By Ched Myers, Fifth Sunday of Pentecost, Luke 8:26-39
Note: This is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.
This Sunday’s text is Luke’s version of the infamous Markan “political cartoon” of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mk 5:1-20). Here Luke follows Mark relatively closely (whereas Matthew changes and shortens it significantly, Mt 28-34), including placing it on the heels of Jesus’ crossing and storm-stilling on the Sea of Galilee (which Luke insists on calling a “lake”).
I call this exorcism story a “cartoon” because it is so personally and politically evocative and symbolic in its critique of Roman occupation. The set up reminds us that this takes place on the “opposite” side (Luke’s word, only here in the N.T.) of the lake from Jewish Capernaum and Galilee, in the “country of the Gerasenes” (Lk 8:26).* The Decapolis was a Roman cultural and political outpost on the eastern imperial frontier, populated by many military veterans who had settled on conquered lands given as payment for their service. It is no accident, then, that this gospel story is laced with military imagery. (Right: The oval forum and cardo of Gerasa.)
Conflict commences “as soon as Jesus stepped out on land” from the boat (Lk 8:27). He and his Galilean cohort are confronted by “a man from the city who had demons, who for a long time had worn no clothes and lived not in a house but among the tombs.” This description establishes this character as a refugee from one of the Decapolene city-states, archetypally alienated, and for Jewish readers, profoundly unclean. It echoes Isaiah’s depiction of an idolatrous people: “They live in tombs and spend nights in dark corners, eating the meat of pigs and using unclean food” (Is 65:4). We might also say that this diagnosis suggests captivity to the addictive/compulsive nature of life under imperial occupation—what we today call “internalized oppression.”
As Paul Hollenbach has pointed out, this tale is illuminated by the work of Frantz Fanon, a medical doctor who studied exorcism and the social psychology of mental illness in situations of political repression, particularly during the Algerian rebellion against French colonialism in the 1950s. In traditional societies, demon possession is often a reflection of, as Hollenbach put it, “class antagonisms rooted in economic exploitation, or a socially acceptable form of oblique protest against, or escape from, oppression.” In this sense, we might say that the political body of this man, possessed by destructive demons, mirrored the body politic of militarily occupied Palestine.
Certain distinctive elements in Luke’s telling suggest that this demoniac actively yearns for liberation from empire. Omitting Mark’s mention of self-destructive behavior (Mk 5:5), Luke focuses on how he is shackled and “kept under guard” (the Greek verb phulassō is used by Luke to describe apostolic imprisonment by Roman authorities in Acts 12:4, 23:25 and 28:16), yet also how he repeatedly breaks his fetters and flees to the wilderness (Lk 8:29). That this might be an Exodus allusion is strengthened by the fact that the confrontation ends with a “drowned army” (8:33).
The demoniac’s challenge is at once indignant and afraid—”What are you doing here?!” and “Do not torment me!” He addresses Jesus with the Hellenistic title “Son of the Most High God,” used so often by Luke (8:28; nine times in Luke-Acts). But the startling name that defines this episode is that extracted by Jesus from the demonic horde. “Legion” (8:30) was the Latin term for a division of Roman soldiers, no less than four of which were based in Syria to control the eastern frontier of the empire. At right is a third century CE dedication plaque found in northern England (which, like Palestine, represented the very peripheries of the Roman Empire). It tells a tale of military intimidation: at left Mars, the Roman war god, brandishes a spear, while the mythological hero Hercules holds his club. At bottom is a running boar, symbol of the 20th Legion. This is truly the propaganda of world domination: ‘Do not cross us, or we will beat you down.’
For a Jewish peasant in Palestine, a Legion was the stern face of their conqueror. The famous and feared Tenth Legion was often symbolized by a pig mascot (left, countermark coin symbolizes “Legio X Fretensis,” the Tenth Legion, showing a boar). These veteran imperial soldiers saw action in Judea in the revolt of 6 C.E., again during the counterinsurgency of 68-70, and were also responsible for the siege of Masada, after which they were based in Jerusalem. What happens next in the gospel story, then, clearly reveals the political cartoon: improbably, the Legion “begged Jesus eagerly not to order them into the abyss” (8:31; Gk abussos, only here, Rom 10:7 and seven times in Revelation in the N.T.). Other military terminology follows. Legion then begs to be sent into a “band” (Gk agelē) of pigs, a term usually referring to a group of military recruits (Lk 8:32). Sarcasm is evident: on one hand, the swine cult was popular among Roman soldiers; on the other, pigs are archetypally unclean to Jews.
