Jesus Engages in Spiritual Warfare—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2C/Proper 7 (Luke 8)

Peter Koenig, Casting Out Evil Spirits

Luke 8:26-39 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

26 Then they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on shore, a man from the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had not worn any clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” 29 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.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 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. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd stampeded down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 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 became frightened. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then the whole throng of people of the surrounding region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “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.


                We live, for the most part, in a disenchanted world. We look for scientific explanations for diseases and mental health issues. So we tend to read stories of encounters with the spirit world, whether benevolent or malevolent with a certain bit of skepticism. Yet, sometimes, especially comes to evil, we wonder. Is there some kind of power behind acts of evil, like the Holocaust or when a young man entered an elementary school intent on killing young children? Could there be something spiritual standing behind these activities? If we read the Gospels, we discover that Jesus regularly encountered the demonic. We might decide to find natural explanations for such things, and that might be appropriate, but are we missing the point? Is it possible, in this day and age, to consider the possibility that there are adversarial forces that are pushing against the values of God’s realm? If so, are we called by God to engage in spiritual warfare?

                Several years ago, Richard Beck wrote a book titled Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. I found this book to be compelling reading because it speaks to the realities of our day. He reminds us that when we snip Satan out of the Gospels, we remove the glue that holds things together. That’s because the Jesus of the Gospels was constantly battling against Satan. He writes that “if we want to follow Jesus we have to fight the battle that Jesus fought” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 35].  Beck rediscovered the need for reenchanting the Gospel through his prison work so that his engagement in social justice work could have deeper spiritual roots. That’s because the people he works with do believe in the one they call “Old Scratch.” While he began this ministry because of his commitment to social justice, a commitment rooted in a disenchanted vision, when he got there he discovered that this worldview clashed with the “enchanted, enthusiastic, and charismatic spirituality I encountered” [p. 53].

                We can find a natural explanation for the story of the healing of the demoniac from the region of the Gerasenes, which lay on the other side of the Sea of Galilee from Galilee. It’s easy to offer a psychiatric diagnosis, but that likely misses the point. While Luke lived under a very different worldview than we do, such that the world he inhabited was an enchanted one. So, here we have Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with a man possessed by demons. He was naked and homeless, living among the tombs.

                One of the key elements of this particular story is that it takes place in a predominantly Gentile region situated along the Sea of Galilee. For some reason, Jesus decided to cross the lake and visit this region. When he got out of the boat a man ran from the tombs and fell at Jesus' feet. The man shouted with a loud voice: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Apparently, when the man confronted Jesus, Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to leave him. I want to highlight the word unclean because culturally, Gentiles were considered unclean. They were not allowed into the Temple. Yet here Jesus reaches out to heal a Gentile and restore him to health and well-being.

Getting back to the demons in the story, it’s interesting that in the Gospels it’s the possessed who recognize Jesus for who he is. The disciples struggle to see Jesus’ identity. The religious leaders don’t see it either. The people are entranced by the miracles, but they don’t truly understand who Jesus was. But the demons recognized him. In this case, they want Jesus to stop tormenting them. In doing this Jesus freed the man from his shackles, both spiritually and physically. Where once he would break free from his bonds and run wild, that would no longer be true. What Jesus does here is engage in a bit of spiritual warfare. That might be off-putting, but that’s who Jesus was. He was a healer and an exorcist. He freed people from bondage so that they might experience restoration.  

                How does Jesus do this? Well, he asks the demon for a name. What is your name? We might wonder why Jesus would ask that question, but the reason is that in the ancient world knowing the name of a deity or a demon would give one power over that entity. That’s why Jews do not speak the name of God. It is not appropriate to think we can take control of God by being too familiar.

When Jesus asks this question, the demon replied with the name “Legion” for they were many. The name Legion might conjure in our minds a military image, for the region was controlled by Roman Legions, with a legion generally numbered around 5000 soldiers plus auxiliaries. It could be that Luke was making a political comment here by including the name, but whatever is the case Legion asked Jesus not to send them back to the abyss. While they knew they faced defeat, they didn’t want to return to the underworld from whence they came. That meant they needed something to inhabit. Seeing a herd of pigs nearby they asked Jesus to send them into the pigs. Now, remember that for Jews, pigs were unclean animals, and these were unclean spirits. Jesus complied with their request and interestingly enough, once they inhabited the pigs, the pigs became wild and ran off the cliff and died. In other words, this was not a wise choice!  The good news, however, was that the man was now free of this possession. He was back to his right mind.

                You can understand what happened next. The swineherds were a bit overwhelmed by what they saw and so they went into town where they told everyone what had happened. When the townsfolk came to see for themselves, they found the man they had shunned and imprisoned sitting there at the feet of Jesus “clothed and in his right mind.” Instead of rejoicing at this sight, they became afraid. It’s understandable. That Jesus had done what no one else had been able to do can be a bit disconcerting. Who is this person who had visited their shores? What kind of power did he possess? What might he do next? That the man was not restored to wholeness was not at the top of their concern.  They were more afraid of this man from the other side of the lake who healed the man but caused the pigs to run off into the lake where they drowned. Whatever the reason for their fear, they were ready for Jesus to leave.

                Interestingly, the man who was healed was ready to join Jesus’ band of disciples. You can understand why. He wasn’t sure about his future in the Gerasene region and he was grateful for Jesus' action on his behalf. As for Jesus, he had other plans for the man. He commissioned him to stay home and share the good news about what God had done for him. With this commission, he went about sharing all that Jesus had done for him. For Luke, this might serve as another way of presaging the Gentile mission. Jesus’ healing gifts would not be limited to his own people but would be shared broadly. Not only that, but once again Jesus reached out to the marginalized in society, restoring them not only to health but to the community. Thus, the one who was homeless found a home. His identity that was lost to this unclean spirit was now restored to wholeness. Therefore, he could proclaim the good news about what God had done for him. Hidden in the story is another message—God is a welcoming God reaching out to Jew and Gentile alike, freeing those living in bondage (whatever form it takes), by taking down the demons in our midst. So, how might we engage in spiritual warfare without being drawn into conspiracy theories and other problematic worldviews?

                I am reminded that we live with what Andrew Root calls the “immanent frame,” a worldview that limits God’s agency. But what if God does act in ways we don’t control? What should we make of that? Could such action have political consequences? After all, Jesus defeated Legion! Getting back to Richard Beck’s discussion of spiritual warfare, he offers a definition worth pondering as we gather as the people of God and hear this story of the man freed from Legion’s grasp. Beck writes: “Spiritual warfare is putting love where there is no love. It is the action of grace in territory controlled by the devil, being true to love in a world that is cold and lonely and mean. It is the kingdom of God breaking into and interrupting our lives.” Yes, “spiritual warfare is Satan interrupted” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 184]. In this moment in time, when life is challenging, may the way of Satan be truly interrupted as we live in the presence of God who is revealed to us in Jesus who freed the Gerasene man from bondage and in doing so sets us free to live into God’s realm.   

Image attribution: Koenig, Peter. Casting Out Evil Spirits, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved June 14, 2022]. Original source:


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