Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Instead, I think we might best understand these stories about demon possession as stories about captivity to outside forces. The man in today’s story from Luke’s gospel literally has chains hanging from his body from the many different times he had been shackled for his own protection (or the protection of the city). Whether or not you believe in literal demons, it’s not hard to recognize in this story a man who is bound by a power greater than himself.
The story immediately before this is about Jesus calming the storm. He and the disciples set out from Galilee across the lake to the country of the Gerasenes. Along the way, a terrible storm arises. Jesus, you might remember, is so unconcerned by the terrible wind and the waves lapping over the gunwales that he is actually sleeping in the back. When the whimpering disciples wake him, he yawns, stretches, and tells the storm to take it down a notch, whereupon everything is calm. The disciples begin to realize that this man in their boat is no ordinary man; he wields power over creation itself—a power that only God can claim.
This story is a parallel of that one, because in this story we learn that in addition to having authority over wind and waves, Jesus here also has authority over supernatural beings. Evil spirits that could possess any human mind at will must ask his permission before leaving the man to inhabit the pigs grazing on the hill. You might have noticed that at the end of this story, Jesus instructs the man to return home and “declare how much God has done for you;” but what he does instead is to proclaim “how much Jesus had done for him.” This is what Luke wants us to take from this story: Jesus not only has God’s authority and wields God’s power, he is God in the flesh.
This is good news for the demoniac. He is possessed by a legion of demons, held captive by many powerful forces far beyond his control. There is no one in his city or in his country or in the whole Roman Empire who can help him: not Herod, not Pilate, not even the mighty Caesar who commands the legions of the empire. The only one who can help him is the Son of God made flesh; only he has authority over everything in heaven and on earth and beneath the earth. That is who frees him from his captivity.
But according to the gospel story, unlike the afflicted man, the people of the city are less than grateful when Jesus casts out the demons. They are frightened by Jesus’ power, and politely but urgently ask him to leave and not come back. While they are grateful for casting the evil out of this man, they are fearful of what other evils he may cast out, those convenient and necessary evils they have become so accustomed to—even dependent upon—for their daily lives.
We have our own necessary evils, don’t we? Those things we wish could be different, but which nonetheless help us lead the kind of lives we choose to lead. I’m talking about things like the rules and gates that help keep the riff-raff out of our neighborhoods, the steady supply of fossil fuels that make our neat and convenient modern lives possible, the implicit biases and prejudices that we use to keep ourselves safe from people who might harm us. I’m talking about economic practices that benefit the haves, but which exploit and oppress the have-nots. I’m talking about the ubiquitous plastic packaging that keeps everything we buy neat and clean and fresh, but which also washes up on beaches and collects in giant, mid-ocean gyres.
These are just some of the “necessary evils” that we may not like, but which we may also not want to give up. The promise of Jesus to cleanse us from these demons may seem more like a threat than a promise, and, so like the Gerasenes, we may become afraid. Instead of seeing this exorcism as a promise of release from captivity, we might see it as a threat to our way of life.
This is why when this story plays out again in Jerusalem, it ends exactly the same way. Jesus’ own people responded just like the Gentile Gerasenes: asking him to leave and never come back. Of course, they used nails to make their request, but it had the same effect. Luke wants us to see that Jesus’ promise isn’t rejected by just Jews or Gentiles, but only the heathen or the pious: his message is roundly rejected by all humanity, because we fear the freedom he brings: the freedom from all evil, even the necessary ones.
Like the Gerasenes, Jesus’ disciples were afraid in the boat. They were afraid of the storm, afraid that they might be shipwrecked or capsized, but when the sleeping figure in the back of the boat awoke and quieted the wind with a word, they were terrified and amazed. “Who then is this,” they wondered, “that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
But unlike the Gerasenes, they didn’t leave Jesus; they didn’t ask him to continue on without him or to leave them be. Though both were afraid, the disciples had faith in Jesus, they trusted that he was there to help, and so they chose to keep following. To follow Jesus means to be completely freed from evil by the power of his death and resurrection, even the “necessary” evils.
In his death, Jesus still reveals the demonic systems that seek to manipulate and possess us, the powers that vie for our attention and our allegiance. All the voices and power structures that stand opposed to his gospel of love, self-sacrifice and justice—the things that cry for his death—are shown to be powerless in the face of his resurrection. He cleanses us by leading us into true life—eternal life—if we are willing to follow him down the path he walks.
Think about it: because those few disciples chose to follow Christ, even in the face of inconvenience, suffering and sometimes death, there are still disciples of Jesus around today—billions more than there were in that boat. But the Gerasenes… when was the last time you met a Gerasene? What about the Romans? Where is the great Caesar, ruler of the world, with his invincible legions of soldiers? They are all gone—but the ones who trust in the power of Christ are still here and more plentiful than ever.
This story offers us a choice—not regarding salvation, but about what we will do with it. The promise of the gospel is that Jesus has come to free not just a few people but the whole world from the power of sin and death, to exorcise all the demonic forces that seek to control and corrupt it. This is the will of God; it will be done. We have been saved; we have the choice to live as people whom Christ has exorcised and cleansed, but we are also free to continue to lurk among the tombs.
Like the Gerasenes, we may choose to cling to those necessary evils that we don’t want to live without, to put our faith in them to give us the life and liberty we crave, but in doing so, we condemn ourselves to death. Only trusting the way of Christ can bring us what we truly desire, what God desires for us. Terrified or not, regardless of what we will have to give up in to follow him, we stand to gain the world for eternal life.
This story asks us: where will we place our faith? Will we continue to entrust our health and safety and happiness to the convenience and affluence afforded by our way of life? Will we continue to allow ourselves to be possessed by our legion of addictions to consumption and wastefulness and putting our own needs and desires above those of our global community and the health of our planet? Or will we recognize that those demons have been cast out? Will we, like the man on the shores of the Galilean sea, set all those things aside and beg Jesus that we might be with him instead?