It is difficult, absent the strong smells and hideous noises that cling to chaos and its victims, to read off the page the full horror of the scene:
When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.’ For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time 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 desert.) (Luke 8:27–29 ESV)
Yet the deepest terror of the moment lurks neither in the sight nor in the sound of it. Rather, it comes to us in the single word with which this poor man responds to Jesus’ probing question:
Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him. (Luke 8:30 ESV)
The real thing about evil, the thing that makes us shudder upon close contact or the memory of it, is its complete absence of mercy. Evil is entirely without pity. It stomps on its victims after they have already been beaten unconscious. It circles the block to spit on the widow at the scene of her son’s murder. Evil pounds its victim long after he has failed to respond. It exults in the violence it can inflict, far beyond the point where its frenzy serves even its own dire purpose. Long after it has stolen a young woman’s sanity from her and her from her family, it prods her to babble crazily against those who love her when there is no longer any point to it.
Evil never has its fill.
Jesus and the biblical tradition find personal language the best, most diagnostic, the truest way to talk about Evil. For Jesus, ‘he’ and ‘they’ are Evil’s best descriptors. The Lord speaks without blush of demons and of their malignant father.
Here Jesus meets a man who ‘had demons’. His madness was more a presenting symptom than a root cause. The man’s name must shock but should not entirely surprise us. ‘Legion’, he names himself, the text explaining ‘for he had many demons’.
Demons gang up. It is their nature both to overwhelm their hapless victims and opportunistically to seize upon the slightest vulnerability. The disproportion of this company of demons inhabiting a single man already rendered distant and untouchable by their presence is completely like Evil. There is no surprise here, only an uncommonly revealing portrait of how Evil behaves whenever it can.
Having lost all light, having abandoned the proportions and contours that correspond to all that is created and all that is good, demons mob whom they can when they make their rare, undisguised appearance in Scripture. And in life.
Evil’s grasping protagonists let go only when forced to do so. Jesus banishes them here with a word. The result, immortalized in the gospel’s cannily taciturn description of the liberated man, is a human being ‘clothed and in his right mind’.
He is Legion no more. He is just one man, sitting at the feet of Jesus to learn more of the power that had freed him from the grip of many. Though we do not learn it here, he has a name, given to him by a father and a mother who could never have imagined the cruelty that would one day set upon their little child. In time, people will again know him by it. His freshened clothing may brush against those whom he will learn again to embrace. Perhaps one day he will find it hard to remember the tombs to which a legion that had taken him over drove him, the site where they unmade him, the place in which they exercised their potent, relentless cowardice until Truth came back.