TEXT: Luke 8:26-39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. (Luke 8:26-27a)
So begins Luke’s account of this familiar story. It is a remarkable story—and not just because of its supernatural aura. Consider, if you will, some of the details of this account. First, Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes; this district east of Lake Galilee was a largely non-Jewish area. Second—from what Luke tells us—pig farming seems to have been a mainstay of the region’s economy. Certainly, large quantities of pork would have been purchased by the Roman army to feed its soldiers in the vicinity.
Pigs, of course, were considered unclean animals by the Jews—and the fact that the Gerasenes were making a profit by feeding the Romans probably didn’t make them popular with their Jewish neighbours across the lake. This wasn’t a place you’d expect a travelling rabbi to visit! But this is precisely where Jesus and his disciples arrive as our gospel lesson opens. He has come, we may presume, to bring them his message of good news. Gentile or Jew—clean or unclean—it makes no difference to our Lord; all are children of the same Creator.
So Jesus steps out of the boat onto the Gerasene shore, and the very first thing that happens is that he is approached by this deranged person. Before Jesus can do anything else—before he can find a place to stay, before he can set up any speaking engagements—he is confronted by the spectacle of this man who has been living in a graveyard, who has been driven out of town by a frightened populace. He’s naked. He’s raving. In his fury, he can break strong chains and burst shackles applied to restrain him. He runs at Jesus, and throws himself down at his feet, screaming: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
If none of the Gerasenes had noticed Jesus arriving before this, all their eyes were trained on him now! Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replies. “My name is Legion. My name is Mob. I have a whole mob of demons inside me.”
Taking pity on the man, Jesus orders the demons out. He casts them into some swine which are feeding on a nearby hillside, and then the whole herd of them goes berserk. They rush headlong into the lake, and they are all drowned.
Quickly, a crowd of villagers gathers; and what do they find? They find Jesus standing with the former demoniac, who is clothed and in his right mind. And they discover that their pigs—all of them—are gone!
Well, they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And the Gerasenes won’t give Jesus a chance to make a second impression. They’re afraid of what he might do next. So they ask him to leave—to get out of there, to get away from them, to go somewhere else. Anywhere else.
The disciples who had come across the lake with Jesus might have wondered what he was doing. After making the difficult voyage—during which there had been a violent storm—Jesus has squandered his opportunity to evangelize the Gerasenes. After going to all this trouble, after putting their lives in danger, after expending the effort to calm the dangerous wind and waves (we hear about this earlier in the chapter)—after doing all this just to preach to a bunch of worthless, pig-farming Gentiles—Jesus blows off the whole plan in order to heal this one pitiful soul.
What was he thinking?
You know, this story reminds me of another one—of a parable Jesus tells a bit later in Luke (15:4-7), about a lost sheep. You remember it, I’m sure. It’s about a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, but notices that one of them is missing. And so he leaves his 99 remaining sheep to fend for themselves, and he goes off and searches for the one who is lost.
Now, you’ve got to understand that Jesus was preaching to rural people—to farmers and sheep-herders. These were people who knew about the realities of keeping livestock, and they would have listened to his parable, and they would have thought that shepherd was irresponsible. You don’t go off and leave your flock unattended—unguarded, uncared for. You don’t trust the 99 remaining sheep to stay put. You don’t gamble that predators won’t attack them. You don’t risk losing all your sheep just to go looking for one that is lost. Not if you’re an experienced shepherd. Yet Jesus tells us that God is like that foolish shepherd. If we are his sheep, he’ll risk everything just to save one of us.
“Just so, I tell you,” Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
And so, the Son of God lands on the beach near Gerasa, all set to bring his message to this place which observant Jews find so repulsive. And immediately he is faced with a choice. Will he let this one disturbed individual get in the way of his larger mission?
Well, we know the choice he makes. He heals the demon-possessed man. But he wrecks the local economy in the process! And he so profoundly freaks out the Gerasenes that they don’t want to hear anything he has to say. All they want is for him to leave them alone. So Jesus steps back into the boat, and his disciples prepare to cast off from the shore. What a disaster! Can anything be salvaged from it?
Perhaps one thing can be. The man who was healed—for whom Jesus sacrificed his plans—the former demoniac wants to come with them. He wants to be one of them, to join in their ministry. And just think about that! Talk about a testimony! Can’t you imagine this guy standing before the crowd gathered on a Judean hillside, talking about all that Jesus has done for him? Can’t you imagine him dressed to the nines? All freshened up and clean-shaven and handsome in a nice tailored suit, saying: “My friends, I was not always the man you see before you now. No. Once I was a madman! It’s true. Once I had a mob of demons living inside me. And my friends and family had to drive me out of town. And I was naked, and I lived in a graveyard, amongst death and decay. But then, this man—this Jesus—he healed me!”
If Jesus was a TV evangelist, he’d want this guy in front of the cameras, introducing him. But Jesus doesn’t let the man into the boat. He doesn’t bring him back across the lake to star in his travelling salvation show. No. He tells him: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Luke tells us the man did exactly that. He stayed put in Gerasa, amongst his countrymen and his neighbours—everyone who had known him at his worst—and he proclaimed the truth that Jesus had come to tell. And so maybe the mission was salvaged, after all. Maybe this Gerasene man—now cured of his afflictions, restored to his sanity, to his home, to his family—maybe he was a much more effective messenger than even Jesus could have been, for these people. Maybe this familiar face, this long-lost sheep, would have a much greater impact than some strange rabbi from across the sea.
I wonder … maybe for those of us in mainline North American churches, this gospel story salvages a truth that we too seldom proclaim. We do not often speak about individual salvation—or about individual experience of God, about knowing Jesus personally. We speak often about how all of us together comprise “the body of Christ” but we don’t often mention the fact that God cares about each member of that body—that while Christ came to save the entire world, he also seeks to have a relationship with each person in it.
That’s what the man delivered from his demons had—he had a relationship with the living Christ, with God, who healed him. He had a real and compelling testimony to give, one that would continue to touch hearts and change lives long after the foreign rabbi had left his country’s shores. I think that’s why Jesus left him behind; because he knew that, once the shock and fear had died away, the Gerasenes would realize that—while they could always get more pigs—it wasn’t every day they saw a lost sheep return home.
How great is our God, who risks all to save one—and who, by saving the one, gains the many.