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Luke 8:26-39 Biblical Commentary:
Matthew 8:29 – 9:1 and Mark 5:1-20 also record this incident. Matthew’s account is shorter and involves two demoniacs, while Mark’s account is closer to Luke’s. Both Mark and Luke present this as the second of four miracles that demonstrate Jesus’ authority and represent the four types of miracles that he performs:
• Nature Miracle: Calming of a storm (Luke 8:22-25; Mark 4:35-40)
• Exorcism: Gerasene Demoniac (Luke 8:26-39; Mark 5:1-20)
• Resuscitation: Healing of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-42, 49-56; Mark 5:21-23, 35-43)
• Healing: Healing of the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 8:42b-48; Mark 5:24-34).
There are interesting parallels between these miracles and those in Luke 4:31-44:
• Both include an exorcism, and the demon’s speech in 4:34 closely parallels the demon’s speech in chapter 8:28.
• The miracles in chapter 4 lead to Jesus’ preaching in the synagogues (4:42-44) and Jesus’ call of the first disciples (5:1-11)—and his miracles in chapter 8 lead to the commissioning/proclamation of the formerly demon-possessed man (8:39) and the commissioning of the twelve (9:1-6).
In the passage just prior to this one, Jesus was in a boat with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee. A storm arose and threatened to swamp the boat, but Jesus rebuked the wind and waves, and the stormed immediately calmed. He asked his disciples, “Where is your faith?”—and they expressed amazement that he could control even the wind and waves (vv. 22-25).
LUKE 8:26. THE COUNTRY OF THE GADARENES
26They arrived at the country of the Gadarenes, (Greek: Gerasenon) which is opposite Galilee.
“They arrived at the country of the Gadarenes” (Gerasenon) (v. 26a). “They arrived at the country of the Gadarenes” (Gerasenon) (v. 26a). “They,” in this instance, refers to Jesus and his disciples.
Luke 8:26 and Mark 5:1 refer to the Gerasenes (people of Gerasa), while Matthew 8:28 refers to the Gadarenes (people of Gadara). Both cities (Gerasa and Gadara) are several miles from the Sea of Galilee, the lake where the pigs will drown in verse 33, but Gadara is much closer and probably has associated territory that reaches to the water.
“which is opposite Galilee” (v. 26b). This country is “opposite Galilee” spiritually as well as geographically. It is Gentile country, and is the only account in this Gospel where Jesus travels to Gentile territory. In his two-volume work, Luke-Acts, Luke gradually reveals God’s concern for Gentiles. In 7:1-10, Jesus healed a centurion’s slave, but did so at the request of Jewish elders who noted that the centurion had built them a synagogue. Now Jesus goes unbidden to Gentile territory.
LUKE 8:27. HE WORE NO CLOTHES, AND LIVED IN THE TOMBS
27When Jesus stepped ashore, a certain man out of the city who had demons for a long time met him. He wore no clothes, and didn’t live in a house, but in the tombs.
The man lives naked like an animal among the tombs. Even animals live in families or packs, but this man lives alone. Jews think of tombs as the dwelling place of demons and consider them unclean. Pigs, of course, are also unclean and abhorrent to Jews (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8).
The reference to demons makes us uncomfortable. We discount demons as an expression of a primitive belief system, rather like belief in a flat world. Where the people of Jesus’ day spoke of demons, we speak of mental illness or stress. We believe that problems that might appear to be demonic are instead medical or sociological.
But we should not too quickly re-categorize spiritual maladies. Any reading of recent history will reveal such overwhelming evil that we would have to put on blinders to call it anything else. Was Hitler emotionally disturbed or evil? Would Stalin’s problems have been better solved by therapy or exorcism? Could a competent psychiatrist or pharmacist have set Idi Amin straight? Would Pol Pot have been less murderous had he enjoyed a better education?
LUKE 8:28-29. I BEG YOU, DON’T TORMENT ME!
28When he saw Jesus, he cried out, and fell down before him, and with a loud voice said, “What do I have to do with you, Jesus, you Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torment me!” 29For Jesus was commanding the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For the unclean spirit had often seized the man. He was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters. Breaking the bands apart, he was driven by the demon into the desert.
