For many of us, the world view suggested by this story, one in which evil spirits take possession of people, destroying their lives is so alien to our modern world view that the only way we can make sense of this story is to see it as simply a primitive way of talking about mental illness. We see the man plagued by a legion of demons as a man suffering from a severe form of schizophrenia.
There can be value to this. Even with all the knowledge gained by medical science, people with severe forms of mental illness are still misunderstood, removed from society, left isolated and alone. The story shows Jesus being kind to this sick man and doing what he can relieve his suffering and restore him to his community, and we should do the same.
But it seems to me that there is something missed when we reduce this story to simply a primitive way of viewing mental illness.
It can lead us, for instance, to see ourselves as altogether different from this man: He carried the genes of schizophrenia. I don’t. There’s no reason for me to identify with him. My superior genes will protect me.
If we’re going to see the man’s affliction as a kind of mental illness, I think it’s important to acknowledge that all of us venture into the realm of mental illness from time to time. We live our lives on a continuum between sanity and insanity. Even if we are fortunate enough to live a majority of the time in the realm of sanity, there are times for each of us when we venture into the darkness and chaos expressed in this man’s life.
Not long ago, I had an unexpected bout of insomnia. Long after my wife and my son had fallen asleep, I was wide awake – my mind unable to shut off. Tired both in body and mind, and wishing I could fall asleep, I felt a frustration and isolation that sort of snowballed as the night went on. Fatigue brings out our innate vulnerability, and so it was for me. My mind raced about to all my problems and shortcomings, and all that was right with my life seemed to pale in comparison.
Fortunately I eventually did fall asleep, and refreshed by sleep, my “sanity” was restored. But the experience humbled me with the awareness that I am not so very different from the demoniac. There was that sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
I was reminded of why Jesus has us pray daily, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” There are things that happen to us in this world over which we have no control that have the capacity to cast any one of us down into the deep darkness.
Eckhart Tolle, a popular writer on spirituality, tells a story from when he was a 25 year old college student. Riding a bus to his school he couldn’t help but notice a woman who was clearly mentally ill. Oblivious to the people about her, the woman carried on a conversation to an unseen companion, recounting painful conversations, full of hurt and accusation. The woman happened to get off at Tolle’s bus stop, and so he followed the woman, his attention drawn to the her bizarre behavior. He was surprised to see her enter the same large college building that he was going into – that she belonged in some way to the same world as he inhabited. She disappeared into an elevator, and he entered a bathroom. As he continued to think about the woman, he thought to himself, “I hope I don’t ever become like that woman!” A man next to him turned his head towards Tolle, and he realized that he had spoken the thought aloud. It occurred to him that he already was not so very different from this woman.
And it’s true, isn’t it? A good deal of the time if the thoughts that race through our heads could somehow be broadcast aloud so that others could listen in, the appearance we manage to project to others of pretty much having it together would appear far less evident.
There is another problem with reducing this story to being about mental illness. Mental health is commonly defined as a matter of being “well adjusted.” The sane person is the well-adjusted person. But what if the society we live in is out of harmony with God’s kingdom? What does it mean in that case to be “well adjusted?” In some instances, what we call mental illness could be seen as a greater sensitivity of the soul to what needs to be changed in society. It has often been noted that the men who carried out Hitler’s evil were by the standards of this world perfectly sane and well-adjusted.
In our story the man’s community could be seen as possessed of unclean spirits as well. The economy of the community relies upon pig farming. In the Jewish world, pigs were seen as unclean animals. The demonic dimension of this community is expressed by the peoples’ reaction to the healing of the man. If the community had its priorities in order, they would rejoice when they discover that the man is no longer driven by his destructive impulses – that perfectly calm with his clothes back on he’s ready to be restored to the community. But they don’t rejoice. Their focus in on the loss their pig business has taken. They love their money more than they love this member of their community. They react with fear, and ask Jesus to leave as quickly as possible. It’s striking that their response is similar to the first one that comes out of the man when Jesus arrives on the scene. The demons cry out, “Why have you come to torment us?!!”
“Demons” represent those things that take hold of us, things we discover we can’t let go of, which in turn block our ability to love.
Particular problems we have can take on that quality. We obsess about them, even though oftentimes they involve something we will face in the future and can’t deal with in the present.
Will we have the money we need next month to pay the tax bill? There’s really nothing we can do about it at the moment, but nonetheless, we can’t stop worrying over it.
The doctor calls us in to discuss the results of the blood tests. She doesn’t like something she sees. Even though we are feeling okay, we can’t stop thinking about how this will threaten our future.
