Horizons — The demoniac’s sacred encounter

Rosalind Banbury's second reflection on the 2023-2024 Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible Study.

Sacred Encounters: The Power and Presence of Jesus Christ in Luke-Acts
Lesson 2: Luke 8:26-39

Naked, wild, muscular, dirt caked into his skin, the man babbles nonsense. People are frightened to be near this man. After all, who knows what he will do?! Because there is no psychiatric ward in Gerasa, the man is bound with shackles and chains. In addition to the frenzied voices in his head, the man is also incredibly strong and breaks his bonds. Parents tell children to not go near him, but some children and adults throw rocks and shout at him to go away.

Being dead to his family and friends, the crazed man now lives in a place of decay and death — among the tombs. Without family or friends, he is alone with his turbulent thoughts. He scavenges for food.

What caused the man to be in this deplorable state? Has the man witnessed atrocities carried out by the Roman army? Is there something wrong with his brain chemistry so that mental illness has claimed him? Maybe he was terribly abused as a child. What else might have caused this man’s problems?

In ancient cultures, epilepsy, deafness, muteness, deformity, blindness, mental illness and self-destructive behavior were all believed to be caused by demons. None of these ailments had any known medical treatment.

We might find it difficult to identify with the tomb-living man. However, we might have had a taste of his experience. We might have a loved one who is blanketed in depression. We might know people whose addictions have made them strangers to us. We might have friends whose children are tormented by mental illness. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical website, 18% of people aged 18 to 54 will have an anxiety disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD or panic disorder. In addition, it is estimated that 26% of people in America will have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

On a more mundane level, thoughts can trap our minds. We might replay repeatedly what someone said about us or, when we make a mistake, we might hear a voice that delights in telling us that we are stupid. Perhaps our minds get trapped by the 24/7 news cycle so that our view of the world is tainted with pessimism.

It is remarkable that the crazed man rushes toward Jesus. Jesus immediately seeks to heal the man, who fearfully cries out, “What are you going to do to me? Do not torment me!” It is a rational question, given the treatment the man has received. But his words may also be a cry for help.

Jesus lowers the man’s anxiety by asking his name. “My name is Legion,” the man replies. Like a large Roman fighting force, there are many voices in the man’s head all bent on his destruction. The demons shriek, “Do not send us into the abyss! Let us go into that herd of pigs.” Jesus says, “Okay.”

There may be a bit of dark humor here for a Jewish audience. Gentiles were considered “unclean.” Pigs were unclean. There was also a Roman legion that had a pig on their banners. The pigs being destroyed would bring a wry smile.

The pigs plunging to their deaths is a big financial loss for their owners, and this makes me ponder how costly healing can be. Parents get second home mortgages to get their children into addiction treatment centers. Mentally ill people can end up on the street or in jail. The U.S. Justice Department reported in 2021 that 46% of people in prison have a history of mental illness. To change those statistics, we would have to have early intervention programs in schools. Who is willing to pay for that?

When the pig herders and townspeople come back, the man is clothed. He is in his right mind, talking calmly with Jesus. The townspeople’s response? They are possessed by another kind of demon: fear. Fear casts out compassion, and they beg Jesus to leave.

What can help our fear of other people?

What can help our fear of other people? We can learn about them. We can learn about mental illness and addiction and become more appropriately caring. We can share our own experiences with mental health issues to help others who are struggling to feel less isolated.

Jesus is not afraid of the sick and the mentally ill. In restoring the man to life, Jesus shows us that there is no place that Jesus will not go to reach us. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus descended into hell, and for me that means that even in torment or despair, Jesus can reach us there. Even if we don’t feel Jesus’ presence or are not miraculously cured, it can give us hope to know that we are not abandoned by God.

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