Luke 8:26-39 (NIV)
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.
32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.
38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
This story has always been a challenging one for me. Perhaps it is time for me to admit something that very few of you are aware of: I really like pigs. Growing up, probably from the age of 9, I raised at least one pig a year. They were like pink, hairy family members…with curly tails. When we would have a litter in the middle of the winter, the runts often found their way into our house and were fed with a baby bottle. My mother owned two potbelly pigs at one point, though they were never able to reproduce as we had hoped. I even had a small business at one time, owning a male and several females, raising the offspring and selling them for a profit. (It was profitable for me, my dad provided the barn and feed.) I like to tell people that at one time I owned four sows and pigs (which sounds like 4,000 pigs if you say it fast enough).
So as a young, aspiring pig farmer, this story bothered me. Why did Jesus have to send the demons into pigs? Why not cats? We had a lot of cats around the farm. The death of a herd of cats would seem to cause less of an economic impact. The death of these pigs would have been costly for the owner of the herd and perhaps for the community as well. Remember, this was a part of their food source.
As a young, aspiring pig farmer, all I could say is, “I don’t have all of the answers.”
I still find myself asking some of the same questions, though not out of my affinity for swine. But I also have a number of other questions for which I have no answer. I really don’t know what to do with this demon-possessed man because I do not have any experience with demon possession. I do not deny the presence of evil in our world, but I have never seen evil manifested in such a way – other than in the movies.
Many modern scholars look at demon possession in the New Testament and make the statement that often these stories look a lot like what we would call mental illness. I think that there is a good case for this, and that when Jesus talks about people being possessed, he is simply using the language of the people at the time. First century hearers wouldn’t understand stories about Jesus healing the manic-depressive or the schizophrenic.
So was this man demon possessed or was he mentally ill? I don’t have all of the answers. However, with all of the details that we are given in the text, it would seem to me that this man was troubled by more than something of this world.
What I want to do today is to encourage you to not miss the forest for the trees. We can spend a lot of time discussing exactly what this man’s problem was, or we can try to understand why Luke included this story in his gospel and what God wants to show us through this text.
Luke tells us that Jesus and his disciples sail across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. This area is made up of Gentiles, non-Jewish people. When they reach the shore they are met by a man who did not have control of his mind or his body. He was possessed.
This man was so tormented that he did not fit in well with the rest of society. He tore his clothes and then ran around naked. He had no house to call his home, so he lived among the dead in the cemetery. He was considered dangerous; dangerous to himself, dangerous to others. So he was bound with chains to protect everyone. But he was able to break the chains and remained a threat.
When Jesus meets this man he asks what his name is. The man replies, “My name is Legion.”
He was not just possessed by a demon, but by a legion of demons. A legion was anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers in the Roman Army. So this man was not just possessed, he was occupied.
Jesus orders the demons to leave the man and they obey. But these demons did not want to be thrown into the abyss. They offer an alternative and instead they ask Jesus to do them a favor: Please, let us possess this herd of pigs instead.
Jesus, it would seem, is even compassionate to the demonic.
So the demons possess the swine, and then they run off a steep bank into the lake. Now pigs are actually really good swimmers. Unfortunately, demonic pigs sink like a rock. All of the pigs drown.
This brings me to another question for which I have no answer: Is it really better to occupy a dead pig at the bottom of the lake than it is to be thrown into the abyss? What’s in that hole?
Rather than wrestling with what we cannot know, I want to look at what is clear. The first is the love of Jesus. He and his disciples get into a boat, cross the lake, and enter hostile territory. We often think of Jesus’ ministry as being to the Jews; indeed he even says this to be his mission. But I doubt that Jesus’ trip to the region of Geresene was an accident. He got in this boat and set out for Gentile territory.
When Jesus got to this area, he healed one man, got back in his boat, and left. Now, granted, the people encouraged him to leave. But again, this is Jesus. He could have stuck around if he really wanted to.
Jesus gets off the boat, heals a man, and leaves. He doesn’t stop to see the sights. He doesn’t grab a sandwich or some fresh seafood on the shore. He crosses a lake just to heal this one man.
This aspect of today’s text reminds me of the stories from Luke 15 where God is compared to a widow that loses her coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a father who loses a son. God is willing to go to great lengths to restore those who are lost, even if only one is lost. Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake, healed one man, and then went back. Jesus told the demon-possessed man, I will cross the lake for you.
In fact, he crossed a lot more than a lake for us. Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:5-8:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
As we seek to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, we must be willing to cross the lake to help others, just as Jesus crossed not only the lake, but the heaven and earth divide to help us.
A second observation is somewhat indicative of our human condition. I find it fascinating that when the swine herders go and tell everyone what has happened they come to Jesus and demand that he leaves because they are overcome with fear.
