The heading for our reading today is “The Healing of a Demon-possessed Man”.
But let’s look at what’s happened just before.
The disciples have just crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and saw Jesus still a storm which must have been quite a thing for them to be part of, some were experienced fisherman after all. They’d seen him heal people but this was power over a completely different element. Scripture says the disciples were full of fear and amazement when he did this, and even though they knew him, they still asked, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
And the next thing that happens is Jesus heals – heals! – a demon possessed man.
At the start of the reading, we read that the disciples have just crossed the lake from Galilee, which in fact is from Jewish territory to Gentile territory. Jesus had met Gentiles before when he spoke with the centurion whose servant was ill. But this is Gentile territory altogether, people here raise pigs; pigs to the Jews were unclean. It’s kind of like Jesus has taken a step into unfamiliar territory, or a step further in his ministry – that may have been unsettling for the disciples too.
But upon landing in this unfamiliar land, what happens? They come upon a demon-possessed man, stark naked, and if you read the passage carefully, you will see that Jesus spots him and recognises that the man is possessed (wandering around stark naked would be a clue) and Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. In response, demon causes the man to come straight up to Jesus. But doesn’t walk up to Jesus, and put his face 6” from Jesus’ face, he falls at his feet and shouts, not just speaks normally, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” It seems a strange thing for a stranger to say, he was living apart from people, so how would he know who Jesus was, let alone that he was the Son of God. And why would it even occur to him to ask that Jesus wouldn’t torture him? But of course, it’s the demon speaking.
Just in that tirade at Jesus, there is a lot going on. This is a demon using the man’s voice to speak, and he’s also given the man enough physical strength to break chains. We see that the demon can make the man do and say what he wants. But instead of being aggressive and attacking Jesus, the demon causes the man falls at Jesus’ feet, an act of submission, a sign of recognition that Jesus is a great power, maybe greater than himself. Then he asks what Jesus might want of him, again, in effect putting himself under Jesus’ authority. Then he addresses him in a way that even the disciples hadn’t fully understood at this point. He calls him the Son of the most High God. And lastly, the demon begs Jesus not to torture him, again, showing that he feels Jesus has a power at least as great, if not greater, than his. This is quite a remarkable thing, given that the man himself was living outside normal society, in a Gentile region, not Jesus’ usual stomping ground, but this demon knows all about him.
So Jesus asks the man, the demon, what his name is, and he replies, “Legion”. This would have had huge resonance with people looking on – the disciples were there, but we soon find out that there are pig herders nearby as well. At the time, all the people were living under Roman occupation, and a legion was a unit of approximately six thousand Roman soldiers. So for this demon to be called Legion, and to be afraid of the power of Jesus, shows that Jesus’ power might be greater than that of the demon. The people were already afraid of their Roman occupiers, so what were they to make of someone with potentially more power than that??
Then we hear the demon does not want to be cast into the abyss, a place from which there was no escape, not even for a demon. That would mean the demon had no more power, no-one to speak through, but no-one to be persuaded of his teaching, it really was a dead end. But the demons spied the pigs, and thinking that taking possession of pigs was better than being cast by Jesus into the abyss, they asked Jesus if they can do that, and Jesus gave them permission. And we know the result, one pig owner would have been very unhappy to see his entire livelihood rush down a steep bank into the lake and drown. And all the herders would have been out of a job as well. But far more importantly, everyone who witnessed it would probably have been feeling like the disciples did after the storm, asking who this Jesus was, that he could command demons.
The people who had seen this rushed into the town to tell all that had happened, and the townspeople all came out to see what was going on. And there was this demon possessed man, this madman, fully dressed, quiet, in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet, not on the fringe of the crowd, but at Jesus’ feet, just like one of the disciples. The people are fearful of what Jesus might do, they fail to see that it is could be a power for good, power to heal and restore lives, power to transform and bring out the best in everyone. It’s quite possible they thought that anyone with power like that would be like the hated Roman occupiers. But it might have been even more threatening, not a weapon in sight, such an unusual demonstration of power. So they asked him to leave the region. Only one man asked to come with Jesus, and that was the man who had been delivered of the demons. And unusually Jesus told him he couldn’t follow, he was to go back to his family and tell them of how much God had done for him. The man was obedient and did just as Jesus asked. Jesus shakes the dust of that place from his feet, gets in the boat with his disciples and leaves.
So what are we to make of this passage? Firstly, in the times when this event occurred, people were often referred to as being demon possessed. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 6:12, talks of the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm, which leads us to think of external evil forces. In our times, some of the people exhibiting strange behaviours in the Bible are said to be suffering from what we would identify now as symptoms of mental illness. Given the effect on the pigs, I think it is more likely in this case to be evil forces, however you think of those.
But however we refer to the condition this man demonstrated, the more important point is that Jesus, in a heartbeat, was able to heal him, to overcome what was causing his totally anti-social behaviour, to totally transform him from an outcast to a normal, healthy man, ready to take up his place in the town, to work, to rejoin his family, by casting out the demons.
Secondly, there is a lot of fear in this passage. The first fear is the demons fearing Jesus will send them into the abyss, where they will no longer have any means of proclaiming their fake news. The second fear is from the pig herders, who rush off into the town to tell them what had happened, I wonder how important that particular herd was to the economy of the area. The townspeople then come out, fearful as well, and ask Jesus to leave. They are challenged by the change Jesus might bring about. But the one person wasn’t afraid, was the man who’d been healed. He wanted to follow Jesus, to stay with him, he knew how much Jesus had done for him. He too may have been frightened at the prospect of leaving this man Jesus who had done so much for him, to be at distance from Jesus’ protection. Or maybe for him, love, admiration for Jesus, has cast out his fear and that helps him to obey. Maybe he’s the only one who isn’t fearful. But he’s obedient and goes back to his people.
Thirdly, Jesus emphasises to the healed man is to tell what GOD has done for him. Going back to tell those closest to us of a big transformation can be very daunting, but the man obeyed Jesus’ instruction. A thread running through the readings we’ve had over the past few weeks is that Jesus was always at pains to point to God as the source of his teaching and direction, he tells the disciples about God’s power, wisdom and strength, and demonstrates his own obedience to the lead of his Father, though he too struggles with it at times, as we read in the Easter story, in Gethsemane, and on the cross. .
May we be open to the direction of God, as both the demon and the man he possessed were. May we follow the example Jesus sets for us for our earthly lives, ready to receive the enriching God has for our lives through following him, and open to the gift of heaven with the Lord for all eternity which he offers to us all. This is a remarkable story, and it demonstrates the power of God, and the effect Jesus can have in a life. In the words of some of our songs, our God is a great big God, he holds us in his hand, but he is also an awesome God who reigns over all the earth, and on high. We do well to worship, but also to respect him.
Sue Joyce, Reader
1. Have you had a change in your life you’ve found it difficult to explain to your family and/or friends? What made it difficult?
2. The demons had great power over the man they possessed. What kinds of destructive habits do we find hard to deal with that can prevent us from receiving the enriching God has for our lives? There may be quite overt ones, but are there more subtle ones?
3. What other examples of healing and deliverance did Jesus perform? How do they compare with this one? Does that give us any new insights?