Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 8.26-39
Proper 7 - Year C

Other texts:

You may prefer to use the texts for Luke 1.57-80, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist


Although both Mark (5:1-20) and Matthew (8:28-34) have parallels to this text, they are not assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary. So this is the one shot the lectionary preacher has of saying, "This is the first reported case of deviled ham."

Our text is in the midst of a series of events that indicate Jesus' power:

These three events in this order are taken from Mark (4:35-41; 5:1-20; 21-43).

Although I haven't studied the geographical sequences in Luke as I have in Mark, these first two texts symbolize an important aspect of Jesus' ministry and the struggles in the early church. Green (The Gospel of Luke) agrees with the significance of the river crossing:

... this is the first time Jesus has crossed over into predominantly Gentile territory. In this sense, the expression "opposite Galilee" is more than a geographical designation, even if it is significant at this level for the way it signals Jesus' crossing of the geographical boundaries characteristic of this section of the Third Gospel. Gentiles have come to him, to be sure (6:17; cf. 7:1-10), but this is Jesus' first foray into Gentile country and, as will become clear, it is also his last. ...

At a fundamental level, then, this text concerns the crossing of boundaries in Jesus' mission, and more particularly the offer of salvation in the Gentile world. [pp. 335-6]

Often, when congregations seek to take their mission across boundaries, there are storms. The following is an adaptation of comments I made on Mark's Stilling of the Storm text (Mk 4:35-41), but I think that they apply also to Luke's structure that lead up to our text.

THE STORMS OF REACHING THE UNCHURCHED

Why do the disciples cross the lake?

Expanding on the chicken joke: What's on the other side?

Answer: Gentile (unclean) territory indicated by "demons," "tombs," "unclean spirits," "swine." (It was also assumed that storms at sea were caused by evil spirits. It has been suggested that the "stilling of the storm" might be interpreted as an exorcism rather than a nature miracle.)

I believe that the trip across the lake represents the Gentile mission of Jesus and the early church. The storm at sea represents the storms in the early church as they sought to carry out Jesus' command "to go to the other side" or "to make disciples of all nations." It may be noted that the area where the congregation is sitting is properly called the "nave," from the Latin navis = ship. ("Navy" comes from the same root.)

For most of our congregations, we don't have to go anywhere to "get to the other side." The "Gentiles" have moved into our neighborhoods -- but what a storm it usually creates when a congregation makes an intentional effort to reach out to the unchurched -- the "unclean" -- the "demon-possessed" -- the addicts and other sinners -- to the people who are "different" than they.

Following our text, they cross back over the lake to the Jewish side (8:40) and the Jewishness of the next miracle his highlighted by "Jairus, a leader of the synagogue."

Note also that the lake [limne -- 8:22, 23], that the disciples cross, appears to be the same lake [limne - 8:33] where the herd of pigs end up.

THE GENTILE MISSION -- THE EVENTS ON THE OTHER SIDE

THE DEMONIAC

The demoniac is presented as being less than human: wearing no clothes, living in the tombs, driven into the wilderness. At the end of the story, he is humanized: wearing clothes, being in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, returning to his home.

I like the reflection that Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) makes about this situation.

In our day, we have become far more accustomed to attributing calamities and disorders to the forces of nature or to internal mental or emotional problems. The remedy is not exorcism but counseling or medication. The story of the Gerasene demoniac should now be interpreted so that it speaks a word of assurance and hope to those for whom every day is a battle with depression, fear, anxiety, or compulsive behavior. They will understand what would lead a person to say that his name is "mob" (GNB). With such a response, the man had acknowledged that he no longer had any individual identity. He had lost his name. He had lost his individuality. All that was left was a boiling struggle of conflicting forces. It was as though a Roman legion was at war within him. [p. 188]

A Roman legion consisted of about 6000 soldiers. That's a lot of "voices" roaming around in one's life -- either from within or without.

Can this be a story -- actually, an event -- where non-selves can begin to find their selves? Where they stop being what others want them to be and become the unique person God has created them to be? A phrase from family systems theory that has resonated with some counselees is that a "self is more attractive than a non-self."

Note that the word in v. 36 translated "healed" in NRSV, is sozo in Greek -- a word that is frequently translated "saved."

THE DEMONS

First of all, this story indicates that Jesus' power is superior to the demons' power, even in the unclean area of the tombs and in a Gentile territory. I think that we always need to affirm that Jesus is always more powerful than the demons or devils or Satan. Not only does he have the power to cast them out, but the power to make them reveal the name "Legion." It is a common theme in folklore that knowing a demon's name gave one power over the evil force. There is also some truth to this in our day. When we can put a "name" on a disease or disorder, we are on the way to curing it.

Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) notes that one of Luke's themes is "release to the captives." "Luke clearly understands Jesus' power over demons to be a sign of the coming of God's kingdom to earth." [p. 104]

Secondly, these demons, being from the spirit world, know who Jesus is, "Son of the Most High God" (see also 4:34, 41). However, the disciples, being from the human world, had just asked in the preceding story, "Who is this?" (8:25).

How do we talk about "demons" to our contemporary folks? One approach, suggested earlier is to consider it a way that the ancient people talked about mental illnesses. Another approach is to talk about "evil or destructive powers" -- those people, situations, etc. that dehumanize and destroy people.

In our story, the demons are always destructive -- not just to the man, but even when they get their way, they destroy the pigs, and eventually themselves. As Culpepper writes: "When it gets its way, evil is always destructive and ultimately self-destructive." [p. 187]

Tiede (Luke) points out that there is a tradition of demons having an aversion to water. Luke 11:24 talks about unclean spirits looking for "waterless regions" as resting places. Baptism is viewed as a rite of exorcism "and even the melting of the witch by water in 'The Wizard of Oz' and the drowning of accused "witches" in colonial New England." [p. 172]

Jensen again:

In our world today evil is a horrible reality. We usually don't talk about demonic possession or unclean spirits. But we know from experience the power of evil. We in the twentieth century have witnessed the raw power of evil. We have seen genocide rampant in China, Russia, Hitler's Germany, Central Africa, and in the former region of Yugoslavia. Evil exits. Evil reigns! Peoples are oppressed. Individuals are captive to the power of evil. What hope is there for humankind?

There are other more personal signs of possession among us. Incredible numbers of people among us are possessed by drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and so forth. Who shall set the captives free? [p. 104]

Besides the examples Jensen gives, I have frequently heard the word "demonic" used in reference to the shootings and killings in our schools; it was used in reference to Timothy McVeigh. It could be used of the Columbine killings and at Virginia Tech, of Saddam Hussein's regime, of the actions against Iraqi prisoners, and I'm sure many other "demonic," dehumanizing, destructive behaviors could be used as sermon illustrations. The difficulty I often find is how do we present Jesus as the cure for such evils in the world? I have not been able to tell an alcoholic or addict, "Be cured in the name of Jesus" and have their cravings cease. How does Jesus exorcize the demonic today? To that question, I do not have a good answer.

THE PEOPLE

Tiede makes this interesting observation: "As the larger narrative unfolds, the awesome plight of humans who are 'seized with fear' (v. 37) will prove to be more difficult for the reign of God than even the most horrendous possession by the forces of evil." [p. 173]

With the demon, Jesus casts it out with a command. However, the fearful people (mentioned in vv. 35 & 37) cast Jesus away from their presence. Jesus is powerless to change the people.

Craddock (Luke) suggests two reasons for the people's response -- reasons that relate well to people of today. The first deals with the fact that Jesus disrupted the status quo -- he disturbed their "comfortable" life.

If it is surprising that there was not unanimous joy at the arrival of a power greater than evil, a moment's reflection will cause the surprise to subside. In the case of the Gadarene demoniac, the people knew the locus of the evil, knew where the man lived, and devoted considerable time and expense trying to guard and to control him (v. 29). A community thus learns to live with demonic forces, isolating and partially controlling them. If it is not "spiritualizing" the story too much to say so, the partially successful balance of tolerance and management of the demonic among them also allowed the people to keep attention off their own lives. But now the power of God for good comes to their community and it disturbs a way of life they had come to accept. Even when it is for good, power that can neither be calculated not managed is frightening. What will God do next in our community?

Herbert Anderson in The Family and Pastoral Care, a family systems approach, has this sentence: "We are willing to trade the freedom to grow and change for the security of knowing that things will be like they have always been." [p. 41]

This approach could lead the preacher to talk about the fear of change in a community or church -- even when the change is for the good and comes from God and brings new life to individuals, but it requires the people to do new things. It forces people out of their ruts. Someone once commented that the good thing about a rut is that you know where you're going. Getting out of the rut indicates that we don't exactly know where we're going. That's frightening. Someone else commented, "Americans want everything to get better, but nothing to change." That's typical of life in congregations.

The second reason for the people's response given by Craddock is economic:

Of course was also the factor of economic loss. It remains the case to this day that a community becomes very much involved when the impact of Jesus Christ affects the economy. And the gospel does stir the economy, because healings, conversions, and the embrace of Christian ethics radically influences getting and spending. The Gerasene people are not praising God that a man is healed; they are counting the cost and find it too much. Likewise, Paul felt not only in Philippi [Acts 16:16-39] but in Ephesus as well (Acts 19:18-34) the powerful economic forces that array themselves against the good news. It continues to be a painful part of the education of young ministers to discover that the reign of God has its enemies, that those enemies reside not only over against us but also within and among us, and that no one is untouched by the conflicts that follow. Being asked to leave by those you seek to help is a pain unlike any other. [pp. 117-118]

Has it ever happened in congregations that people complain much more about the costs, than praising God for the number of people who are being helped and healed and saved? Why does that happen?

