Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Cesar Millan has been the subject of more than a hundred episodes of a television production called “The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan”. The show is part of the very lucrative infotainment industry. It’s drama, but it’s real too.
Millan demonstrates his ability to help dogs who have issues leading to antisocial behavior. He has been criticized for some of his techniques and his lack of credentials in animal behavior. His work has also brought him fame for his success in helping difficult canines and their owners.
It makes you think… Would we call Jesus the demon whisperer? The story of Jesus calling out a man’s demons on the shore of the sea opposite Galilee is filled with drama and a satisfyingly successful outcome. It’s easy to get drawn in!
In fact, this story is found also in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. This tells us that it is a narrative of great significance to Christians, having been preserved so carefully. So we should realize that there is a lot going on here. The details are important.
It’s no accident that the man is unsheltered, naked, and dangerous. It matters greatly that there is a disagreement of number about the demons – is there one, or many? It’s necessary that Jesus asked the name of the demon. There may be more than one meaning in the demon’s reply that it is “Legion”.
The place where the demons landed - first in a herd of pigs and subsequently in the sea, is certainly relevant. The end of the story is odd, with the herders running off to tell the tale, and the local folks asking Jesus to go away. Meanwhile Jesus admonishes the de-demonized man to stay and tell his story locally rather than faithfully following him.
Oh, it’s a lot. But let’s start with some things that we should not overlook in this gospel. The first one is that the man was restrained but not punished for his actions. The people tried to help him as best they could. It was the demons who drove the man out of his home and into the tombs – the place of death. Next, Jesus understood that the man was not his demons. Jesus treated him with kindness and compassion. His purpose was rehabilitation.
Jesus spoke directly to the demons, commanding them to depart. But the demons pushed back – the sign that they were a force arrayed against God. Jesus knew when the man called him “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” that it was the demon speaking and correctly identifying him, not the man - who was incapable of this insight because of his illness.
According to the spiritual wisdom of Jesus’s day, knowing a demon’s name was necessary to casting it out. But demons resisted giving up such important information. Because the demon did answer, it tells us that the greater power of God was at work in Jesus. The demon’s name “Legion” announces that its coercive power depends on ambiguity and fear.
But is this gospel only about a man and his demons? What if there were two stories at work here? One is about being rescued from demon spirits. The second story is revealed in the demon’s name and the ultimate end of the demons in the herd of pigs. It’s drama, but real too.
Legion means many. And in the time of Jesus it also referred to a Roman military force. So the man’s struggle was about an ambiguous spiritual force, and about a real political force as well. Jews in the time of Jesus and Gentiles in the time of Luke’s gospel could have heard this story as a conflict between the influence of secular authority and their spiritual accountability to God.
Sending the invasive demons into the pigs was a remarkable way to return the representatives of chaos to the abyss. There they would be restrained from more infestations. You can see how this wish might be applied to an invasion of Romans in the province of Judea as well.
Did you notice that the swineherds in the gospel didn’t tell the story of the rescue of the demon-infested man? They went to stir up city and country over the loss of their pigs. They cared nothing at all for what Jesus did to release a man from destruction. They didn’t count their economic loss as worthy of any kind of spiritual gain.
This brings us to the important why question of the day. Why not embrace Jesus and his demon-defying work? Don’t we all agree that casting out demons is good? The man who was demon infested ended up clothed and restored to his right mind. He was rehabilitated and able to take his rightful place socially and spiritually.
But there is this second story as well. It reminds us that it’s also possible to be so bound up in this world that we risk losing our souls. The gospel says that the Gadarenes were bound in fear because of what Jesus did.
They were not infested, but they were invested. It was more important to preserve their way of life, their economy, and the truth they knew. Even if it meant overlooking a few demons. Even if someone had to suffer for it. They meet God in Jesus. And they ask Jesus to leave them alone.
This leaves us with a question. Under which authority shall we live? What law will we embrace to guide our lives? It has real implications for how we govern ourselves spiritually and socially.
Isaiah sounds out the struggle of faith that Israel knew so well. So does Paul to the Galatians. To be called by God in love and yet to ignore God. To pursue things that give us a sense of power and control rather than to give ourselves into the power of God. To desire certainty more than to live in faith. All too often Jesus finds us naked and living among the dead.
But the day is not over, night has not come. There is time for the good news of Jesus to release us from our own demons. There are opportunities to follow his way. Juneteenth reminds us that historic and ongoing racism requires our repudiation, not just our silence. Climate convulsions call us to restoration and right relationship with the earth.
Faith will continue to challenge us. God must be against anything that is against love. But one day, God willing, may we be found sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed, and in our right minds!
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.