So they [sailed to] the region of the Gerasenes, across the lake from Galilee. As Jesus was climbing out of the boat, a man who was possessed by demons came out to meet him. For a long time he had been homeless and naked, living in the tombs outside the town. As soon as he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down in front of him. Then he screamed, “Why are you interfering with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Please, I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had already commanded the evil spirit to come out of him. This spirit had often taken control of the man. Even when he was placed under guard and put in chains and shackles, he simply broke them and rushed out into the wilderness, completely under the demon’s power….
People rushed out to see what had happened. A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, and they saw the man who had been freed from the demons. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed and perfectly sane, and they were all afraid….
“[Go] back to your family, and tell them everything God has done for you.” So he went all through the town proclaiming the great things Jesus had done for him. —Luke 8:26-39 (NLT)
There are events in Scripture that we moderns just don’t understand, and the story of the demon-possessed man in the Gerasenes is certainly one. I believe Satan is real and that he has demonic servants, but I’ve never experienced anything like what is described in Luke 8. I’ve never seen the movie The Exorcist, but I know that exorcism is practiced by some in the Christian church, not to sell theater tickets, but as a deadly serious challenge to evil powers that I frankly don’t know much about, and don’t want to.
The modern temptation is to reinterpret this passage in terms of what we today talk about as mental illness, to think of it not as an example of a struggle between the authority of God and the power of Satan, but rather as a pre-science example of therapeutic and medical intervention to help a very sick man. We are comfortable with illness, not with demons.
I can’t speak intelligently about the demonic elephant in the room, so I want to look at the parts of this story that many of us can relate to.
There was a man whose life had been wrecked by something that overpowered him, to the point where he was thrown out of his house, rejected by his family and friends, forced to wander naked and homeless, dirty and alone, until Jesus spoke to him, healed him, clothed him, and restored him to his family and home. That’s a story as common as the newsfeeds on our smartphones; in fact, it’s a story many of us have all-too-personal experiences with.
I used to work with a young man who was estranged from his family because of untreated schizophrenia. He was good at what he did, but he lived with the belief that a cabal of people and government agencies were out to get him. He managed to work “normally” for a while, but before long his delusions got the better of him and he retreated into his own frightening world.
I know a woman who found it difficult to face the day without a drink or two, and a few more to face the loneliness of the night.
My father committed suicide after alcohol and psychiatry failed to take away the hurts and emotional injuries that life had inflicted on him.
Drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, the life-altering traumas of fighting in a war or surviving a natural disaster or being a victim of physical or sexual abuse, these are some of the things that can hold our minds and bodies captive. A prisoner in a cell always has a slim chance of being able to escape, but escape requires great effort and risk-taking, and most of us would look at those walls and bars and just accept the inevitability of captivity.
What did Jesus do for the crazed naked man who approached him on the beach?
He stood his ground, first of all. Others had been repulsed by the man, afraid of his irrationality, afraid of his rantings, embarrassed by his appearance and smell. Jesus spoke to him, healed him, clothed him, and loved on him.
And how did the man respond to Jesus?
He was grateful to the point of not wanting to be parted from Jesus. He asked to follow, to hear more, to experience more of the power and love that Jesus had shown him.
As the demons fled from this man, he was left healed but empty. One of the reasons so many addicted people have been helped by the 12-step model is that it frankly acknowledges the existence of a “higher power” greater than ourselves. We were made to be filled with a guiding relationship to that higher power. The darkness that imprisons us must be replaced by light, or we’ll stumble back into captivity.
The man in the Gerasenes, once brought out of his prison cell, realized that the terrors that had once filled his mind needed to be replaced by God’s Spirit of hope and peace and sanity, He saw that in the one who had set him free, Jesus.
There is powerful healing in Jesus. There is freedom from bondage in Jesus. There is restoration of brokenness and peace of mind in the God who is not ashamed of us, no matter how repulsive we think we are to others. We only have to be willing to stand before Jesus naked, dirty, maybe even out of our minds, and humbly ask him for help.