a more pitiable situation, a more hopeless way of living. But with Jesus comes hope.
It is remarkable how many elements of ritual impurity and uncleanness there are in such a short narrative: the country of the Gentiles, the tombs, the swine, and of course the demons. All of this serves to highlight the fact that something extremely important is happening here.
Some commentators, in attempting to explain the casting of the demons into the swine, argue that perhaps Jesus allows the demons to enter the pigs as a way of passing judgment on the fact that there were people within the bounds of biblical Israel who were not being faithful to the Law. I have to say that it doesn’t sound very Jesus like. But maybe the idea is not a complete loss. Maybe this is about Jesus taking back some territory, leading a dawn raid. Maybe this is about Jesus saving someone for the Kingdom, not of earthly Israel, but of God.
The context of these three stories is the demonstration of the extent of Jesus’ power and authority. Here, Jesus enters the territory of the Gentiles and, before he even speaks to the demoniac, he has commanded the demons to leave the man (Luke 8:29). This sets up the conflict, with the man falling down at Jesus’ feet, I might even say compelled to kneel before Christ. At the same time, the demons within him, recognizing Jesus’ authority, but still hoping to negotiate, cry out and ask to be allowed to go into the swine.
It’s possible, given the association in the ancient world between knowledge of someone’s name and having power over them, that the demons were identifying Christ by name in a vain attempt to save themselves. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (Luke 8:28). In response, Jesus forces the demon to give his name, only to discover that there isn’t simply a single demonic entity, but a “legion,” a number possibly in the thousands.
It’s at this point that the herd of swine “are introduced” as one commentator notes “by way of the concession requested by the demons. Jesus allows the transfer of the demons into the swine with the result that they, like the demoniac before him, are ‘driven’ (v.29) into self-destruction. They are driven to their death, whereas, through their influence in his life, the demoniac had been relegated to an existence among the dead.”
The destruction of the pigs, while seemingly strange, provides an opportunity for the possible breadth of demonic destruction to be appreciated, and by extension, for the story of the demoniac’s deliverance to be witnessed to by others, namely the swineherds who spread word in the city about what has happened. As St. John Chrysostom put it: “He [Jesus] did this so that you might know that the demons would have done the same thing to human beings and would have drowned them if God had allowed them to do so. But he restrained the demons, stopped them, and allowed them to do no such thing. When their power was transferred to the swine, it became clear to all witnesses what they would have done to persons. From this we learn that if the demons had the power to posses swine, they also could have possessed humans.” (Discourses Against Judaizing Christians 8.6)
In the end the man who had been deprived of so much, has it restored to him by Christ. Where there is now hope where there was none, salvation where there had been only torment. When the people come to see what has happened, after they hear the news of the swine, they see the amazing change in the man. “He had been uncontrollable, but now he is sitting at Jesus’ feet; he had been naked, but now he is clothed; he had behaved as a demented man, but now he is in his right mind. His position [at Jesus’ feet] portrays [the new calm that characterizes him] in direct contrast to the behavior formerly characteristic of him. It also indicates his submission to Jesus and his status as a disciple. Luke presents the former demoniac as a learner, sitting at the feat of his teacher. His former condition of nakedness had symbolized his lack of status, his alienation from other humans; similarly, his clothes now signal his acceptance. His former [presentation] as a maniac has been replaced by self-dicsipline and […] dignity.” (Joel Green)
As I wrote in the beginning, this is a very odd story. But it is also a hopeful message, and it is in many ways familiar. Many of us find ourselves afflicted by forces beyond our control. While we may not characterize them as demonic, they can serve to alienate us from one another and from God–and to that extent they are, indeed, demonic. We can find ourselves lonely, frightened, angry. In times like today, when the economy is in such a challenging position, some of us may struggle with the inability to make ends meet, the loss (or postponement) of retirement, a feeling of helplessness. For some these feelings could be heightened because of disaster, such as the recent floods, or by tragedy such as the death or illness of a loved one. Regardless of the challenges we face, we can take heart in the fact that Christ has not come for a select few, but has instead come into the world crossing boundaries, bringing people together and expanding the Kingdom of God while promising everlasting life to each one of us. We too can trust that if we throw ourselves at Christ’s feet, whatever our trials, he will be with us, offer us hope and bring us ever closer to him.
We must never forget that the man out of whom came a Legion of demons, was brought back to his right mind, and was sent out by Christ to share the good news of his salvation. In many ways he was the first to carry the message of Christ to the Gentiles, to demonstrate that the love of God extends to all. Because we are inheritors of this mission, we are also inheritors of this promise, and this deliverance. Amen.
Finally, consider these powerful words from a hymn by Ephraim the Syrian:
“Look too at Legion: when in anguish he begged, our Lord permitted the demons to enter into the herd. He asked for respite, without deception, in his anguish, and our Lord in his kindness granted this request. His compassion for the demoniac is a rebuke to the demons, showing how much anguish his love suffers in desiring that humans should live. Encouraged by the words I had heard, I knelt down and wept there, and spoke before our Lord: ‘Legion recieved his request from you without any tears. Permit me, with my tears, to make my request.’ (Hymn 12.8-9)