The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac appears in all synoptic gospels. Jesus crosses the northern part of the Sea of Galilee in a boat, disembarks in the area of “10 Cities”, and performs an exorcism. Thereby, a large set of demons transitions from a man into a herd of pigs, who then run down a hill and drown in a lake. Mark’s version of this is the earliest, longest, and most detailed. The author of Luke, from whom we heard it today, copies it from Mark, retains his level of detail, and adds a unique element: not only is the man found sane and clothed at the end, but he was also naked at the beginning.
The story is odd, even apart from the theme of exorcism. What was Jesus doing in an obviously non-Jewish area; destroying so much food, albeit non-Kosher; depriving families of income; harming innocent animals; granting requests to evil beings? While Jesus worked primarily as a rabbi among his own people, the intent of the gospel of Luke, in concert with its sequel Acts, was to present the history of early Chrsitianity an incredibly inclusive one, open to people of every social class, nation, gender (cf Paul writing to the Galatians that we also read today) – even “sinners”. Jesus’ ministry to the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and Roman centurion’s servant served as the transition between the era of the Jewish prophets who came before him, and that of our Church, which the disciples’ work initiated in Acts. We ask sometimes, “who are humans that God would be so mindful of us?” (Ps 8) So here’s the answer: people of all kinds are precious to God. So important that one man’s life is worth more than that of 2000 animals and the associated wealth. Far from saying that animals are dispensable and people’s livelihood isn’t important, this imagery underscores the value of human life.
Now, onto the weirdest part. Demonic presence is strange to us, but NT stories mention it without any explanation, presuming it is common knowledge. And in the 1st century pagan and Jewish cultures, it was: demons were ancestral spirits and divinities of lower tiers responsible for extreme weather, disease, tragedy, disaster, and trouble. Yet, as any created beings, they needed a body, which could either be an idol or a person. To pagans, the latter wasn’t always a bad thing, as demi-gods occasionally “assisted” people, and oracles gave messages. But to the Jews, evil was unequivocally unclean and would one day be punished. The Book of Jubilees, a 1st century text, retells the stories of Genesis and describes an ancient bargain between God and demons, which allowed one tenth of them, plus their leader, to stay in the world and test humanity, echoing Job and 1 Samuel, and explaining why Paul would write about handing one over to Satan to bring him/her to repentance (1 Cor, 1 Tim). This bargain would one day expire, which is why the “Legion” here said to Jesus, “have you come to destroy us before time?”, but evidently it hadn’t yet.
So yes, while we may wonder if the Gerasene man “simply” had a mental illness, to the 1st century audience, demonic possession, sinfulness, and illness were likely all the same. Furthermore, the victims also subscribed to and reinforced this paradigm, like the Gerasene who became violent, dwelt among the graves as one effectively dead, and bashed his head upon the rocks anticipating a stoning that so commonly ended the misery of such persons. Notice that we, too, live out of roles imposed on us to various extents. if you dress well and people call you a snob, you might behave like one. If you are an executive presumed to be power-hungry, you might become greedy. If you are believed by your relatives to be annoying, you might try to irritate them. If you have low education, you might believe that you will never escape poverty. If you are mentally ill and people fear you, you might become violent.
But aren’t we much better educated than 1st century people to know fantasy from reality? Well no, groupthink is still the default way our species operates, and the way we reinforce it is by creating Others. Either externally to unite against, or internally – to expel. Ancient Judaism had a custom of creating a scapegoat, described in Leviticus as literally sending a goat into the desert to show that the sins of the community went away with it. So we also need our disaster-filled 24-hour news, horror movies, crime shows, and murder-mysteries, in which monsters of all sorts reassure ourselves of our virtue, and the evil of wich goes away with the flick of a switch or closing of a book. With the departure of a scapegoat, all the things that we fear might happen to us seem to go away. The tragedy is that most monsters whom we bully, ostracize, and crucify outside our city walls are not fictional. Weakness, uniqueness, and talent; refusal to subscribe to zeitgeist ideology; simple envy – it can happen to anyone, and when it does, it happens fast. You’ve seen it at your workplaces, schools, and in politics.
The true nature of Gadarene miracle was that it deprived the people of Decapolis of a subhuman monster who served as their scapegoat. The people were not happy, and least of all about the lost bacon. The shared sense of wellness found in the misery of another was gone. Jesus restored the man’s sanity, relationships, and productivity AND he clothed him, as though to say he is NOT like an animal that wears nothing. The 2000 voices in his head – called Legion as an allusion to the ultimate collective power found in Rome – who told him for years that they possessed the right to expel and stone him on the basis of him being less than human, were silenced. The evil was “tricked” to find a new host, which took it straight back to the Abyss. It’s as though nature itself refused to tolerate the presence of evil. In these themes, the narrative anticipated the crucifixion of Jesus which essentially showed that scapegoating doesn’t work and tricked death into thinking it won, thereby defeating evil. How do we embody this hope of new life?
Our longing for transcendence through belonging reflects the relational image of God (religion means “binding together”!). But, we must not create the Other to assert our belonging. Jesus never demeaned other people, or boasted of his power. May we also remember that all human life – ill, young, old, disabled, unemployed, disagreeable, cruel – is worth more than a pair of sparrows, and even 2000 pigs. Whether or not we believe in demons, may we also pray for a greater awareness of our evil impulses, and for the healing in our lives and society. Amen.