Our Gospel reading today speaks of the encounter that Jesus had with a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. It is an incredibly moving and poignant account, and a story of transformation and renewal. It is a story that one of my favourite writers Calvin Miller deftly and poetically retells in his allegorical novel ‘The Singer Trilogy’. If you have never come across it before, it is in some ways reminiscent of another of my favourite books, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. We’ll look at some extracts from Miller’s book in due course, but firstly let’s take a look at the passage itself…
In the Gospel account, Jesus travelled into this Gentile region – the region of the Gerasenes – with intent. Earlier in the chapter we are told that Jesus said to his disciples ““Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out.” (Luke 8:22) It was therefore a place that they sailed to on purpose. To all intents and purposes, it must have been like travelling into a different country, with very different customs and practices.
As soon as Jesus and his disciples stepped ashore, they were met by the demon-possessed man. We don’t know if he saw their boat approaching and waited for them to alight; but we do know that he approached Jesus as soon as he had stepped ashore. We are then given some real insight into the extent to which the poor man had been dehumanised:
- He was demon-possessed, stripped therefore of his freedom and dignity;
- He was naked, bringing with it that sense of shame and again a further loss of dignity;
- He was homeless and destitute;
- He lived amongst the tombs and was therefore doubly unclean, firstly from being possessed (by an unclean spirit) and secondly from being amongst the tombs.
The account in Mark’s Gospel adds even more to this, telling us that this man:
- Was in torment and anguish, crying out
- Was uncontrollable, and unable to be restrained and therefore a risk to others as well as himself
- Would cut himself with stones
In Miller’s book, he describes the extent of the man’s torment in this way:
“…within this sleeping hulk there are a thousand hating spirits from the Canyon of the Damned. They leap at him with sounds no ears but his can hear. They dive at him with screaming lights no other eyes can see. And in his torment he will hold his shaggy head and whimper. Then he rises and strains in fury against the chains to tear them from the wall.”
That gives us some insight into how satan works. He seeks to corrupt, to pervert, to dehumanise and destroy, making a mockery of everything that God has created; yet we know that everything that God created was ‘good’ and humankind was ‘very good’. God doesn’t make mistakes!
On meeting Jesus, the man cried out and fell at his feet. If it was the man who was ‘in control’, the words he uttered might have been very different. Instead what the demonic forces said to Jesus through him was “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” (Luke 8:28) That one sentence speaks volumes. Although it is clear that the demons recognised Jesus as the Son of the Most High God, and even fell at his feet, we see arrogance and rebellion “What do you want with me?” The fact that the demons responded in the way that they did is astonishing as if they believed they had every right to possess and oppress that man and demean him and cause him to lose his very humanity. The point is this; no spirit has any right to possess or oppress the children of God. This is something that Jesus knew, and Jesus had the authority and the power, as he does in every situation.
The demon-possessed man was unable in himself to receive help; he was trapped. We cannot even begin to imagine the torture and torment he had to endure. Even if in different ways, we can sometimes find that all the baggage of life traps us too and gets in the way of us listening to and receiving God. Ecclesiastes speaks of chasing after the wind. We can find ourselves spending so much time and energy chasing after meaningless things in life that are not of God; money, power, possessions etc. Often, it isn’t until we are stripped away of everything, we are most ready to listen to and receive God and we find ourselves in a place of gratitude for the simple things that are actually so important. We see something of this in the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. In this account, it wasn’t the man himself who was resistant to God; but he was trapped and diminished by the unclean spirit. Here we have a man who was broken and poor in spirit, here we have a man in mourning at the loss of his very humanity, here we have a man who more than most needed an encounter with a gracious and merciful God, and here we have a man who Jesus set free.
We then see the dialogue between Jesus and the spirit unfold. Jesus begins by asking the spirit its name. The response is one of the most desperate responses we encounter in the Bible – ““Legion”, because many demons had gone into him.” For someone to be possessed by just one demon is an atrocity, a cruel perversion and a violation. For someone to be possessed by many demons – in this case between 3,000 and 6,000 – is a horror beyond contemplation. I wonder, in encountering Jesus who they recognised to be the Son of the Most High God, what did the demons expect? I don’t believe that Jesus would simply have walked on by and not shown compassion and brought restoration to that man. Jesus did the right thing and the only thing that could be done. Jesus spoke with authority and power and commanded the demons to leave the man. They repeatedly begged with Jesus, firstly not to order them to go into the Abyss – a place of confinement and eternal torment – and secondly that Jesus would instead let them go into the herd of pigs that was feeding there on the hillside. Without any argument, or even ability to resist, the evil spirit came out of the man at Jesus’ command and with Jesus’ permission they “went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.”
Miller again paints a picture of this man’s release from torment:
“With love that knew no fear, the Singer caught his torment, wrapped it all in song and gave it back to him as peace. And soon the two men held each other. In their long embrace of soul, the spirits cried and left. They stood at last alone.”
Emerging from that place of desperation and oppression, we see how the man found himself in a place of restoration and wholeness. We are told “they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.” The man was:
- Free at last from all torment
- Dressed, with dignity restored
- Able to once again engage with society being of “right mind”
- Sitting at the feet of Jesus, a place of renewal and learning
The people in that region would have been very aware of the suffering of the demon-possessed man. Their attempt to deal with it involved attempts to chain him; “he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.” That is a response driving by fear, ignorance and perhaps desperation. It is tragic that seeing the man set free by Jesus and restored to dignity the people were afraid to the extent that “they were overcome with fear.” Yet Jesus had again accomplished that which he set out to do. The man was free, the man was restored and even though the man begged to go with him, instead Jesus told him to ““Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” The reality is that a Gentile from the region of the Gerasenes would not have been able to lead a new life in the Jewish areas. The transformation of this man, from demon-possessed and dehumanised to free and fully human with all its dignity would have been undeniable for any that had encountered him. There could be no doubt that a miracle had indeed taken place. We are not told how the people responded when the man went all over town and told them how much Jesus had done for him.
In the depth of his suffering, that man’s soul must indeed have panted for or longed for God. The words of our Psalm perhaps capture that sense with the man’s tears being his food day and night. His bones too will have suffered mortal agony as the many demons taunted, oppressed and dehumanised him. Even the demons who served satan knew what fate would have awaited them if they were cast into the Abyss. The reality is that those who reject God lose out on life itself.
It may be that we have had experiences in our lives that have left us feeling diminished, dehumanised or oppressed. It may be that we at times find ourselves chasing after the wind where we lose sight of God, and where we struggle to hear his voice. Or it may be that we have encountered others who are broken in this way, people who have had their dignity stripped away, people who are lost, lonely, oppressed and demeaned. Like Jesus, we need to exercise compassion. Like Jesus, we sometimes need to remind people of their humanity and be willing to be a voice for the voiceless. And like that man, we all need to fall on our knees before Jesus and invite him to be Lord of our life that we too might know life in all fullness, light, freedom, healing and wholeness. Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8) “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Amen