Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 19, 2022
Luke 8:26-39 Commentary
This is most definitely one of those texts that sends our modern senses spinning for application. Most of us do not have experience with exorcisms, and are generally uncomfortable with the idea/reality of demons.
It may seem odd to say, but we can almost side-step the whole demonic exorcism if we focus our attention on the activity of Jesus Christ. In fact, this story follows very closely Jesus’ display of power over natural forces (calming the storm), and the next story will show his power to heal. In other words, the story reveals some things about Christ; particularly that he has power over the evil spirits wreaking havoc in the world.
Along with this power, however, Jesus also exhibits other attributes of God, namely his mercy.
For one, Jesus clearly has mercy upon the man who is possessed by demons. He mercifully brings an end to the man’s awful suffering. The man is described in hopeless terms that underscore the loss of his humanity: he is naked, he lives among the dead, he goes wild and breaks the chains meant for safety. He no longer goes by his given name but by the description of his suffering, calling himself “Legion” because of the number of demons who have taken hold of him.
“What have you to do with me?” the desperate man cries out. It’s a prayer leaping from the inmost being. This man has lost all and it seems like he was considered lost and forsaken by everyone else—the crowd’s concern and fear is about the power Jesus puts on display, there is no hint of gladness that the man is healed. Further, when the man is healed and whole, he only adds to their fear: in sickness or in health, they will have nothing to do with him.
But it is not so with the merciful Jesus. The man met Jesus on the beach and Jesus met him with mercy. To signify this great act of mercy, Luke uses the perfect tense for “what had happened” (verses 34 and 35). Luke even uses the passive perfect tense to describe the man’s restoration, describing him in verse 36 as sitting at Jesus feet, clothed and in his right mind. (Clothed is in the passive perfect.) The perfect tense is used to denote an event that happened once but has long-term impact. Verbs in the perfect tense describe turning points in our stories. This man was restored, Jesus clothed him in a way that could not be taken away from him.
And in this very real way, Jesus’ mercy for the man-who-was-healed is symbolic of Christ’s mercy: it is powerfully and indestructibly restorative for humanity. The great act of mercy done on the cross was done once-for-all to set us free; we are now clothed with his blood and righteousness.
But further still, Jesus even has mercy on the demons. They plead with Jesus to let them enter the pigs because they do not want Jesus to order them to go back to the abyss. The abyss is where evil comes from and where evil will eventually be gathered and imprisoned before completely swallowed up to be no more (see Revelation 9, 11, and 20). And mercifully, Jesus allows them what they ask for—it is unclear if they meet their end with the pigs, or if they become free again to roam the world. (Sorry, my demonology isn’t that thorough…)
So while Jesus shows mercy to the man, he also shows mercy to the man’s tormentors. That might not always be a comforting thought, but it does communicate mercy well: no one gets what they deserve, we all receive better than we have merited.
And maybe, just maybe, it is not only the power of Jesus Christ that stokes the fear among the local people, but also the mercy on display. Jesus does the impossible by helping this man that they have resorted to putting in chains. And Jesus appears to be so confident in his ability to keep the situation in command that he doesn’t destroy the enemy/cause of the problem. Jesus does, however, bring a cost the community with his mercy: their swine have been sacrificed for the sake of the life and restoration of their neighbour.
Luke mentions their fear twice. They were afraid by what happened to the pigs and by how the man had been transformed. A little bit like most of us, instead of trying to understand more about the demons, etc., they simply ask Jesus to leave so that they can ignore their fears.
But Jesus won’t really allow that either, and mercifully leaves the healed man to be there to bear witness to his neighbours. Though the man rightfully wants to follow his Saviour, Jesus tells him to stay and testify to what God has done for him. The demons and their destructive force’s inability to defeat the Lord Jesus Christ will be a living story in their midst. They will be reminded of their fear. And maybe, just maybe, by being confronted with what “happened” over and over again, the people’s fear will lead them to awe and wonder.
The demons, the man-delivered-from-the-demons, and the crowd of locals all petition/ask Jesus for different things. I want to highlight, however, that a different Greek word is used for each of them (even if your translation, like mine, uses the same English word “beg” in the instance of the demons and the man).
- The demons make a strong request or appeal to Jesus to be allowed to go into the pigs nearby.
- But the man, at the beginning when he asks whether Jesus will end his torment, and at the end when he asks to go with Jesus, the man prays. He uses the same word in each instance, which is something slightly more like a prayer than a question or a plea/begging.
- For their part, the crowd simply asks Jesus to go away!
It’s very likely that the original audience would have had no problem with the swineherd meeting their doom because of becoming possessed by the demons. Since pigs were unclean animals to the Jews, the unclean spirits entering into them would have made sense and wouldn’t have changed or impacted the story that Luke was sharing with them.
I recently watched the movie Nightmare Alley (2021), which is based on a book and film that originally came out in 1946-47. It’s not a movie for everyone, but one of the main storylines is about Carnival life and “freak shows” in the early to mid-twentieth century. One of the attractions at the travelling carnival was the “geek.” Back then, a “geek” was someone very much like the Gerasene Demoniac: they lived little better than animals and were usually plagued by sickness and disease from their living conditions and substance addictions. Often, they were paid for their role in the show with liquor or amphetamines, keeping them stuck in a cycle that could only lead to destruction. In the movie, the geek is literally kept in a cage (which he also escapes at one point) and stokes fear with his wildness, eating live animals raw. He is an attraction because he is no longer human but something else. One researcher wondered about the audience’s attraction to the geek’s show: “[there was] a shade of empathy and horror… [Geeks] intentionally teetered between the balance of nearness and distance, never allowing the audience to feel completely safe or removed from the scene being witnessed.” In other words, like them but not like them, allowing for a voyeurism of what would otherwise be distasteful and disdainful action.
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