In the old Muppet Show, a sketch featured a group of pigs as crew of a space-ship, in a kind of a takeoff of Star Trek. The announcer would get a real deep voice and the sound man upped the reverberation so we could hear the extremely dignified name of the “show:” Pigs in Spaaaaaace.
This has nothing to do with the meaning of the passage, especially since Luke puts it on a steep hill instead of a cliff like Mark does. But I always follow this important rule: When you have the chance to name a sermon after a Muppet Show sketch, do so.
Anyway, we have Jesus landing on the opposite side of the see of Galilee from his homeland, in the country of the Gerasenes. As his boat lands, a man confronts him. The man is possessed by demons, we are told, so he probably does this to everyone who shows up.
But this time, he meets someone other than the usual traveler who might run away in fear. The demon in him instantly recognizes Jesus and cowers in fear, and Jesus for his part orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.
Here Luke, ever the doctor, gives us the man’s symptoms so that we can know he really was demon-possessed. He lived in the tombs, among dead people. He had frenzied convulsions and in them, he demonstrated super-human strength. Today, we might hear a doctor diagnose someone with mental illness in the same way, by listing the harmful things they did to themselves as symptoms of their disorder.
After the spirit begs Jesus to leave him alone, Jesus asks it for its name. “Legion,” it says, meaning that not just one spirit but many have taken control of this man. With this command, Jesus asserts his power over the spirit. There will be no hiding behind one’s fellow demons, hoping Jesus picks one of them to be cast out while the others can stay. The eviction notice covers everyone. He has absolute authority over them and he will exert it.
The demons beg not to be sent back to “the abyss,” or whatever it is that they came from. Instead, they ask to be sent into a herd of nearby pigs. Jesus agrees, and the spirits leave the man, enter the herd, and sprint to their deaths in the sea. And Legion forever loses his ability to really harm people, as they will never take him seriously again. “Ooh, it’s Legion! Watch out! He’ll make your Sausage McMuffin jump into your coffee!”
The pig handlers are amazed at what they see. They run to town to tell everyone, and a group marches out to see what’s going on. They see Jesus having a pleasant conversation with the formerly-possessed man. They know he’s formerly-possessed because he has clothes on and he speaks words instead of howls or grunts.
According to Luke, they respond by getting scared. When some folks who witnessed the whole scene describe it for them, they get more scared and ask him to leave.
I could understand why all this might freak them out a little. It’s a pretty freaky story. But afraid? And so afraid they ask the man who worked this miracle to go away? Why? Surely they could see this man was a powerful prophet and brought a message of similar power. But why fear him? His power was great, but it was used to heal. And it could obviously heal anyone, if it healed their friendly neighborhood demoniac. It could even heal them…
Oh, I think I see now. If Jesus could heal the possessed man, then he could heal them. Now they might have to confront their own sin. Now they might need to admit they too had things that needed to be made right with God. They couldn’t pretend they were OK anymore, by pointing out that, “Hey, at least I don’t live in tombs like that guy.” Because Jesus had healed “that guy."
The Gerasenes had a pretty safe and settled situation going. As long as their village whacko was around, they could pretend they were OK. “I’m not as bad as him,” they could say. Or we might say, when we point to someone as obviously despicable as a man howling in the tombs would be. “We’re not as bad as they are,” we offer.
But Jesus has another point of view. “Maybe not,” he responds. “But to me, he’s just as good as you. He knew he needed me. Will you admit that also? Will you admit you need me as much as he needed me?”
Jesus left the villagers. But he didn’t leave them alone. He told the possessed man to go everywhere and tell what God had done for him. As a reminder of what God could do, when we open ourselves to him.