“What do I have to do with you, Jesus, you Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torment me” (v. 28b). The disciples asked, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (8:25), but ironically the demons know him as “Jesus, you Son of the Most High God.” The demons are powerful—dangerously powerful—but their plea to Jesus (“do not torment me”) shows that they know that he is even more powerful.
The demoniac (or the demons speaking through his voice) begs Jesus not to torment him, because Jesus has commanded the unclean spirits to come out of him (v. 29). As terrible as our demons might be, we find their familiarity comfortable and are loath to let them go. Counselors know the frustration of working with people who cling to their demons—people who, in spite of their misery, refuse to change their self-destructive behavior. We even see this principle at work among Christian congregations who are unhappy with their inability to attract new people but who cling for dear life to the old ways that keep them marginal.
“For the unclean spirit had often seized the man. He was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters. Breaking the bands apart, he was driven by the demon into the desert” (v. 29b). The demoniac’s Gerasene neighbors bound him with chains and shackles, but the demons helped him to break free. The freedom that the demons give is a false freedom, however, because it only worsens the man’s dehumanization and isolation. He runs naked and unrestrained, an uncontrollable and frightening presence, and lives among the dead rather than the living.
Today we see a similar phenomenon among people whose addictions destroy them physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Like the demoniac, they live in marginal surroundings—on the streets or under bridges—isolated from community. They are free from nine-to-five jobs, time cards, and dress codes—free from rent payments and car repairs—free from obedience to cultural norms. But, in the ways that really count, they are the least free among us.
Note that the local people were afraid of the demoniac, and would have done whatever possible to avoid him. Jesus, however, dealt with him without flinching—and provided the help he needed. Christians, strengthened by Christ, often face great danger with great courage—and often provide the help that people need.
LUKE 8:30-31. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
30Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered into him. 31They begged him that he would not command them to go into the abyss (Greek: abusson).
“Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?'” (v. 30a). In that time and place, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name–that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character.
“He said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him” (v. 30b). A legion was a Roman army unit of about six thousand soldiers, and symbolized Roman power.
The demoniac’s response tells us the extent of the forces arrayed against Jesus—they are many and powerful. It also tells us that the man has lost his identity to his demons. He bears their name and is controlled by their power.
“They begged him that he would not command them to go into the abyss” (v. 31). Some scholars note that a primitive belief that knowing a person’s name confers power over that person, and suggest that Jesus asks the demons’ name to gain power over them. Jesus, however, needs no name to gain power over these demons, because he already has power over them—the power of the “Son of the Most High God” (v. 28)—a fact acknowledged by the demons when they beg him not to torture them (v. 28) or to drive them into the abyss (v. 31).
The Greek word (abusson), translated “abyss” in verse 31, is translated “bottomless pit” in the book of Revelation (Revelation 9:1, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3), and is the place where demonic forces are to be exiled so that they can no longer rule over humans. The demoniac’s demons ask Jesus not to sentence them “to go back into the abusson,” suggesting that the abyss is a place with which they are familiar—their natural home, perhaps. Paul uses the word abusson to speak of the abode of the dead (Romans 10:7).
LUKE 8:32-33. THE HERD RUSHED INTO THE LAKE AND WERE DROWNED
32Now there was there a herd of many pigs feeding on the mountain, and they begged him that he would allow them to enter into those. He allowed them. 33The demons came out from the man, and entered into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned.
“Now there was there a herd of many pigs feeding on the mountain, and they begged him that he would allow them to enter into those. He allowed them“ (v. 32). If Jesus will not permit the demons to stay with the man, they ask that he allow them to take up residence in other living creatures? The pigs are logical candidates, since they are already unclean (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8). Mark 5:13 tells us that the pigs numbered about two thousand.
“The demons came out from the man, and entered into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned” (v. 33). Jesus grants the request, but the pigs do not save the demons. Instead, the demonic presence causes the pigs to rush to their destruction (and presumably also to the destruction of the demons) in the abyss of the sea.
