Theme Who is Jesus?
Sentence O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. (Psalm 63:2)
Collect Jesus, we believe you; all we heard is true.
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;
We confess the truth about you,
And ask that through the power of your Spirit,
We may boldly proclaim you through all the world. Amen.
This reading makes sense when we hear the gospel as well because it includes a complaint from God about the rebelliousness of his people, including their eating 'swine's flesh' (vs. 4) which was forbidden for Jews/Israelites. Later in the gospel reading a swineherd will feature which is destroyed.
In its own right the reading is both a complaint against the unholy behaviour of God's people and a forecast that a remnant of 'Jacob' (i.e. the northern kingdom of Israel) and 'Judah' (i.e. southern kingdom of Israel) will yet inherit a new or renewed land (vss. 8-9)
The language is strong in its pictures. To give just one example: the actions of rebellious Israel are 'a smoke in my nostrils' (vs. 5).
This psalm, also related to the gospel reading, is often read in conjunction with Jesus' own suffering on the cross. Here a section is read which relates to one who is oppressed and then delivered by God with the result that God is praised by the one who is delivered (vss. 22-28). This fits the circumstances of the man called Legion in the gospel reading.
Note that, in conjunction with Luke's overall project through his Gospel and through Acts, to tell the story of the kingdom of God spreading from Jerusalem to Rome, vs. 28 of the Psalm reading is a presupposition of the Lukan project:
"For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations."
Paul's argument about the gospel in relation to the law reaches an apex in these verses. At this apex Paul both looks back on the course of the argument, offers a summary of it and looks forward to the consequences of the gospel replacing the law.
His summary: there was an era in which 'the law' played a decisive role in the life of Israel (as guard, as disciplinarian) but that era is now over with the coming of Christ, so that justification comes by faith, and comes for 'all' (i.e. Jews and Gentiles).
His forward looking vision: a new people of God is being created through Christ, in which those who are baptized into Christ are all accounted as Abraham's offspring and heirs of the promise made to Abraham. These offspring are one people (for all of you are one in Christ Jesus), no longer divided by race (no longer Jew or Greek), class (no longer slave or free), gender (no longer male and female).
This new people of God are a special people. Just as the people of God known as Israel were distinguished by mark of entry into Israel (male circumcision) and by lifestyle (obedience to the law), so Christians are distinguished by entry into God's kingdom (baptism, vs. 27) and by lifestyle ('clothed yourselves with Christ', vs. 27).
Arguably, as the church of God in the 21st century engages with issues of gender, race, sexuality and class, we can say that the full implications of Paul's vision of the consequences of the new era coming are not yet fully explored and are still being worked out in the life of the church.
To our ears this may seem the strangest of gospel stories, perhaps the more so because Luke tells it to us. Our favourite Lukan stories of Jesus likely do not include this one. So our challenge is both not to ignore it and to press for the purpose of Luke as he includes it in his gospel.
One way to take up the challenge is to step back from the story and look at the stories preceding and succeeding it. Before this story we have the stilling of the storm (8:22-25) and after it we have the healing of Jairus's daughter and the woman with haemorrhages (8:40-56). In each case Jesus displays his power and authority: over the forces of nature, over the forces of death and illness (and an associated social exclusion). We could go further back and note Jesus' authority to forgive sins (7:36-50) and further forward to note Jesus giving 'power and authority' to the disciples 'over all demons and to cure diseases' (9:1-2).
Thus today's story is part of a sequence in which Luke presents the power and authority of Jesus over forces which inhibit human flourishing, both forces working against physical life (e.g. illness), spiritual life (e.g. guilt, demons), and social life (e.g. social exclusion, as experienced by the sinful woman (7:36-50), Legion (this story), and the woman with haemorrhages (8:43-48)). In summary terms: no force of nature, the devil, sickness or human behaviour can resist the power of Jesus. The kingdom of God, that is the effective ruling power of God over life, is being inaugurated through the work of Jesus.
Some details within the story of the deliverance of the demons from the man called Legion are helpful to explain:
- the country of the Gerasenes (v. 26) was largely inhabited by Gentiles; Gentiles ate pork (forbidden to Jews) and thus 'a large herd of swine' (v. 32) was unsurprisingly nearby to the place where the encounter takes place.
- conversely, the forbiddenness of pork to Jews means that the loss of the herd would register to some readers of Luke as inconsequential and to others as disturbing, as it was to the people of the Gerasenes who saw not only a display of spiritual power but the loss of livelihood (v. 37)
- Legion as a name is drawn from Roman military life (a legion was a force of many soldiers). A very, very subtle implication of the story is that Luke, in presenting Jesus as a man of power and authority in the context of the Roman empire, hints that Jesus' power is greater than that of the Emperor, the chief commander of all military legions.
- deliverance of demons is a common occurrence in the ministry of Jesus but in many parts of the world today it is not a common occurrence, so questions arise because of this difference. One answer given from our modern perspective is that this man was psychotically disturbed. This answer is not necessarily incompatible with the traditional answer that demons exist and can inhabit places and people. Another answer is that Jesus coming into the world provoked the fury of demons opposed to the kingdom and thus we see in the gospels an intensive demonic presence which is at variance with our day.
At the end of the story a very interesting comparison can be made. Jesus commands the man, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." But Luke reports that what the man actually did was to go away "proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him" (vs. 39). This does not mean that the man has suddenly become a Trinitarian orthodox Christian who believes that Jesus is God! But it does mean that Luke is comfortable presenting Jesus to the world through his gospel as one who is identified as God. Of such seeds will the later fruit of Trinitarian belief grow.
As an application of the story we might note that Jesus calls people to follow him and to proclaim the gospel, but some are asked to go to the rest of the world, and others, as here, are asked to stay at home.