I've also found that few congregations really have "money" problems. What they have are "giving" problems. There are usually enough extra funds among the members to support all kinds of ministries, but the members aren't willing to give it for those ministries.

REACHING THE FEARFUL PEOPLE

Whereas the cure for the demon-possessed man was a command from Jesus. It seems that Jesus' approach for the fearful crowd is to send the healed man back into their midst to "declare" (diegeomai) how much God had done for him. The word for "declare" is a present imperative, implying, "keep on declaring," "continue to declare."

Note also that he is told to declare what God had done for him. Although he "proclaims" (kerysso) what Jesus had done for him. kerysso is also in the present tense -- a continual or repeated action.

Mary W. Anderson in her brief article in Christian Century, June 3-10, 1998, called "Stay and Follow," writes about the end of this text:

... The man who sat at Jesus' feet and who learned from him wants to go with them. Look at his options! He is standing on the beach with Jesus, with the disciples in the boat in front of him and the townsfolk who banished him to the graveyard at his back. He wants to go with the one who healed him, the one who wasn't afraid to come near him, who didn't walk on the other side of the street. He wants to go with his new teacher and Lord and learn more about the kingdom of God. He's ready to follow Jesus. There's room in the boat, and he'll leave without looking back -- there's no one to say good-bye to. But Jesus says no.

To others along the way Jesus issues the invitation, "Come, follow me," but to this one he says, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." At the very end, we see what kind of story this really is. It isn't simply a story of one man's healing, but a story of one man's calling. Jesus does bid the man to follow, but in this case the following, the call to ministry, involves staying rather than leaving. Jesus does not reject the man's application for discipleship, but accepts it fully. I even have a first appointment all lined up for you, Jesus says from the boat. Your congregation is standing right behind you. No, go and tell....

Green (The Gospel of Luke) writes:

Luke's introduction of this man had marked him as displaced, alienated from home and city (v 27). Now Jesus returns him to his home and gives him an assignment within his city. His healing, then, is not only physical and cerebral, but religious and psychosocial and vocational. He is restored to his community and given a commission. (p. 341)

Later in his commentary, concerning the hemorrhaging woman, he notes a distinction between being "cured" of the physical problem, and also "healed" of the estranged relationships.

Along these lines, Bruce J. Malina & Richard L. Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) note the distinction between "disease" and "illness":

In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction of the organism which can be remedied, assuming cause and cure are known, by proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person's ability to function, to do. Yet often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are culturally defined and that, in the ancient Mediterranean, being was more important than doing. The healers of that world thus focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function.

Anthropologists thus distinguish between disease a biomedical malfunction and illness a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost. Illness is not so much a biomedical matter as it is a social one. It is attributed to social, not physical, causes. Thus sin and sickness go together. Illness is a matter of deviance from the cultural norms and values. (p. 315)

Jesus seeks not only to cure the "disease" -- the demon-possession; but also to heal the illness -- to restore this man to the community from which he has been estranged. He is to go home.

It may be a different approach, but perhaps the preacher could follow the lead of the man of our text. The church is our "home" and we come to tell others our personal story of "what Jesus or God has done for me" and at the same time, encourage the people to think about what God has done for them and how they might share that with others. Without bringing God's activities into our personal lives in the present, often Christianity becomes little more than history lessons about what happened in the first century.

It could also be a time to stress that Christianity is more than just coming to church to receive from Jesus, to praise God in community, but it also involves returning to the world and declaring our experiences with God -- a world that may not always have been kind to us.

A HYMN VERSE

Jensen ends his comments by quoting verse 3 of "A Mighty Fortress," with a concluding comment. I'll do the same.

Though hordes of devils fill the land
All threatening to devour us,
We tremble not, unmoved we stand;
They cannot overpower us.
This world's prince may rage,
In fierce war engage.
He is doomed to fail;
God's judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.

"How we celebrate that little word!"

From what I've read, the "little word" that Luther used against demonic temptations was, "I am baptized" (although he said it in Latin). I find it interesting that he did not battle Satan with, "I believe in Christ" or "I am a Christian." His confidence is not centered on his faith or beliefs, but on an act of God -- God's claim on his life given in baptism. Even in our text, it is water with Jesus' command that destroys the legion of demons.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com