I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it likely would have looked like this:
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)
- Isaiah 65:1–9
- Psalm 22:19–28
- Galatians 3:23–29
- Luke 8:26–39
26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.
34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:26–39 ESV)
Their name was Legion.
Λεγιων. The largest military formation in the Roman army, anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 men under arms, though at the time this was taking place, let’s trust the 6,000 men figure. But there’s a colloquial use, one we have to this day. “My troubles are legion,” we might remark, noting that our woes are so great they cannot be counted.
Many. Too many to number. Brutal. Destructive. Thorough. The Romans has been in Judea, in the Greek east, for more than a century at this point, having arrived with the Roman General Pompey when he conquered Jerusalem some 90 years before the events in our Gospel reading, the people of Judea knew Romans, knew their soldiers, their order, and their methods for keeping that order.
The Romans came, and conquered, and stayed. They did not leave. Not freely.
And there was no power in the world, not at this point in history, capable of bringing the empire and its armies to permanent heel. Germans and North Africans and Parthians — Iranians, if you must know — could inflict the occasional defeat on the armies of Rome, take the occasional chunk of territory, capture soldiers and booty — such a regimental standards; such an event at the hands of German tribesman along the Rhine kept a distraught Emperor Augustus up for some nights, wandering the palace, crying out, “General Varus, where are my eagles?!?” — and humiliate Rome for a time.
But there was no permanent victory against Rome. No liberation, no expulsion, no end of occupation and rule by Rome and its satraps and governors.
Rome came. Rome saw. Rome conquered. Rome colonized. Rome stayed.
A little like the demons in our gospel reading today. The demons have made their home in this man, have conquered and colonized him, but instead of civilizing him (as the Romans aspired to), they have turned him into a naked barbarian, unfit for human companionship, at home only among the dead, bound in chains for his own safety — and for the safety of others.
We don’t know why he became host to a legion, of demons beyond counting. Luke merely says he was a man “who had demons,” as if that somehow explains everything. We can speculate why these demons found him an attractive host, but we cannot know anything conclusively. Luke calls him “a man from the city” [ἀνήρ τις ἐκ τῆς πόλεως], a description similar to that of the unnamed “woman of the city” [γυνὴ ⸂ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει] used to describe the woman who weeps and kneels and anoints Jesus’ feet.
But … we do know those demons know who Jesus is. They have no doubt about his identity. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you do not torment me!”
And yet, torment them Jesus does. He commands them to leave the man, and this legion begs — “Please don’t send us to the abyss!!!”
Again, these demons so numerous they cannot be counted do not want to be went to place so vast and deep it has no bottom anyone can find. They are at home, occupying this man, chained and alone, asleep among the dead. They would rather be with, in, and under him than back in the place they came from — their boundless and bottomless abode.
But … Jesus controls the demons. At his word, he commands them to leave. He rebuked the stormy skies and the turbulent sea, he ordered the demons out of the man, and he gives them permission — permission — to enter the pigs. Which then drown themselves.
Jesus commands. The elements obey. The demons obey. I don’t know what Legion’s fate is after this. I don’t particularly care. Dead demons aren’t an interest of mine.
Jesus commands. And the demons, who had every intention of staying forever and a day, leave.
The man is healed. Calm. In his right mind. Freed of his chains, probably clothed, and now ready to dwell among the living.
But the living … don’t want any part of him. Meeting Jesus has healed him, and made him whole, but it hasn’t restored him to the community, not this place where he dwelled, whose people had lived in fear of him when he was possessed by demons. Because they are afraid of him now. And they beg him to leave. Possessed, they could handle him, even if they were afraid of him.
But healed … they have no idea what to do.
Redeemed, in his right mind, ready to follow Jesus, there’s no place for him. Not even with Jesus, who sends him home and commands him to bear witness.
Jesus meets legion, and commands legion to go. All that the people of this place try to do only keeps the demons at bay, only restrains them, only keeps their host out of sight and out of mind. But Jesus, Jesus commands them. Drives them out. With a word. And he frees a man who could not be freed, could not free himself.
This legion that comes, and sees, and conquers, and colonizes, that stays and cannot ever be made to leave, this legion is expelled. Not by force. Not by threats. Not by violence. There was no way to send the demons away with the force they used to occupy and possess. The demons, this legion, are masters of that violence. They can be restrained by violence, sometimes, but we cannot fight them with their means.
But by an authoritative word from the Son of the Most High is enough to terrify this legion. They know who Jesus is, fear his power and authority, and beg him not to dispatch them back home.
Legion knows who Jesus is.
We are beset and possessed by demons who are legion. The have come into our midst, they saw, they conquered, they colonized, and they stayed. We are afraid of them. We try to fight these demons using all of the tools at disposal. We know they occupy and posses us, so we fight back. We seek to be free of them.
So, with violence, cunning, and brutality, we struggle against Legion. We try to contain these demons, knowing they possess us. We bind ourselves in heavy chains, and then we break our binds, and flee madly into the wilderness. We are more at home among the dead than we are with the living.
More at home among the dead than the living.
But Legion cannot be fought successfully, cannot be beaten, with the means it uses. There is no violence, no war, no self-righteousness, no hate, no fear, that will defeat or even keep Legion at bay. We may throw it off for a time with our own efforts, but eventually, Legion will come back, take hold of us, occupy us, possess us.
Legion has come to stay. Legion has no intention of leaving.
But a word from the Son of Most High is enough to make Legion go. We, who seek to defeat our demons, to limit the damage they can do, are powerless. But the power of God in Jesus is enough. A word from Jesus is enough. It has set us free. It has cast the demons out.