Today’s lectionary confronts us with the problem of demon possession. Luke 8:26-39 dramatizes the issue in dramatic fashion. Christians are divided on the reality of demon possession and there’s no sign that the controversy is lessening. Rather than debate demon possession directly—which isn’t the point—it is more productive to approach the larger and more relevant issues.
The scripture sets the stage with Jesus’ arrival at the region of the Gerasenes. Immediately, a naked hermit who lived in the cemetery shouted for Jesus to leave. This afflicted man had been previously captured by townspeople, bound by chains and guarded, only to escape again to the tombs. Then came Jesus to address the problems. When Jesus asked the man for his name, the man answered “Legion,” referring to many demons residing within. The demons begged to not be sent to the abyss, and Jesus granted their request to be banished to a nearby swine herd. The startled pigs ran down the slope into the lake and died. The people in the Gerasenes region were scared by all this drama and asked Jesus to leave.
Whew! What an involved and detailed scene with a mad man, pigs, and demons. After the extraordinary events, word circulated that the formerly demon-possessed man was finally acting like a normal person. Moreover, the formerly demon-possessed man sought to follow Jesus, who advised his patient to remain and spread word of what had happened. Jesus wanted the man to stay behind and function as a faith ambassador, a living testimony of miraculous healing. It had now come full circle. Someone who had previously run naked and bruised among tombs now was ready to become a disciple and do outreach. What’s your story? You may not have had such an extreme journey, so if God can heal the Gerasenes man then there’s hope for you.
Literal truth or simply literary flourish, the story about the demon possession points to something greater. Rather than focus on the historical details and risk getting stuck in the theological weeds, our task is to not miss teachable moments. The moral of the story is what’s worth discussing, including the way people can be plagued by debilitating problems (caused by demons, mental illness, or some combination of internal and external forces). Whether demons are to blame or not, we needn’t diminish the larger point that God heals us. Also, illnesses have various sources, including psychiatric problems. There’s not much point in dividing Christians by arguing about how much illness is due to demons versus an imbalance in brain chemicals or neurological states. If we continue to get stuck this way then the church will be divided and further weakened.
We’re reminded that the moral principle or ethical lesson of a story is greater than the details that comprise the story. This is the greatest consideration when dealing with biblical narratives. The story of the Gerasenes demon-possessed man teaches us that God can heal. That’s a big point. We’re also reminded that when one person’s illness is sufficiently bad it can affect other people and even animals. It took a village to corral the ill man, and until Jesus came along there didn’t seem to be much hope. The story of the Gerasenes man need not cause arguments. It shouldn’t disturb us if a modern physician could diagnose that ancient man’s symptoms as a treatable case of schizoaffective disorder, remedied by a prescription and psychotherapy. Understand that a healing intervention is a blessing, whether it comes from Jesus or mental health professionals.
What do you want people to say and think about God’s presence in your life? Are you struggling to overcome the demon of substance abuse, addiction, bad thinking, dysfunctional relationships, depression or some other debilitating illness? Take heart that God can help, working with and through various sources. Regardless of the cause of your ills, embrace God’s Spirit and demonstrate power through God’s healing. Swine, demons, and naked hermits aside, God is ready to help each one of us live a triumphant, healing life. –Reverend Larry