Sometimes we can’t let go of something that somebody did to us. We fume, we plot, we hold tightly to the anger inside us. We can’t let it go — we’re not free to focus on anything else.
Sometimes it’s a sense of personal failure that takes possession of our hearts, leaving no room for anything else.
Otherwise good things can also take possession of us For instance, the need to be a success at our job can become the only thing that matters, blocking out all other concerns. Or our concern for our child. We become consumed with helping them, and yet our obsession ends up making it impossible for us to see them clearly, or really help them.
We can’t really love either ourselves or those around us when we are consumed this way, because our attention isn’t ours to freely focus. And an act of love is, before it is anything else, an act of attention. These obsessions become destructive, for ourselves, and for the people around us, and as such they warrant the word “demonic.” We say we can’t let go of them, but in a certain sense it is more accurate to say that these things won’t let go of us, because somewhere along the way it is ourselves that get’s lost.
It is this loss of self that is expressed in the interaction Jesus has with this man when he asks the man what his name is, and instead of answering, “My name’s Jeff, or Fred, or Bob,” or whatever, he answers “legion”, because he’s lost a sense of his own identity. He has become the things he obsesses about. He’s not there – his demons have taken him over.
It’s striking the isolation into which the man’s demons have led him. In part, this isolation is the result of the choices he has made to go it alone, which have given the demons space to enter.
But he is also alone because his community has expelled him. There were limits to how far they were willing to reach out to him. Past a certain point, they chose to abandon him. By rejecting him, it helps them convince themselves that they are perfectly healthy and whole, when in fact they have their own demons, as we said before — the demon of money, among other things.
In the 20th century, advances in medical science showed that alcoholics suffer from a kind of disease for which they are genetically pre-disposed. This was a helpful insight, because those of us without the disease tended to look at people who couldn’t turn away from alcohol as simply being lazy – they didn’t have enough will power, that’s all. But we found out was that they have things going on in their brain chemistry that make alcohol, in a certain sense, irresistible, to the alcoholic. It wasn’t just a matter of them not trying hard enough.
At the same time as this insight into the way in which alcoholism is a disease was happening however, it was also being discovered that, strangely, the most effective treatments for alcoholics came through a spiritual program: the 12 step program of alcoholics anonymous.
It involved people who suffered from the same addiction – the same demons, if you will – coming together to overcome one another’s isolation.
At the heart of AA are the first 3 steps, which I want to read to you substituting the word “addiction” with the word “demons.”
1.We admitted we were powerless over our demons, that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.
So once upon a time a man who lived in the land of Geresene who suffered terribly from his demons, powerless to rid himself of them. His life was rendered absolutely unmanageable, until one day he encountered a Power greater than himself that could restore him to sanity, and this power came to him in a man named Jesus. At first the man – or should we say “his demons” — resisted the man, but eventually he turned his will and his life over to the man, and in doing so, discovered a strange peace and calm.
When Jesus was leaving, this man, newly restored to sanity, begged Jesus to let him come with him.
The impression you get is that the man fears that the only way he can access this Higher Power is from Jesus’ actual, physical presence. But Jesus wants him to know this isn’t so and he sends the man away with the words, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”
He gives him specific instructions to be sure not to fall back into the same isolation. And he gave him a mission: witness to the grace of God, the power greater than yourself, that has set you free.
Jesus no longer walks among us in flesh and blood, but his spirit is with us, and the same power, greater than ourselves, is available to free us from our demons. Jesus said, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I also.”
At our Bible Study Wednesday, we talked about the way being apart of this church helps us find freedom from our personal demons. Through our fellowship, our isolating tendencies are counteracted by the connection we experience with those who care for us, and for whom we are called to care. We are called out of the little dungeon in which our demons would keep us locked. In worship, we regularly sit at the feet of Jesus. Listening to His word, we are reminded of our true priorities. The authority of the demons is challenged. In worship we humble ourselves and reach out to the gracious power that is far greater than ourselves that can restore us to our right minds. We remember that people, not things or money, are matter.
One of the increasingly demonic aspects of our society is the way it conspires to keep us from ever experiencing stillness. There is something about silence that frightens us, similar to the way the demon-possessed man initially felt threatened by Jesus. So we participate with the conspiracy. There is always something to distract us from the silence in which God waits for us. The smart phones we carry with us with instant access to the internet are the prime symbol of this constant distraction.
But we need times of stillness, because it is in stillness that God meets us. I’ve heard people say that the hour of worship is the only time they have when they can truly enter into a sense of silence. In stillness of worship, the demons lose their grip on us. We become more like the man as we find him at the end of the story, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus.