The story of Jesus voyage across the Sea of Galilee to meet with a demoniac is so important and memorable that it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mk 5:1-21, Mt 8:28-34, where there are two demoniacs; Lk 8:28-39). Today we have Luke’s narrative. In each, the narrative is framed differently, but since Luke is our Lectio Divina for the day, let’s stick with Luke. We know that Jesus has been accused of being possessed by a demon, and his family is concerned enough to try to take him home (See Mk 3:21-22; Mt 12:23-24; Lk 11::14-16). This episode is preceded by Jesus’ refusal to see his mother, saying his family “are those who hear the word of God and do it.”, and calming the storm at sea (Lk 8:19-25). And followed by the woman with the hemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’s daughter — two stories of power, one of healing and the other, the return to life and light (Lk 8:40-53).
Jesus sails to the shore of Gerasene where he is met by a man, who falls at his feet. A naked man naked, perhaps bleeding from where he had broken the chains that had bound him. A man who had just run to meet Jesus from the tombs where he lived. A man possessed. Jesus commands the demons to come forth, but they argue with Jesus. Recognizing Jesus as the Son of the Most High God, they beg Jesus not to torment them. They identify themselves as Legion, and beg not to be sent back to the pit. They strike a deal with Jesus, and enter a herd of pigs, who run into the sea and drown. By the time the furious swineherds arrive, the man is clothed and in his right mind. Not grateful that this man is no longer a problem, they are terrified of the one who healed him. And, incidentally, drowned their livestock. They beg Jesus to leave. And what of our man? He begs to be with Jesus. But Jesus sends him home to tell how much Jesus had done for him.
The commentaries are themselves Legion. A social and political take points out that a Roman Legion is a military unit of about six thousand men, and, furthermore, Gerasene was the scene of a Roman massacre by the Legio 10th Fretensis, whose standard displayed a boar, or pig. And that furthers the notion that Luke is the social justice Gospel. While that may be true, I suggest that this is a distraction from something deeper. I am assured that pigs can swim. But these possessed pigs may be stand-ins for Pharaoh’s drowned army of men and horses. Or a scapegoat for the sinful lack of compassion shown to this man.
Another tack taken by commentators is that the goal was to make this man safe to be reunited with his family and community. I suggest that the text offers a much more complex spiritual goal.
Finally, the modernist viewpoint is that this man had a mental illness. This is usually followed by a discourse on the ignorance of ancient people who blamed mental illness on demons, and how the modern theories of psychology and drug intervention are a marvel. While these theories have a place, I disagree that such is the lesson here. We are vowed to a triune God, one persona of which is a Spirit. Spiritual forces exist. If they did not, Jesus of Nazareth would be nothing more than a sometimes wise, sometimes annoying, itinerate preacher with delusions of grandeur. No, Jesus was neither a shrink nor a pharma representative.
First, why did Jesus take this boat trip? He seems to have come for this one man, naked, violent, abandoning normal life to live in the caves of the dead. And periodically running off into the desert. John the Baptizer wore little but animal skins, and lived rough. Immediately after Jesus was baptized by John, he was driven into the desert for forty days, and wrestled with the king of demons, Satan. And in Christian history, St. Jerome, St. Anthony, and even St. Benedict, before he founded a monastic community, all left society to live ascetic lives alone. And so did the desert fathers and mothers. Many of them wrestled with demons as they shed the world of the flesh for the world of the spirit. And what of St. Francis, who gave up everything and stripped himself naked in the middle of a nice civilized Italian city, and answered a call from God to serve the poor. No, this man wasn’t crazy. He was, indeed, possessed, possessed by God. But he was neither a Jew or a Samaritan, both of which prayed to the Most High God. We don’t know much about what his people believed, but somehow God touched him, and drove him out to find God. And wrestle with demons, and probably angels as well. And that may well be what called Jesus to take this single purpose commute to the far shore. To dismiss the power of the Spirit and to assign greater power to modern theories about normalcy is to turn from the power of God and toward our human power. This madman needed Jesus, not merely to banish demons, but to guide him, one chosen by his Father, but without a teacher, without an advocate, without an understanding community. “It is a fearful thing to fall I into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Jesus came to claim him and direct his vocation.
When the townspeople saw this man clothed and sitting at the feet of a rabbi, and had seen what had happened to the man, and, more importantly, to their pigs, they were both afraid and angry. Who was this stranger, and we don’t want his kind here. And what are we to do with this healed man now? Can we trust him? We hear such things on the streets of our polarized nation today. The healed man asks to “be with” Jesus, not just to go away with him. But Jesus recognized that he is already with him. And Jesus gives him a harder task. Go and spread the Gospel. In Mark, it is not just at home, but in all of the ten great cities of the Decapolis. He is charged to be a servant of Christ. It won’t be easy. He won’t have a companion, or the months or years of wandering with Jesus. But Jesus knows his heart. This man is bound to Jesus, not just in gratitude, but in love, in wisdom, in obedience. And he acts as he is charged, proclaiming what has been done for him. And what has been done? Just a quick fix, restraint from unsocial behavior? Or a program for a cure? My is name such-and-such, and I am a recovering demoniac? I don’t think so. I see a man for whom the love of God has been revealed, but without Jesus he couldn’t sort it out, and was demon fodder. Now, in the living Christ, that love so supports him that all he wants to do is serve that love.
Today, for those of us caught up in the passionate love of God, our proclamation of that love isn’t easy. Even most of our Christian neighbors would rather embrace the good works of social justice or modern science or normal regulated life, all good things, without first answering the call to bond with God through the Spirit, and to bond with each other through that same Spirit. That is what our Baptismal vows are all about, our vows of religious life, our vows in ordination. We dismiss the greater reality of the world of the Spirit at our peril, and the peril of the world. Our good example may well be the demoniac, whom Jesus sought out not only to heal, but to set free in his Light.