For the modern sceptical generation, this story of Jesus healing the man possessed with demons is troubling at several different levels.
First and perhaps most obviously we are not supposed to believe in demons any more.
Mental illness is frequently associated with chemical imbalance in the brain, with causal factors that include environmental influences and even genetic faults. For example an epileptic fit, which the Church used to interpret as an example of one form of demon possession, is now known to be the equivalent of an electrical storm in the cortex of the brain and those with scar tissue on the brain appear to be particularly susceptible to such episodes. Other “demons” such as becoming drug dependent or exhibiting the symptoms of bipolar disorder are again thought to be much better understood in terms of environmental influence and brain physiology and biochemistry.
Given this modern scientific type set of explanations, what then should we make of demons as a cause of psychotic episodes? And even more particularly, should we accept demons can be persuaded to leave a sufferer’s body, and be transferred into a herd of pigs who then rush down the slope and drown themselves? As a literal story this seems too bizarre to be believable, particularly when the modern scholars tell us that Gerasa was literally miles from the nearest lake…so what then Luke’s story about?
The trouble with religion is that it encourages followers to confine their thinking to religious form.
Many stories about Jesus, if not totally unbelievable, are at the very least unique in that they do not suggest abilities which have been witnessed since. Walking on water or sending demons out of a body to madden a herd of pigs are not abilities I would associate with a contemporary person of faith. Personally I find it more plausible that such accounts are intended as stories to teach a lesson rather than stories to believe in their literal detail, but even as parable I can find thought provoking truth.
William of Occam was the one credited with that wonderful philosophical principle of choosing the most likely explanation ahead of the unlikely and the bizarre. If we applied “Occam’s Razor” to this situation one plausible explanation (assuming it was an actual event being reported) would be that the man would never have accepted that he was cured of his demons unless he had witnessed some dramatic and visible sign. William Barclay for example suggests that a herd of swine might well have been feeding on the hillside beside them and the man’s wild ravings could conceivably have spooked the pigs, who then panicked and rushed down the hill into a nearby body of water. The interpretation that Jesus had achieved this by causing the demons to leave the man and enter the swine may well be the way an onlooker interpreted the event, but this is also contrary to what we know of nature and therefore, following William of Occam, we might say is the less likely explanation.
Each of the four gospels talks of Jesus casting out demons but as it happens, this particular version is rather different. By casting the setting in Gerasa the swine are left with a rather long trot to the sea of Galilee some 60km away. Matthew compromises(?) and resets it at Gadara 15 Km away from the lake which on reflection would still be problem for spectators and reporters alike if they too kept pace with some rather energetic swine to confirm what happened. However even if we have difficulty with the demons to pigs feature of the story, we should at least find the setting plausible. The demoniac condemned to be cast out from his community as a consequence of his fits and outbursts accurately reflected what was in that age the community reaction to the tragedy of mental disturbance. In the absence of modern diagnosis and treatment, this man’s treatment of being chained and shackled – and when necessary, forcibly restrained by brutal means was not unheard of – and probably no worse than treatment found up to a few generations ago even in places like England. No doubt compared with today, in the time before tranquilisers and other mood controlling drugs there would have been more dramatic psychotic episodes in public among such people and from what we know of some psychological disorders, we can well imagine that a victim might break free from his restraint and run naked around the countryside as we learn this demoniac was want to do from time to time. We might also remember for example that Bedlam, an asylum for the so called lunatics from 1377, and for a good part of 600 years, employed a variety of what we now think of as inhuman treatments and at one time even attracted sightseers much in the same way as a zoo does for our communities today.
In some ways the notion of being possessed by controlling forces is very much part of the understanding of modern clinical psychologists. Some psychologists like to picture this in traditional religious language – even using the ancient Greek word daimon meaning guardian angel or guiding spirit.
Certainly the dry and complex field of genetics may give a more technical alternative explanation for what is happening, but the emotional impact makes the notion of demon possession curiously accessible by giving it the persona of a malevolent guiding spirit. Psychologist, James Hillman in his book, The Soul’s Code puts it as follows. “The soul of each of us, is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth.” “This daimon, guides us here; in process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.”
