The lectionary reading for Trinity 1, Year C, is Luke’s version of Jesus meeting and healing the demon-possessed man in the ‘region of the Gerasenes’ (Luke 8.26–39). The account occurs in all three Synoptic gospels; in Mark (the shortest gospel) the story is in the longest and most detailed version; Matthew 8.28–34 is the shortest, and just includes the main points in summary; here in Luke, the story is only a little bit shorter than in Mark, and Luke includes much of the detail.
Luke’s description of the location in verse 26 is less precise than Mark’s; he suggests that ‘the region of the Gerasenes’ is opposite Galilee, when it is most likely on the north east shore of the lake rather than the north west. (Mark uses a quite different phrase for ‘sailed across‘ in Mark 5.1, and this fits with the frequent crossings of the lake, and prominent mention of boats, which supports the idea of the influence of Peter on Mark’s narrative.) There is uncertainty about the exact location, as the name is not otherwise known, and Matthew includes other variants of the name; the most likely place is Khursi on the north-east shore, which has the ruins of an ancient church building.
Although ‘they’ sailed across (that is, Jesus and the disciples), it is striking that Jesus alone is mentioned alighting from the boat on the shore. The disciples have already been seriously shaken by the storm that overtook them as they sailed (the immediately preceding story in all three gospel accounts) and Mark 4.41 tells us that they were ‘terrified’. So the lack of mention strongly suggest that, coming to a strange land, and seeing such a strange man approaching the boat from the tombs, the disciples thought it best to stay in the boat! In fact, Jesus is the only person who features in the dialogue with the man until the locals are mentioned after the drama has all died down in Luke 8.34.
Luke follows Mark in recounting what happened out of order, as if the chaos in the man’s life is reflected in the chaos of the events as narrative unfolds. First, he mentions that the man comes to meet Jesus; then he includes a (shorter than Mark’s) explanation of who the man is; then he mentions the man’s cry to Jesus; then he explains that Jesus has already been commanding the spirit to come out of the man; and finally Luke completes the explanation of who the man is, which Mark has included earlier.
In doing this, Luke includes two elements which connect with other parts of his narrative. First, Luke notes that the ‘unclean spirit’ had driven the man into ‘solitary places’ (NIV), translating the word eremos that elsewhere refers to the desert (from it we get our word ‘eremitic’ and then ‘hermit‘ for someone who pursues a solitary life). Thus Luke connects this spiritual battle with the battle Jesus has already won in facing temptation in the desert in Luke 4.1–13. The question of power is not far from the surface there, with Jesus returning from the desert ‘full of the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 4.14) and the power dynamics are quite explicit here.
The second element of significance is the phrase the man (or demon) uses in addressing Jesus: ‘Son of the Most High God!’ (Luke 8.28). This matches exactly the wording in Mark 5.7, but it has added significance for Luke. For one thing, his readers who have come from a pagan, polytheistic background will recognise the claim being made, that Jesus is not exercising the power of one god amongst many but has a distinctive status in relation to the one God who is over all. But as a result, we find this phrase is of particular importance in Luke’s wider narrative. It is repeated twice by Gabriel in announcing to Mary that she will bear this extraordinary child (Luke 1.32, 35), and it is a phrase used by the spirit-possessed girl in Acts 16.17. So this episode offers evidence of the fulfilment of Gabriel’s words to Mary—but also describes a ministry of Jesus that is continued by the apostles in Luke’s second volume.
Jesus’ asking of the demon’s name accords with ancient belief that to know someone’s name, their true identity, was to have power over them. The exchange fits with the earlier addressing of Jesus by the demon, revealing his true identity, and forming part of this ‘power contest’ between the two. The use of the name ‘legion’, evoking the Roman soldiers who occupy the land of Israel, would have been particularly relevant to Luke’s pagan readers. Some modern interpreters read the exchange back into the political situation, seeing this as a metaphorical exploration of the political dynamic—but that is surely to read the metaphor in the wrong direction. For Jesus and the man, the ‘unclean spirit(s)’ or ‘demon(s)’ are an occupying force who have no rightful place in the man’s life, and Jesus’ deliverance of him forms part of ‘setting [him] free to worship without fear’ (Luke 1.74).
Here, as earlier (Luke 8.29), Luke has smoothed out the narrative by explaining what the demons (earlier, Jesus) say, rather than simply quoting them as in the Marcan account. But in Mark, they ask not to be sent out of the area; here, Luke sharpens the request, so they ask not to be sent ‘to the Abyss’, the chaotic ‘deep’ (Heb tehom) of the Old Testament and in pagan thought the realm of the dead which we also find mentioned in the Book of Revelation (Rev 9.1, 11.7, 20.1 and elsewhere).
The sending of the demons/unclean spirits into the (unclean) pigs offers us a wonderful irony, and one that will have worked for those who know something about Jewish food laws as well as for Jewish readers themselves. That the pigs hurl themselves over the cliff makes clear the destructive power of the demons, destructive power that has already been evident in the life of the man up until now. It is not surprising that this story is paired with the episode that immediately precedes it in all three gospels; together they underscore the power of Jesus to bring peace to a chaotic world, in fulfilment of Ps 65.7: ‘You calm the seas and their raging waves, and the tumult of the nations.’
Jesus has ultimate authority over evil, whether that evil is manifested in nature or in the life of an individual. By the end of these stories, the audience is hopefully much better prepared to answer the pressing question, ‘Who can this man be?’ (Luke 8.25) (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia Commentary on Luke, p 140).
The narrative offers us potent material for reflection on the ministry of Jesus.
First, there is the significant presence of dissociation. The man has become cut off from his community—and it is striking that the end of this episode is focused emphatically and rather surprisingly on Jesus restoring him to the place he has come from, sending him home in every sense of the word. There is dissociation of the man from his body, as he cuts and harms himself, and dissociation from the forces at work in him, as the voice of the unclean spirit(s) speak to Jesus. These dynamics of dissociation are very evident in our world, with fractured communities and broken relationship, the apparent rise of mental health issue, individualism, and the defining of the self detached from bodily identity at the heart of the debates about sexuality and transgender ideology. There is no sense in which I am suggesting that any of these things are the result of ‘demon possession’ but Luke, like Mark, is telling us the impact of Jesus’ ministry on this complex range of issues.
Secondly, contrary to what has been suggested in relation to disability and Jesus’ healing ministry, there is little sense here that Jesus uses the disabled as a ‘prop’ to demonstrate his power, with the individuals concerned ‘marginalised in the narrative’. Jesus uses his power not as a demonstration, but for restoration—restoring the man to dignity (‘clothed’, Luke 8.35), sanity (‘in his right mind’) and community (‘to your own people’ Luke 8.39). Yet the response is fear; the people are not prepared to accept Jesus’ reordering of their world.
This leads the third observation: just as the disciples had been terrified by both the storm and Jesus’ calming of it on the way over to the Gerasenes, the local people here respond with fear. When they ask Jesus to leave, he does so without any objection; Jesus’ ministry will not be imposed on those unwilling to receive it. Yet he leaves the man, not only restored but with a purpose and a mission, to tell of what God (in Jesus) has done for him. He has (in Tom Wright’s words) become the first apostle to the Gentiles, anticipating what will unfold in the larger narrative of Luke-Acts.