I get this, on one level. I mean, they just saw a heard of pigs become possessed and run into a lake. That’s got to be a scary thing. Even though I’ve never seen one before, I can tell you with confidence that demon pigs scare me.
On the other hand, they have had this man with them who has been possessed by demons for what Luke calls “a long time.” They have tried to restrain him with chains and he has broken them. He is homeless. He was naked. Yet it is Jesus they fear. It is Jesus that they ask to leave.
Evidently an unarmed Jewish man is less desirable in your company than a naked, homeless, chain-breaking, demon-possessed man.
I think that this just goes to show how easily we become comfortable with what we know, even though better is possible. What do you think was scarier to the townspeople, seeing demon-possessed pigs run into the lake or seeing the formerly demon-possessed man sitting among them? Dressed. Calm. Normal. Jesus came in and messed with things as they knew them.
As many of you know, I am a person who really likes routine. If you want to tick me off, mess with my routine. Go ahead, try it.
But I think that we as humans do more than just like our routines; we fear the unknown. Sometimes we are so comfortable in the way that things are, even when things are “bad,” that any change at all brings about a sense of anxiety.
My friend Phil Kniss wrote this to me in response to today’s scripture:
Power that binds and oppresses people is fearful and difficult to face. But sometimes, equally troublesome, equally mysterious, and just as difficult to face, is the power that liberates. Freedom can mean a loss of security and control. At least bondage is predictable. When we are chained to a wall, we know where we’re going to be tomorrow and the next day. But after the chains fall off, we don’t have a clue. We have to learn how to be free. Maybe that’s why some persons who are abused find it so difficult to leave their abuser. It’s frightening to stay. But it’s also frightening to leave, and walk down a road you know nothing about.
I am reminded of some friends from Ohio who worked with an outreach to the homeless population in Cleveland. Every Sunday, they would work with their church to make sandwiches, iced tea, and potato salad to pack up and take to a park in Cleveland, about a 45 minute drive away, to share with the homeless people.
This ministry was a great way to build relationships with the people who considered the park their home. They soon knew one another by name, they knew one another’s stories, they knew one another’s families.
After a while they developed a special relationship with a man, whom we will call Kenny. Kenny was physically able to work and he expressed an interest in find a job and a place to live. He said he wanted to reconnect with family that he had not heard from in years. So my friends found him a job – nothing special, but a job none the less – and they were able to cosign a lease with him and cover his security deposit and first month’s rent.
Kenny came to church with my friends one Sunday they shared their success story with the congregation. Kenny, this homeless, jobless man, estranged from his family now had a place to call home, a steady income, and an opportunity to reconnect with his family.
The next Sunday, Kenny was gone.
Nobody could reach him. Nobody could find him. He hadn’t been to work for several days and there was no response to knocks on the door of his apartment. My friends were understandably worried about Kenny.
They didn’t see or hear anything from Kenny until the next Sunday, when they took their weekly picnic meal to the park in Cleveland. There was Kenny.
I don’t think that life was easier for Kenny living in the park. I don’t think that he was lazy and just didn’t want to work. I think that sometimes we are so uncomfortable with change and we so fear the unknown that we are willing to remain in difficult situations.
This is why the addict returns to the needle. This is why wife returns to the abusive husband. And this is why the people want Jesus to leave. When they had a demonic man in their midst they knew who they were and what was expected of them. Now everyone needed new identities, purposes, and roles.
The good news is that Jesus can provide that, too.
Jesus doesn’t just leave Geresene when the people attempt to chase him out. No, he found someone to continue the ministry that he has just begun by commissioning a missionary there. I often think of Paul as a great missionary to the Gentiles, and surely he was that. But he was not the first.
When Jesus gets back in his boat to go back over the lake, the recently healed and restored man asks to go with him. His gratitude is understandable. Jesus did just give him his life back. But Jesus says in verse 39, “‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.”
Some of the greatest evangelists in the New Testament are those that experience healing from Jesus. And notice that Jesus does not sit the man down and teach him all about theology. Jesus doesn’t test the man to see if he has a good understanding of justification by grace through faith or if he upholds the “right” version of the atonement. Jesus just says, “Go tell your story.”
We can learn a lot from this. I believe that there is a place to do theology and there is a time to learn about atonement theories and methods of justification. But if you want to be an effective witness to the transformative love of Jesus, all you need to do is tell your story. It is a story that you can’t get wrong. It isn’t like someone is going to call you out on it like they might if you try to explain some complicated theory or doctrine.
You simply say, “This is what God has done in my life.”
I still have a lot of questions about this story. But some things are clear: Jesus is willing to cross a lake for you and for me. Jesus wants to restore us, giving us a new identity in Him. And it is up to us how we use that new identity. Will you chose to go back to your familiar, yet harmful life? Or will you go and tell what God has done for you?