When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
Names are a powerful thing. This was especially true in the ancient world, where names were often markers of character. When you read the Bible slowly you can see how often a name tells something deeply true about it’s bearer. And so Jacob – from the word that means “heel” – is, indeed, the one who came out of the womb grasping his brother’s heel and, further, one who was literally a “heel” in the sense of being untrustworthy. David, in contrast, is the one “beloved” of God.
In the same way, whenever names are changed it is a significant event, marking a new role or major transition. Abram, “revered father” becomes Abraham, “father of multitudes” to represent God’s promise to him. Simon is given the name Peter, “rock” as Jesus declares that he will build his church on Peter.
Names, in the ancient world, revealed your character, and in some cultures it wasn’t uncommon to have two names, your true name, the one only your family or closest friends might now, and a “use” name that you answered to. Why? Because those who knew your true name really knew you and therefore had a certain power of you, the ability to call you back to who you really were.
In our culture today names carry a different significance. They are not markers of character but more likely connected to family. But we sometimes are given names that also exercise a certain influence or power over us. Sometimes they are quite positive, a nickname or name of endearment given by a parent, sibling, or beloved. Sometimes they are less so, like the names of childhood that are thrown at us, hit us hard, and somehow stick. Names like “stupid” or “fat,” “skinny” or “egghead.” Though given years ago, we sometimes have a hard time shaking their power to hurt.
There’s something similar going on here. When Jesus asks the man his name, he answers “Legion,” for there are many unclean spirits who dominate him. He has lost any sense of who he was or who he might be. He is no longer even an individual but now just a mass – an internal, swirling confusion of spirits and lost possibilities. He is “Legion.”
And so part of what happens when Jesus drives out these spirits is that the man is restored to wholeness. He can reclaim his old name and identity and perhaps even forge a new one that corresponds to a new and open future.
We’ll get to that matter – of the man’s future – in a few verses, but for now I’d like to ask you to take a moment and consider some of the names you’ve borne over the years. What are those names that you are proud of? And which ones still hurt? For Jesus comes to take away the hard and painful names and restore you to who were meant to be, to that person that God made and calls you to be.
So for just a moment, let’s be utterly honest and confess those names that haunt us at night and pursue us during the day so that we might hear Jesus call those spirits out, restore us, and invite us into a new and open future.
Prayer: Dear God, in baptism you have given us the name of your beloved Son, calling us Christians. Remind us of our true name, restore us to be the persons you created us to be, and use us to tell others of your great love as well. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Post image from The Brick Testament.