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A Sound Mind
Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 2: The Gift of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 17, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Luke 8:26-36
Though Jesus had interacted with Gentiles previously, this exorcism story today is his first experience in Gentile territory. Luke informs us that Jesus went to the other side of the lake (8:22) and that is opposite Galilee (8:26). We are also told of a herd of pigs, a food that Jews do not eat. Therefore, in Gentile country, Jesus’ first miracle is an exorcism. And as Jesus expands his ministry into the world that doesn’t recognize God, he is met by the force of evil.
Even though Jesus has already performed exorcisms in Luke, this exorcism involves multiple possession, so it is a much more intense encounter than previous ones. The detailed description of the demoniac shows the terrible destructive power of the demon or demons. The demonic is made to go naked, empowered to break the chains that bind him and forced to live in the cemetery. The man has been dehumanized.
Scholars remind us that demon possession exemplifies the most personal experience of evil. As people of the first century understood it, a malevolent power took possession of one’s body and even mind. Consequently, possessed persons were left without free will, forced to do things that harmed themselves and others. And as the ancients saw it, a personal force came into those who were possessed and controlled them. Therefore, Jesus confronts this most personal and powerful manifestation of evil.
But upon facing Jesus, the man with the demons falls to the ground, shouts and confesses Jesus to be the “Son of the Most High God,” and he asks Jesus not to torment him.
The man’s name is Legion, which indicates that a whole battle division of demons inhabit the man. In the Roman world, we are informed that a Legion referred to a company of thousands of soldiers. Consequently, Jesus is engaging in a major battle here. And we should not miss the implication that the Roman Empire was a force empowered by evil and dehumanized its subjects just as this company of demons did the man.
However, even the demons acknowledge the one true God. It is interesting to note that the demons are the only ones in this story to understand Jesus this fully. Scholars suggest they have knowledge from a realm beyond this world to know who Jesus is. But as far as Luke is concerned, a raw exercise of power is not sufficient for people to know who Jesus is. It will finally take his death and resurrection for that identity to be fully understood. In this early time, however, the demons know his identity and his power. They understand that he wields the power of God to defeat evil and bring salvation.
As you recall, in the story the demons asked not to be tormented. Instead, they ask to be sent into a herd of pigs rather than the abyss, where demons are punished. But when Jesus grants their request their presence leaves the man, enters the herd of pigs and drives the pigs to commit suicide. At this point, the demons wind up in the Lake of Galilee, probably the symbol here of the abyss, with their power over this man broken by Jesus.
Word of this exorcism spreads fast as those tending the pigs run away to the city and country reporting what has happened. The most amazing thing of all, however, when the people visit the area, is the totally different man. Everything about this formerly possessed man is changed. He is now sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus, restored, clothed, and of sound mind. Jesus has rescued him from an existence of among the tombs and brought him into the real world and brand-new life.
But there is no joy among the local population. They are simply not pleased with Jesus’ work. Luke only tells us that they were afraid. They see Jesus as a person with great power – power so great that he is to be feared. If he’s able to defeat such powerful forces of evil, what could he do to ordinary people or a village if he were angry with them? So, they ask him to leave.
Another possibility as to why the local inhabitants wanted him to go may be the negative economic impact Jesus had on the region (Mark 5:16). They did not want to lose any more livestock.
The good news of the story, however, is that the healed man wants to join Jesus’ traveling band of disciples. But Jesus has something else in mind for him. Someone must be left behind to share what God has done in the area – what God has done for him personally through Jesus. That’s his task and it’s also ours.
Power and Mercy
A violent and dangerous demon-possessed man meets Jesus. It is suggested that he represents the religious and moral world of Gentiles, a world that opposes the will of God. The dimensions of evil in this man’s life are listed to show graphically how much power and control evil exercises over his life. Because he exists among the dead, he has no real human contact and life.