Modern people tend to be troubled by the economic disaster that the demise of the pigs represents for their owners and/or the fate of the animals themselves. The Gospel writers, however, cared little about such issues. For them, the overwhelming concern in this story was that of Jesus’ victory over evil forces. The fact that the pigs were considered unclean also diminished their value.
LUKE 8:34-37. AND THEY WERE VERY MUCH AFRAID
34When those who fed them saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. 35People went out to see what had happened. They came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36Those who saw it told them how he who had been possessed by demons was healed (Greek: esothe—from sozo—saved). 37All the people of the surrounding country of the Gadarenes asked him to depart from them, for they were very much afraid. He entered into the boat, and returned.
“and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind“ (v. 35b). This “after” picture contrasts dramatically with the “before” picture. This man who earlier was “driven by the demon into the desert” (v. 29) now sits peacefully at Jesus’ feet. He was naked, but now is clothed. He was subject to wild, self-destructive behavior, but now is “in his right mind.”
“and they were afraid” (v. 35c). We are surprised at their response. Why are the local people not filled with joy at the deliverance of this man from his demons? Why are they afraid?
• For one thing, Jesus has bankrupted their swineherd neighbors, and they are not sure who might be next.
• Then there is the issue of uncontrollable power in their midst. Like fire, it can perform a beneficial service, but it can also destroy. What will Jesus do next? How will it affect them?
• Then there is the matter of altered routine. Like the demoniac, the Gerasenes are comfortable with demons that they have learned to accommodate. Yes, the man was crazy, but he lived out of sight among the tombs. Now that he is “clothed and in his right mind” (v. 35), they will have to find room for him in the village. Will his family welcome him home? Has his wife remarried? Have his children made peace with his absence? How will he make a living? Will he become dangerous again? Will one of their daughters fall in love with him? Jesus solved one problem but created the potential for a thousand new ones!
Of course, this is not the first time that this Gospel presents people as fearful in the presence of Godly power. The shepherds were terrified at the appearance of the angels (2:9). The disciples were afraid when Jesus calmed the sea—even more afraid of his power over the sea than of the sea’s power over them (8:25). The women at the tomb will be terrified when faced with two men in dazzling clothes (24:5).
“he who had been possessed by demons was healed” (esothe—from sozo—saved) (v. 36). Luke presents this as a holistic healing—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Jesus has saved the man in all the ways that he needed saving.
“All the people…asked him to depart from them, for they were very much afraid” (v 37). While we can understand their fear, we are saddened by their response. They have a choice—do not have to allow their fear to dictate their decisions. The frightened shepherds did not ask the angels to go away. The frightened disciples did not ask Jesus to leave their boat. The Gerasenes could choose to be celebrate the Godly power in their midst, but choose instead to cater to their fears.
“He entered into the boat, and returned” (v. 37). Jesus will not impose himself on unwilling people.
LUKE 8:38-39. BUT JESUS SAID, “RETURN TO YOUR HOUSE!”
38But the man from whom the demons had gone out begged him that he might go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your house, and declare what great things God has done for you.” He went his way, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.
“But the man from whom the demons had gone out begged him that he might go with him“ (v. 38a). Once delivered from his demons, the man is no longer afraid of Jesus, but begs to go with him.
“but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your house, and declare what great things God has done for you'” (vv. 38b-39a). Jesus instead sends him home to preach to the people who know him best—to become “a missionary in residence” (Bock, 157). Jesus thus commissions this Gentile to preach even before commissioning the twelve (9:1-6).
Jesus’ instructions to this man are an exception to his usual practice of telling people to keep silent about their healing. This man’s testimony will be a continuing ministry among Gentiles, who are not yet ready to invite Jesus into their midst but who cannot ignore this man’s changed life.
“He went his way, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him” (v. 39b). The man obeys. Often, we find ourselves called to a different calling than the one that we would have chosen. It is important to listen carefully and obey the call to which we have been called. It is better to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to be a prince or princess anywhere else—unless God has called us to be a prince or princess.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, (1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
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Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Knox, John, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
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Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
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Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
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