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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Breaking Bonds—Luke 8:26-39 (Jan Rippentrop)

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “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 rushed 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 were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country 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 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.

Evidently, breaking politically imposed bonds can threaten the established order. This illuminating story of Luke’s shows twice how broken bonds can threaten political control. Furthermore, Luke invites the reader to supply a third example of bonds that need breaking, although such action may disrupt social order.

We’ll start by looking at how Luke 8:26-39 is a political story on many levels. To do so, we must look at the context. Jesus arrives “opposite Galilee” “at the country of the Gerasenes.” It is no accident that Jesus arrives in Gerasa. Jesus didn’t just happen by; he chartered a boat intentionally to go to that country opposite Galilee.

As one of the ten cities of the Roman Decapolis, Gerasa has political significance. Within such a context, “Legion” takes on multiple meanings. Not only does legion mean a vast multitude, but in this ancient Roman context it would also carry the immediate connotation of the Roman army—a distinctly political connotation.

This connotation is strengthened by the fact that the townspeople act toward the man with demons in ways consistent with an army’s responsibilities—they repeatedly guard him and bind him with chains and shackles. This play on words and actions brings an interesting tension into the text: do the townspeople control the man with demons, since they perform activities consistent with a legion, or do the demons control the town, since they are identified as Legion? Perhaps both.

First, Luke shows how the Gerasene man with demons breaks bonds. This is an ongoing story of the complexity of oppression and breaking free, because it is clear that the man is repeatedly bound and repeatedly breaks free. Unfortunately, breaking free is complicated. Even though he “would break the bonds” many times, the breaking of the physical chains and shackles was not yet enough to provide true liberation, for as soon as he would break the chains, he would be “driven by the demon into the wilds.”

The townspeople are threatened by his breaking free. Although they have worked out a system of guarding him and keeping him bound, their established practice has not yet delivered a controllable person or a solution to their perceived problem. The townsfolk continue to sense threat to the organization of their society.

Secondly, Jesus breaks politically imposed bonds. It appears that Jesus’ first order of business is to address this man—presumably not the order of welcome the town would have planned for their visitor. The power structures the townspeople were working to preserve through guarding and binding were challenged by the next sequence of events.

The powers (Legion) address the Power (Jesus). Legion identifies Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” Legion cowers under the might of Jesus’ approach and begs for some landing place other than “the abyss.” As the townspeople look back on the event, they palpably perceive Jesus’ address to their social world order and glimpse his address of the cosmic order.

Jesus’ next action breaks bonds and liberates on both the social and cosmic levels. He breaks the bond that Legion holds on the man and, granting Legion permission to enter the herd of swine, forces Legion to leave. This addresses the social order of the town by restoring the man to his town and neighbors. This addresses the cosmic order as Legion flees in the face of Jesus’ power.

Jesus’ action doesn’t simply restore a social order, it also threatens the townspeople’s established order. We can tell because observing the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind” does not comfort the people or lead to celebration. This change of social order leads them to be “seized with great fear” so that they ask Jesus to leave them.

The depth of this passage becomes even more apparent when the reader can also perceive the cost to the townspeople of Jesus’ dramatic, liberative, bond-breaking action. Can’t we as the readers also feel the frustration and loss experienced by the swineherds whose livelihood is washing up on shore?

The tension created by our ability to perceive both the freedom and then loss stemming from these particular broken bonds lets us wrestle with the complexity and intersectionality of this text in real time, for, I suspect, each reader has their own actual “bond” that they are dismantling. If one’s own effort at breaking an oppressive bond is truly at the level of systemic change of the social order, then there will be tension, for one’s actions and the results of one’s actions will not be one-dimensional; rather, there will be several real freedoms and several real pains that accompany any challenge to the established order.

The Gerasene and Jesus’ examples of breaking bonds are overt in this text. Yet, there is more. One subtle example of bond-breaking is left. Luke’s literary form suggests that you will provide it. Here’s how Luke literarily accomplishes this:

  • he lays out the chapter to anticipate participation in God’s life-giving word,
  • he provides a cliff-hanger without adequate resolution, and
  • he sends the protagonist back into the thick of it.

Anticipated Participation
At the outset of chapter eight, Luke presents a vision of an ever-expanding group of disciples spreading the word of God. Specifically, they are “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” It is not just Jesus proclaiming good news. Luke is specific: Jesus is joined in proclamation by “the twelve.” Yet not only the twelve; Luke wants the reader to know that others are proclaiming as well. Mary, Joanna, and Susanna are bringing the good news of the kingdom of Jesus (8:1-3).

Next we hear a parable about how plants are seeded and grown (8:4-15), which is followed by a story of letting light shine unhidden from a lampstand (8:16-18). Then Jesus challenges traditional assumptions and expands the meaning of family, saying, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:19-21). Finally, they are out on the turbulent sea, where Jesus rebukes the raging waves and asks the disciples, “Where is your faith?” (8:22-25).

Luke’s expansion of the circle of those who get to proclaim the good news opens the possibility of the reader becoming one of the proclaimers. Do the intervening verses equip proclaimers?

  • You plant the seed; God grows it.
  • Light is meant to shine forth, unhidden.
  • Jesus’ family are those who do the word.
  • Your faith is operative.

In this context, Luke begins to invite the reader to contribute a third example of bonds that need breaking.

Inadequate Resolution
Luke creates the need for your contribution of a third bond-breaking example by offering an inadequate resolution to the story at Gerasa. Luke’s conclusion to the layered, bond-breaking story ends abruptly: “the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.” This non-conclusion regarding two of the story’s internal questions—“What will become of Legion?” and “What will become of the swineherds given their loss of livelihood?”—leaves the reader in discomfort and with cognitive dissonance.

Sure, the pericope has more to say about the calm man and the fearful townspeople, but it offers no assistance answering these other driving questions. Like a song that leaves off its concluding chord, the hearer is put in the position of resolving the discordance themselves.

Return of the Protagonist
Luke has yet another literary strategy that makes the hearer address the unresolved questions and provide her/his own completion of the sequence. The reader is invited to share a third story of bonds in need of breaking. Luke has made the reader identify primarily with the man, now freed of Legion.

The man would like to escape this story and travel back to Galilee in Jesus’ boat, but Jesus sends him back into the thick of it as one of his expanding group of proclaimers of the good news of the kingdom of God. The protagonist in the story, with whom Luke literarily sets the reader up to identify, is sent back to Gerasa to finish the story of what God has done.

Through these three literary devices, Luke suggests that the reader may be among the ones sent to proclaim the good news about God’s liberative power in the face of bonds that need breaking.

Perhaps the following two voices of faithful, ongoing participation with God’s call to break bonds and proclaim the good news coming from people who grew up in Central and South America can stand as models of this path forward:

“The great biblical tradition…bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression, which give rise to glaring and, indeed, scandalous social iniquities.”
Pope Francis, speech in the Philippines on January 16, 2015

“The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero, proclaimed on November 27, 1977. (epigraph in book Violence of Love)

Jan Schnell Rippentrop is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria Swanson Carlson Chair in Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she also serves as the Director of the Master of Arts Programs. Working ever at lively intersections, she is a liturgical theologian whose scholarship focuses on homiletics and a political theologian whose scholarship is informed by communities suffering from the stifling effects of poverty.

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