Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As 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. When 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’— for 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.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now 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. Then 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.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then 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. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return 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. (NRSV)
Our story takes place in Gentile territory. Jesus and the disciples have just survived crossing the windswept lake. Their master’s rebuke of the wind and waves left them both ‘afraid’ and ‘amazed’.
But the storm is not the only unsettling reality they face. Just reading of this unnamed local madman living naked among the tombs is confronting. It must have been terrifying in reality. Is this the reason the disciples are not mentioned in this passage at all? Do they now consider the boat a safer option? Have they retreated and left their Rabbi to face this monster alone?
But whatever the disciples see, Jesus sees a man. Others see a dangerous man unguarded and unbound. Jesus sees a man profoundly shackled and in desperate need of freedom.
They gaze at the same person and see polar opposites.
As with many of the stories about Jesus and demons these unclean spirits recognise the Son of God. Upon being asked to leave this demon bows his prize to the ground and shouts through him, begging for – of all things – mercy. His question and request: ”What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High? I beg you, do not torment me.’ portrays a man tortured and a demon running scared.
And for good reason. Having been asked to leave, he has no choice but to obey. There is an inherent authority within Jesus.
Jesus’ request for a name is intriguing. ‘Legion’ clearly implies a multitude of tormentors. Until now this spirit has spoken – and been spoken about – in the singular. Only as Jesus asks for a name is the extent of this man’s predicament revealed. The remainder of the story refers to the demons in the plural. This naming is a source of reluctant revelation.
This ‘Legion’ does nothing here without the permission of Jesus. But when it is given they move on mass – sending the feeding pigs insane.
One can only imagine what the ‘swineheards’ made of these events. They certainly respond with a fear and a deal of confusion.
They need help. But they seek it from the very people who have been unable to bring about a resolution. Even when the townspeople return and see for themselves the possessed man sitting at Jesus feet, clothed and calm, they – unlike the disciples in the storm – can find no emotion other than fear. Where is their fear-countering ‘amazement’?
Even after witnesses testify to a great ‘healing’ the Gerasenes – as one – make their fear driven request for the healing and demon-driving Son of God to ‘leave’.
Is this not the saddest possible response to any miracle of Jesus? After so many of Jesus’ miracles our rabbi was swamped by crowds bringing their sick and possessed. But here, after Jesus has done what their chains could not, they are only capable of expelling.
Perhaps it was best that our ex-madman stayed. Without him the Gerasenes would have been left with mere second-hand stories of the day they were visited by Jesus.
But with him there, declaring all God had done for him, their denial is that much harder.