“Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As 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.” (Luke 8: 26-27)
There is speculation that it was not demons who possessed this man, but mental illness. Those who have mental illness, or those who know how devastating an illness of the mind can be, would probably agree it is like being possessed by something, so why not demons. But I do not mean to lessen the state of demon possession, nor suggest that mental illness is “evil.” My point is that this man was suffering from something that kept him outside and away from main stream society. And he suffered gravely because of it.
“When 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”— for 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.)” (Verses 28 – 29)
What is the line between “simple, basic” mental illness and being “possessed” by a demon? The history of treating mental illness is strewn with horror stories to rival the consequence of having a mental health diagnosis; it is an instance of the treatment being worse than the disease. So who/what exactly is being tormented by told to leave this man alone? While I have doubts and concerns about the judgment of the writer of the gospel of Luke to be able to discern between demon possession and mental illness, I have full confidence that Jesus knew the difference, and knew what he was doing in treating this man.
“Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” (Verse 30 – 31)
If you know about the various types of mental illness, you will understand when I say this discern could go either way – demons or mental illness. To be plagued by the “demons” mental illness to know what it is like to vulnerable to a wide number of impulses and feelings.
“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. Then 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.” (Verses 32 – 33)
“Now” I am sure beloved reader – that is, after considering this passage for many years I can say with certainty that it was a possession by evil intent and purpose and not because of a disorder of the mind. To “leave” one thing and “enter” another thing, there needs to be an entity with existence. And that is not the mode of mental illness. At this juncture, however, this turns from being an exorcism to a story of healing – a healing of one’s sanity.
“When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” (Verses 34 – 37a)
If the people of the city believed, as I do now, that the man was possessed then Jesus’ power was awe-some and frightening indeed. It is one thing to heal the body with potions, incantations and medicine. It is quite another to command evil and have it whimper and obey you. That type of power is beyond human comprehension, and many would flee or ask the powerful to leave them.
“So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Verses 37b – 39)
I hope and assume that Jesus assured the man that the demons would not return. That would have been my fear at one time, had that person been me. I have seen and felt enough of God’s protection and grace to know that I am safe from demon possession. But a disorder of the mind is something else. And have felt God’s grace and protection in that regard too, but that is an ongoing grace and protection that I can call upon whenever I need it.
Beloved reader, we can live bravely in this world because we know we have God and Jesus Christ’s protection and healing. I grief for those who navigate this world without it awareness. And I pray that our Lord God Protector will watch over them and comfort them. Selah!