When the daimon takes us down unexpectedly dark paths we get an insight into why the concept of demon possession can become so frightening.
When Jesus encounters such a demon possessed man he asks his name. The reply “Legion” almost certainly conjures up an image of a Legion of Roman soldiers – typically a group of around 6000. For the Jews listening to the Luke version of the story, this probably represented 6000 unwelcome invaders and from the reported symptoms, we might well understand the man’s feeling that he had been taken over from within by many unwelcome invaders.
That a person might feel possessed by strange powers which are controlling rather than controlled I find perfectly plausible. Having seen indigenous people in New Guinea terrified by spirit experiences, including I might add, pastors who sincerely believed that fire flies were the souls of dead people, and having been entreated by frightened people to exorcise evil spirits and to lift curses, I can well believe that there are still those today for whom the Spirit world is still very much real. I am equally sure that many who are in effect possessed, are unaware of the fact, and more worryingly, if others cannot recognise it in themselves, perhaps even we ourselves are similarly vulnerable. Having watched alcoholics and drug addicts apparently unable to control their addiction I can also see that even if the demons now have more scientific labels they are just as frightening to those afflicted as they ever were.
When I re-read today’s story I noticed something that somehow had escaped my attention on the first reading. Not all the demons had been dealt with by Jesus’ intervention.
The townspeople found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.
And then the four words which show everything was not now OK.
And they were afraid.
Traditionally, aberrant behaviour is unwelcome because it makes us uncomfortable. Violent people, the psychologically disturbed, those who cannot handle money, relationships, alcohol, sexual desires and so forth have probably never been welcome. And in practice no matter what assurances we might be given that the afflicted one has now recovered, for most they remain unwelcome and their presence will continue to be disturbing. Shutting away the person who does not fit in – and leaving them shut away, is absolutely standard and has been so since the start of recorded history.
And the man possessed had in effect previously been most satisfactorily dealt with as far as the Gerasenes were concerned. He no longer lived among them. Chained up among the tombs he was well away from the houses – and even when he had one of his violent fits he didn’t come back to the houses in town, he roamed the countryside, naked until again he was subdued.
Even if Luke is embellishing his story he is being extraordinarily perceptive as he does so.
The townspeople arrive and find the one who had been possessed, calm, clothed and in his right mind………And they were afraid. Of course they were afraid. They were sufficiently afraid to have Jesus leave town. The sex offender completes his course to rehabilitate him back into society and the psychologist says the offender is now ready to return to society. But we too have our demons of prejudice – or prejudging, and our demons then have us say an equivalent of – what is the word?…NIMBY! …not in my back yard. Perhaps we would do well to remember that those rejected by us for their behaviour or proclivities are probably equally rejected by others. Having identified and rejected the one we see as unacceptable we must then ask what that says about us.
So Jesus had apparently dealt with the demons inflicting the man – but even he was unable to deal with the more insidious demons of prejudice which stopped the townspeople from showing compassion to the one who had been afflicted.
And perhaps the story might help us to see our own situation in a new perspective.
Our generation is probably no better than Jesus generation for our identification of those rejected by mainstream society for unacceptable behaviour. Jesus is recorded as caring enough about the demoniac to show compassion which apparently transformed the man’s condition. If we reflect on those who society currently condemns, and acknowledge that in reality many of these are victims of conditions or situations beyond their control, as followers of Jesus is it fair to ask if we show by our actions that our demons are under control.
We certainly have the option. We might identify with the townsfolk, the Gerasenes, and be frightened at the prospect of the demoniac being returned freed from whatever demons possess them – or should we in our turn prefer to care enough to identify with the cured demoniac.
If we can genuinely care for those whom society is determined to reject, is it too big a leap of imagination to hope that one day we too might be found, the equivalent of clothed, in our right minds, and sitting at the feet of Jesus.