Jesus “dismisses” them (8:32b; Gk epetrepsen, another military verb), and the “band of pigs” rushes (Gk hōrmaō connotes troops charging into battle) down the hill (8:33). The political humor finds its punchline as the Legion meets the same fate as old Pharaoh’s army: swallowed by the waters (see Exodus 14). ° This is an extraordinary tale, portraying on one hand how Roman imperialism was destroying the hearts and minds of a colonized people—the Gerasene demoniac’s possession symbolizing Rome’s military occupation of the land—while on the other, remembering the hopeful old story of God’s liberating power.
An equally instructive epilogue turns our attention from the occupier to the occupied (Lk 8:35-39). The popular reaction to Jesus’ liberative act is hostile, understandable give that the news of the exorcism is carried “to city and countryside” by fleeing (and doubtless furious) “pig herdsmen” (8:34). The colonized are hardly pleased to see one of their own now “clothed and in his right mind” (8:35), their anxiety justified by the fact that during this historical period, Judean struggles for self-determination had spawned fierce Roman counterinsurgency campaigns that had reduced more than one city in the region to rubble. Awe at this dramatic healing/liberation is thus trumped by fear of imperial retaliation; the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave (8:36-37). In political terms, this portrait attests to the power of the State to suppress opposition through dread. In psychological terms, it reminds us that those who are co-dependent upon a dominant system, no matter who dysfunctional or dehumanizing, will usually resist change. Personal or political, liberation has a cost, which usually the majority is unwilling to risk.
Now caught between worlds, the former demoniac in turn “begs” to go with Jesus (8:38). But Jesus refuses, challenging him instead to “return to his home” and testify to his transformation (8:39). Who better can attest to the possibility of liberation from oppression than someone who knows it “from the inside out”? So does the man whose political body had been destroyed by the internalized pathologies of the imperial body politic embrace the task of “proclaiming” the good news of restoration (Gk kērussō). He becomes the first “evangelist” in Luke’s narrative other than the Baptist or Jesus (the apostles will shortly join ranks, 9:2).
Reality check: this would have been a costly vocation for the Gerasene, as it still is for those trying to defect from empire and its discontents. After all, those still on lock-down seem to have infinite tolerance for the woundedness and destroyed humanity generated by the Domination system, but only fear of (or contempt for) those whose humanity has been renewed and who now live in resistance to it. Both aspects of this demonic pathology are clearly articulated in the two halves of this amazing, disturbing and revelatory political cartoon.
It remains the greatest gospel summons to healing from and evangelism to empire, then and now. May it be proclaimed as such this Sunday!
* The names Gergesa or Gadara appear in numerous textual variants. Roman historian Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (5:74), written between the time when Mark and Luke were likely produced, mentions both Gadara and Gerasa as cities of the Decapolis. The “Ten Cities” were established in the wake of the Hellenistic conquest of the region, and represented the center of Greek and Roman colonial culture in this Semitic homeland. “Decapolis” was the common regional moniker after Pompey’s conquest of the Judean Hasmoneans in 63 BCE (the name appears in Mk 5:20 and 7:31).
° Perhaps this tall gospel tale was partly inspired by the actions of seditious Galileans who drowned Herodian nobles in the lake during one of the many uprisings during this period (recounted by Judean historian Josephus in Antiquities, XIV.15.10). Conversely, however, Josephus (Jewish War III.9.7) also relates the bitter story during the Roman-Jewish War of how general “Vespasian came with three Legions, and pitched his camp thirty furlongs off Tiberias,” and proceeded to slaughter and drown Judean rebels who had fled to the Sea of Galilee to escape, resulting in “the lake all bloody, and full of dead bodies, for not one of them escaped.”