This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on June 19, 2016.
What is your name? It’s a primary question that goes to the core of identity. We see it from the start, at the beginning of our sacred story in Genesis. God named the world into being, and then gave to humans the power to name. In contemporary times, we know the power of naming as well; on the internet, we make username decisions that reveal or conceal as much as we’d like. We can be anonymous, we can be pseudonymous, we can take on as many identities as we wish to.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac in Luke pushes us to reflect on questions of identity. Immediately preceding this story, Jesus calmed violent wind and raging waves with a word. His disciples ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25) Who is this, indeed? He masters the storm when the disciples cry out for help, he masters the demons when they cry out to be left alone.
The demons know Jesus’ name. Do they use it now as a display of power? We’ve see this in our own times, the use of religious language, of Jesus language, for purposes that are not in harmony with Jesus’ purposes. The preacher might explore how we use Jesus’ name for our own ends, or how evil itself often wears a religious mask and speaks in religious syntax.
Does Jesus know the name and nature of the unclean spirit? Luke doesn’t say. Regardless, notice how he chooses not a display of power, but a question that gets to the core: “What is your name?” (Luke 8:30). It’s one of the ways Jesus consistently exercises power in a different way than expected – by asking a question rather than asserting a response. In doing so, he shows his followers a way of being in the world that is both more open and more directive. There is power in naming, but there is power in asking the right questions, too.
What is your name? It’s a question the preacher could thoughtfully explore with his or her listeners. Stories of demons and exorcisms seem far away and foreign to most contemporary listeners. But this question – what is your name? – and its answer – legion, many – is a compelling and relevant one. What is it that constitutes our identity? What are the many parts in us that make up the whole? Which parts are truly us, and which parts have we assimilated and absorbed from outside ourselves? The story is clear that it was the unclean spirit inside the man, and not the man himself, that was creating so much havoc; what is the relationship between external behavior and internal identity? Who are we apart from our actions?
The destructive habits and attitudes that threaten to take hold of us are many. They may not be “demonic” in the strict sense of the word, but don’t they harm us just as the unclean spirit did the demoniac? They isolate us from community, cut us off even from ourselves, send us into places of death. Sometimes such habits and attitudes move so far into our identity that we cannot get loose of them on our own. In this story, Jesus strides into a place of death, towards a man being destroyed from within, and asks, “What is your name?” The question is for our demons, too. The question is also for us. This text invites the preacher and the listeners into deep, multilevel thinking about identity, behavior, evil, and the power of God in Jesus to clarify who we really are and set us free from all other claims on us.
Notice how the demons want to set the terms of the exorcism. Here, too, we find timeless resonance. How do we attempt to manage the power of God? How do we try to curb or shape or dictate the way that power works in our lives? Sometimes we resist healing, and sometimes we want healing to happen only in the way we imagine. The demons get what they ask for, and their response is a vivid act of destruction and self-destruction.
Here is all we know of the identity of the man after the demons have left him: he sits at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35). These few descriptors tell us that in the place of disorder and fragmentation, he has been given a new identity. We see in his posture that he has been more than merely restored to his old self; he has a new identity as a disciple, sitting at the feet of the master.
At the beginning of the story, the demons beg Jesus to be left alone; at the end of the story, the man begs to go with Jesus. The new identity that comes because of healing results in a complete change of direction for his life. But Jesus, unlike his response to the demons, does not give the man exactly what he asks. He sends him on a different path, to give the testimony that only he can give – “declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39). The man does this, except he proclaims what Jesus has done for him. Does he apprehend that it was the power of God at work in Jesus to heal him? “What is your name?” Jesus asked the demons inside the man; perhaps the man now knows the name of God’s work in his own life.
In this story that pushes us to think through so many aspects of identity, here is the most crucial one for us to consider: Who is this man, that even the winds, and the water, and the demons obey him? And what does his identity have to do with our own?
Stacey Simpson Duke
First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tags: healing, exorcism, identity