This Sunday’s gospel story sees movement into Judea, the territory immediately surrounding Jerusalem and Samaria. Here we begin to have some contact with the history of the early church, as distinct from myths and legends about it. In the persecution of the church in Jerusalem there lies the reminiscence of a real division in the church, and the persecution of one part of it and not another. For all its legendary overlay and its re-working by the author of Luke-Acts, and his understanding of things, this section does echo the historical origins of the Hellenistic Jewish Christian mission, and its justification for its break with Judaism.
It seems in this section, that the eunuch was an outcast, since the Jews would not have accepted a mutilated man as a proselyte, and the quotation from Isaiah 53 carefully avoids any interpretation of the death of Jesus as an atonement for sin.
The place name is in dispute, but the site marks the place where the Roman army slaughtered 1000 rebels in AD 67 and the surrounding villages destroyed.
The fact that the demoniac is called by the Latin name ‘Legion’ strongly suggests that the writer saw a link between the exorcism of the evil powers occupying, and the demoniac and this extreme act of Roman oppression. This is further confirmed by the destruction of the pigs 2000 [battalion], like the numbers of a Roman legion .
This should not surprise us, as New Testament theology makes a strong association between the ‘powers that be’ on the political stage, and the supernatural ‘powers that be’ who are believed to stay. Jesus uses the same language, to show how he as the agent of Yahweh’s power over all the dark forces that hold this world in thrall, can actually defeat oppression.
This exorcism then, proclaims [among other things], that even the power of Rome will ultimately be no match for the liberating powers of God in Christ. It is not an accident that the exorcism immediately follows after the story of Jesus calming the storm.
The fact that at the end, contrary to his usual command to keep silence, Jesus orders the healed demoniac to tell his friends and neighbours about it, confirms that he is the one who will bring salvation to the Gentiles, foreshadowed their inclusion during his own ministry.
So what of this Gospel story and its meaning today. The church as a whole finds the issue of exorcism extremely difficult. Anyone presenting the symptoms of the Gerasene demoniac today would be rapidly committed for treatment for multiple schizophrenia -and quite rightly so. The church is wise in insisting that the ministry of exorcism should always be complimentary, not alternative, to conventional psychiatric medicine.
In every age, it seems, the church must define itself by those whom it labels ‘outsiders’, so that the rest can feel more comfortably ‘in’. That instinct to judge and exclude, which earned Jesus’ harshest condemnation, makes the church look to outsiders more like a sanhedrin of the self-righteous than a company of joyful, forgiven sinners, and it is still keeping out just the kind of people whom Jesus wants in.
Let us always be aware of this tension and ensure that all really are welcome into the family of the church, and no one is excluded because of prejudice, bigotry, complacency or snobbish / class / education or intellectual disdain.