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Luke 8:26-39 | NRSV


26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, What is your name? He said, Legion; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.


Holy One, may we hear your Word this morning with open hearts, see your clear vision for justice, and know that we are loved. Amen.


Our Gospel story from Luke this morning is a peculiar one. Its one most of us are likely familiar with, but also one of those stories, especially as Lutherans, that we tend to avoid. With talk of demons and what appears to be an exorcism, I would venture to say that this isnt typically where Lutherans plant themselves. 


However, when we look a little closer, I would actually venture to say that this story emanates Lutheran theology. The details of this story make it so rich by raising issues of identity, grace, and justice to the surface. It is about so much more than so-called demons.


We learn the most about this story and Jesus himself when we take a closer look at the main character, this possessed man. In short, the story goes that Jesus is traveling with his disciples and as soon as they dock the boat on the beach, this man, who isnt given a name, approaches him begging for healing. What we know about this man so far is important. He is a man who is described as having demons, he had no clothes and no house, and he lived in the tombs where he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, presumably in the city jail or prison. The text describes him as often escaping his incarceration and running into the wild. 


The community, society, seems to be doing everything they can to lock him away, out of sight, out of mind. They have deemed him unworthy of being part of the community. They believe he has nothing to offer them, so they lock him away.


If we pause the story here, I wonder what we would label this man as today? Most likely the labels applied to him would be something like: mentally ill...homelessdisabledcriminal escapeean addict or alcoholican outcast.


Keeping these labels in mind, what would the disciples have thought as this man approached Jesus? Most likely, they would have wanted to keep this questionable man away from Jesus, to protect him, shield him from this mans demons. But instead, Jesus does not miss a beat. Instead of turning the other way, he immediately heals the man. The demons are described as leaving his body. The second, and I believe an important detail of the story is that Jesus asks the man his name. The man does not give him a name but instead describes himself by his affiliations. He answers that his name is Legion, at this time meaning something like an army. He says his name is an army of demons. 


It is important that we also note here what exactly a demon is in the Bible. As modern Lutherans influenced by art and movies, we tend to picture little red men causing problems for someone. And the process of getting rid of these problems through the process of an exorcism requires this dramatic scene. And while this makes for great cinematic art, this is not exactly what Luke means when he uses the word demon. 


The first Jesus followers of the second century believed there were both good and bad kinds of demons. At the time when Luke is writing this story, the Greek word for demon (δαίμων/daimon) did not necessarily carry negative connotations, instead it was simply meant to describe a spirit or divine power. It referenced things that as humans we could not understand, the supernatural, and this was not always a bad thing. In the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, a text that Luke would have known well, there were several different kinds of demons, many of which were believed to cause illness or disease, both physical and mental.


This perhaps shapes our understanding of the mans answer to Jesuss question, what is your name? The man simply replied that his name is an army of demons, perhaps not necessarily something seeking to cause evil, but instead something more like an affliction or sickness. Something that makes him different from everybody else.


This unnamed man seems to only be able to identify himself by his illness, by the labels society has already placed on him. His name is his label: mentally ill...homelesscriminalescapee an addict or alcoholican outcast. 


Once the man is healed, he is described as sitting at Jesus feet, now clothed and in his right mind. Hearing the commotion the people surrounding the beach come to see whats going on and find this scene before them. The people are then described as being afraid. It says they were seized with great fear. This is also important. They are not depicted as being amazed or speechless, but afraid. 


These people are afraid because they now see a man who is free. Jesus makes clear that this man did not trade one oppressor for the other, but instead that he has been freed by the grace and love of Jesus. The people are afraid because he is no longer what they have labeled him as. Now, he has potential, he has an opportunity, he has experienced love and grace in a new way and has empowered him to share that love with others. Jesus has taken all the societal rules that they thought they knew and turned them upside down. They had only seen this man as dirty, sick, scary even. Now, they have to welcome him back into society. Now, they have to treat him as the human he has always been. What happens when those we have tried so hard to take power from, are suddenly liberated and given back their dignity and their power? 


This story is not an ancient one. This story is one that we hear and witness every single day, on the news and in our neighborhoods. This is perhaps the most important thing we take away from this story today: this is not an ancient story. 


We continue to lock people away that we misunderstand, that are too different from us, that are not the pristine picture of perfect health, people that we are scared of. We label others, we take away their names, strip them of their identity, until they are only known as the labels weve prescribed to them.


Our prison system is the most obvious example of the ways in which we continue this story. Alex Briscoe, who is the health director for Alameda County in northern California says that, Weve, frankly, criminalized the mentally ill, and used local jails as de facto mental health institutions. The statistics paint a stark picture too, with an average of 70% of incarcerated women and over 54% of incarcerated men who have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem. This is of course, only those who have been provided a diagnosis. It does not account for the ways in which systems of poverty and racism also contribute to those we have criminalized. 