As Luke tells the story, this is a contest between competing powers. One brings destruction and alienation while the other offers reconciliation and wholeness. But Jesus’ power is so superior to the demons that Luke shows it to be no contest. Simply stated, Luke has the demon’s first word to Jesus be a plea for mercy.
Scholars point out that Jesus’ extraordinary power is demonstrated even more emphatically when Jesus requires the demon to reveal its name. As previously stated, “Legion” is really multiple demons. Therefore, Jesus is not just superior to individual demons; he is more powerful than all the combined forces of evil as well.
Then with a single word Jesus orders the forces that have controlled and damaged this person’s life to leave him. But here is the significant thing of note. While exercising such dominant power, Jesus shows mercy. The demons ask for a reprieve and Jesus grants it. Despite the terrible things theses demons have done to this man, Jesus has mercy for them. Their punishment is delayed by their going into the pigs. The demons were absolutely no match for Jesus’ power, but they were also not beyond his mercy.
Pope Benedict XVI declared, “Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel messages; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ, incarnation of Creative and Redemptive Love.”
In dealing with the subject of demon possession, we need to be careful not to overreact. Some people see a demon behind every bush. On the other hand, some people of our culture, being enlightened, often dismiss such talk as simply reflecting a primitive worldview.
Scholars inform us that both approaches are a victory for the dark side. We are reminded that one never fights against what one does not believe is there. At the same time, however, being preoccupied with the demonic can produce a type of fixation that does not reflect spiritual balance and can deflect taking spiritual accountability.
In reality, for the most part, our modern-day understanding of the world does not admit such explanations as demon possession. We turn to medical or psychological explanation for such behavior. Beyond a more primitive understanding, we know now about chemical imbalances and the long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences on one’s psyche. We have techniques for helping people with post-traumatic stress disorders and drugs to help us with depression and schizophrenia.
But as scholars make clear, we should not too quickly identify what this text talks about as demon possession with some type of mental illness, though. The ancients did recognize the effects that trauma could have on a person’s behavior and outlook. They could distinguish some of those effects from what they called demon possession.
Talk of demon possession should make us think of things that take over people’s lives, things that rob them of who they are and what they could be. As we have been told, the ancients saw people’s lives taken in ways that seemed too great to explain through the means they had to evaluate and think about such events. Thus, when they saw that level of dominance and taking over of people’s identities and control of their bodies and minds they spoke of demon possession. It was simply the deepest explanation for it.
Now, describing this taking of one’s personhood as demon possession recognizers that it violates the way things should be. Such destruction could only be explained by pointing to something beyond the world of normality. Thus this belief gave expression to the sense that there was/is something drastically wrong with the world.
And when we moderns see the horrific, destructive character of our culture and how terribly we can treat one another, it is hard not to recognize the presence of diabolical evil in our world. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we label it – demons, Satan, the devil, evil, whatever – there is a power that opposes God’s will in the world.
And it takes more than our own efforts to reverse its opposing presence. That reality is also portrayed in our lesson scripture. By ourselves, we are helpless as those locals were in trying to chain the demoniac. No question, the power of Jesus is needed.
This story before us today assures us that God is more powerful than the worst that can happen to us. God may not always take away our problem, but God will never leave us alone. “Nothing,” as Paul puts it, “will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).
Responding to God’s Gift
The amazing power of Jesus awakens wonder in everyone who sees it in our story. For some, that wonder causes them to fear. But the one who was touched by the healing power of Jesus knows what exceptional loving power Jesus has.
As you recall, the healed man wants to go with Jesus as one of his traveling disciples. But Jesus has other plans for him. Jesus wants him to stay where he is and share with others what God has done for him.
Scholars tell us that the language that Luke uses for his healing in verse 36 is the same word that the New Testament community uses for “saved.” This healing brought wholeness and salvation. The healed man now shares that with others.
The bottom line here is that the healed man’s response to Jesus’ healing power is to be a model for us. In various ways, all of us have experienced God’s love and healing. Now, in turn, Jesus calls us to share that healing and wholeness with others – no matter what the needs of others may be.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
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