26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As 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. 28When 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’— 29for 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.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They 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. 33Then 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. 35Then 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. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
Luke 8: 26-39 – NRSV
Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve referred to the fact that there’s a huge cultural gap between Jesus’s time and ours. St Luke’s disturbing story of the demon-possessed man underlines that in those days, the unexplained and unexplainable were often attributed to other-worldly beings, such as demons. Passages such as this are often criticised by those without a faith. Was Jesus actually an exorcist of the most sensational kind?
As so often with Bible stories, there’s a far easier explanation, which provides a much richer, deeper meaning. Let’s look for a moment at what Luke tells us about the man. He wears no clothes, which in the Bible was an indication of vulnerability but also of humiliation. He has no home, but lives among the tombs, among the dead bodies, considered by Jews to be unclean. He’s so rejected by society that he might just as well be as dead as those with whom he shares the tombs. We’re told that he suffers from seizures, and this conjures up a picture of a man in torment, without control of his own faculties. Because he’s unclean, he’s shunned by people. He’s bound with chains and shackles, to show that people don’t trust him. He’s treated like a wild animal and maybe even starts to behave like one.
If you’ve ever experienced depression or mental illness, or have known someone who has, it’s not difficult to see these details pointing to someone in the depths of the deepest mental depression. Depression strips us of everything that makes us human. Probably its worst characteristic is that it feeds off itself. Depression leads to feelings of negativity about the world. These in turn drive us to withdraw from human contact as much as possible. The subsequent lack of contact feeds feelings of isolation and a belief that others don’t care. This in turn strips us of our self-confidence, which leads to a further desire to be isolated from others.
I’m not a psychiatrist, but in this time of COVID, we seem to be suffering from state-induced isolation and risk becoming like the man in the story; it’s not for nothing that our current period of enforced self-isolation carries such a heavy potential for mental illness; withdrawing from human contact carries a serious cost.
When we’re isolated from human contact, it’s easy for us to withdraw almost totally into our own personal ‘tombs’. The world looks black, there seems to be no end to the lock-down and we become terrified, disoriented, disconnected and emotionally ragged.
I wonder whether you’ve spotted that our Media, who were almost without exception, urging a total, global, rigorous ‘lock-down’, are now beginning to report on how damaging this might turn out to be, psychologically and economically, without the remotest hint of self-awareness.
The story of the demon-possessed man and the Gerasene pigs is one in which Jesus finds just about the most ritually unclean person that he can, and restores to him what St Luke describes as his ‘right mind’.
The story goes on to describe how the man is found sitting at Jesus’s feet – a metaphor for being a disciple of Jesus. The very people who have been treating him as a wild animal up to this point, and who have expressed no fear of him whilst he was in his deranged state, become terrified; not of a demon-possessed man, but of the fact that he has been cured. It reminds me of the Media, who appear terrified that we might escape the fear that they’ve helped to engender.
Jesus, for his part, says to the man ‘Return to your home’, knowing not just that his home is now among the living and not the dead, but that he has regained his desire and his confidence to be with people, even to the extent that he can act as a disciple of Jesus, spreading the good news.
The story of the demon-possessed man is a story of God bringing peace, wholeness and a sense of hope to a troubled life. It’s an example of how God’s love can reach through our guilt and our fear and our anxiety and our lack of self-worth at this most challenging and difficult time.
For many of us, challenging our own demons and really believing that we’re loved and forgiven by God is one of the most difficult challenges that we’ll ever face. But this story teaches us that through God’s grace and love, we can come alive, leave our own personal tombs and shackles behind, be freed to regain our right minds, live in hope and become the people that God so wants us to be. We just need the courage to overcome our fear. The story shows how relevant the Bible can be, even now, more than 2,000 years (and culturally light-years) later.
Give us the grace, Heavenly Father, to reach out to you in our own time of need and to overcome our fear and feelings of negativity. Amen