THE gospel meets resistance whenever it challenges the powers that dominate and oppress human beings. The Gerasene demoniac approaches Jesus, but the demons which possess him cry out against the Lord and ask him to leave.
Knowledge of someone’s name was believed to give power over them. This is why the demons shout out Jesus’s name. It is also why he forces them to reveal their name. As David Lyle Jeffrey observes, “We can hardly miss the military overtones [of the name] legion.” It exemplifies the “cosmic warfare motif” in St Luke’s wider narrative (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
Jesus’s victory over these demons declares his sovereignty over all the powers which dominate and oppress. St Ephrem the Syrian writes that “‘Legion’, which had been chastened, is a symbol of the world. Christ engaged in battle against Satan on the mountain and against Legion, the chief of his force. When they entered the swine, he drowned them at that very moment.”
The demoniac, though in a particularly disturbed and violent state before his healing, is likewise a symbol for all of fallen humanity, enslaved by the powers of destruction and death. His transformation into someone “clothed and in his right mind” prefigures the new creation won by Jesus’s paschal triumph, into which we are incorporated by baptism into his suffering, death, and resurrection.
This theme is taken up in our epistle, in which Paul tells the Galatians that “as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Hans Urs von Balthasar comments that “Christians do not each wear their own personal garment; rather, they put on the garment of Christ. The living Christ takes all of them into himself so that they become ‘one’ in him, thereby also inwardly participating in his unique destiny” (Light of the Word).
The scene of Jesus’s healing is largely Gentile territory, in which ritually unclean swine were farmed. The point is underlined by the language of the demoniac, as he uses the pagan formula “Most High God” for the divine name (Judith Lieu, Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
Once the demoniac has been healed by Jesus, he “begs” to join the Lord. But, in a surprising response, Jesus sends him away, instructing him to “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” As Jeffrey observes, Jesus’s instruction bears rich fruit: the man “becomes a kind of Gentile evangelist, for he ‘proclaimed’ (kerysson) to the city”. In this way, “the ministry to the ‘nations’ — to be continued by Paul — has been here pioneered by the Lord himself.”
The broadening of the Church to embrace the Gentiles is a central theme of the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul declares that, in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It is important to remember how alien such a sentiment was to both Roman and Greek thought. However imperfectly the Church has embodied this reality, the equality of all humanity in Christ stands at the heart of the revelation she has received.
In healing the demoniac, Jesus provokes resistance — not only from the demons, but from those who witness the transformation that he has wrought. The Gerasenes are “afraid” when they see a man whom all would have known in his state of violent disturbance. They ask Jesus to leave the area. They are terrified by his power, but also, presumably, by the impact of his miracle on the livelihoods of the swineherds.
Throughout scripture, human beings have to choose whether to embrace the costly disruption of God’s liberating work, from the freed Hebrew slaves who look back with nostalgia to the certainties of captivity (Exodus 16.3) to the owners of the slave-girl healed by Paul (Acts 16.19). The immediate reaction of the Gerasenes is to resist salvation, although the final verse of the passage leaves us with the hope that the “proclamation” of the healed man will yet turn hearts and minds.
This is the hope articulated in our Old Testament reading. The Lord laments the disobedience of his people, as they “walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices”. Despite their rebellion, God continues to call his people back, and to forgive those who repent and cry out to him for salvation.