This is not an ancient story. 


There is a legacy to this practice. Today is Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It is often celebrated as freedom day. Not too long ago, there was a legacy of using people and preventing them from being active participants in society because of how they look. In fact, we openly admitted as a country that we do not see some people as whole people, that we have deemed them unworthy of full citizenship and rights. You might recall from history class that the Constitution of the United States declared that any person who was not free [so anyone who is enslaved] would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual. On Juneteenth, when enslaved people were set free, there were others who were afraid. Similar to the man in this story who experiences freedom for the first time, the people looking on were afraid. It is most terrifying to those who hold power when the system is flipped upside down, when suddenly those you understood to only be ⅗ human are recognized as fully human, your entire worldview is challenged. The people were afraid.


We continue to not see people as fully human. We have especially continued the legacy of slavery through the U.S. prison system. We have continued the legacy of oppression through systems of policing, housing, and healthcare. For those we deem unworthy, we have continued the legacy of cruelty in nearly every aspect of daily life. The prison system was designed and continues to act as a legalized form of slavery that disproportionately affects black and brown people. 


This is not an ancient story. 


The Gospel of Luke offers us a rich story of liberation and justice found through Jesus. We, as readers, are convicted as we wonder if we would have been those people who found themselves afraid after learning what Jesus has done. As readers, we wonder if we would have been cast out, sentenced to jail, shackled and hidden away from our friends and family. We are challenged to examine our own role in society, challenged to think about the labels we place on others, and challenged to do something to change it. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer reminds us that nobodys free until everybodys free.


In addition to the rich political story from Luke, like usual in the Gospel stories, we also receive a pastoral message from Jesus. Jesus invites us into examining our own identity. 


The man in this story is overcome by demons. As I mentioned before, he is so overtaken by his afflictions and his troubles that he doesn't even know his own name. Even throughout this story, it isnt always clear who the speaker is. It switches between the man himself and the demons talking through him. Whatever these demons are, they have taken over his entire identity. Like the man, when we have an illness, a diagnosis, a particular problem, or made a particular mistake, these things have this way of becoming our whole identity. They have this way of not allowing us to see ourselves as anything but. 


Jesus is inviting us into a moment of self-reflection through this afflicted man. He asks us: what are the labels you have placed on yourself? What parts of your identity do you need to break free of? What would it do for you if you stopped using those labels for yourself?

While Jesus heals this man in a very tangible way, it is important to note that this man did not have to be healed by Jesus to be of value to God or society. Demons arent necessarily good or bad, but they do offer different experiences, viewpoints, and insights. We always have something to learn from our lived experiences. Jesus uses this man to show us that we can be freed through a relationship with Christ. By simply knowing Jesus, following him and his Word, we are freed from our own chains and our identity is returned to us. Jesus tells us that all of us, even those parts about us that we hate, are loved by God. He tells us that regardless of our problems or afflictions or mistakes, we are wholly loved and cherished by God.


I want to end today with a prayer that I used often while working as a chaplain at a womens prison. The prayer comes from a prison prayer book published by the ELCA called Hear My Voice:

Liberating One, remind me that I can endure- no matter the trial, the weight of my plight, or the rulers of this world; no matter if every official stands in my way. I am assured of liberation because I follow up, and you have declared my freedom. In the name of the one who endured to the end and set me free, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Amen.


1 Tarrell Carter. Bible Study for Proper 7C (6/19/2022). Pulpit Fiction Podcast.

2 Jeffrey Burton Russell. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (1987). 132.

3 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. "δαιμόνιον". A GreekEnglish Lexicon. Oxford University Press. (1843). see also: James Diggle. Cambridge Greek Lexicon. Cambridge University Press. (2021).

4 Tarrell Carter. Bible Study for Proper 7C (6/19/2022). Pulpit Fiction Podcast.

5 Sarah Varney. By the numbers: Mental illness behind bars. PBS Newshour: Health. May 15, 2014.

In state prisons, 73 percent of women and 55 of men have at least one mental health problem. In federal prisons, 61 percent of women and 44 percent of men. In local jails, 75 percent of women and 63 percent of men


7  Legal Rights and Government Documents in Slavery and the Making of America. Thirteen/WNET New York. (2004). 


Although the Constitution did not refer directly to slaves, it did not ignore them entirely. Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States declared that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. The "Three-Fifths Clause" thus increased the political power of slaveholding states.

8 Terry Fitzpatrick. Nobody's free until everybodys free. 31 January 2018.

9 Praying through the Year in Hear my Voice: A Prison Prayer Book. Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, MN. 2018. 101-102.