Rev. Izzy Harbin
Mental Health - Healing the Gerasene Demoniac
26 Then they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on shore, a man from the city who had demons met him. For a long time, he had not worn any clothes, and he did not live in a house but in tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most-High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding, and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So, he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd stampeded down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then the whole throng of people of the surrounding region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. So, he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So, he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
This week, we are looking at the world of mental health. As a mental health provider, I am frequently appalled by the levels of care we receive in this country regarding mental health. We often see mental health as separate from physical health, even though one impacts the other. When looking at our health benefits, often they limit mental health services or pay far less than other types of care. This reality became even more apparent as we struggled with the pandemic blues and folks were scrambling to find someone, anyone, that they could talk to about their isolation, their loss of a social life, and a loss of all the normal activities that filled their days. Children 18 years old and under showed a significant increase in mental health crises through the pandemic, and services for minors were woefully inadequate to meet the need.
This Sunday, we are diving into a passage in Luke where Jesus travels to Gerasene and runs into a man known as the demoniac who lives in the catacombs among the dead. Jesus commands that the demons leave, and he casts them into a herd of swine nearby and then runs them down a steep hill and into the lake where they drown. I always feel sorry for the pigs in the story.
So, this passage is layered and calls into question the difference between mental illness and demon possession. We tend to fall on the side of mental illness, rather than demon possession, especially in the 21st century, but perhaps we should ask why that is. To properly tackle this passage, we must be able to grasp the horror of demon possession, if we can even bring ourselves to believe in demons, and then we must understand Jesus’ motivations in healing the demoniac. And we must also wrestle with the political messages woven into this story.
When I was practicing social work full-time, I worked with a psychiatrist who trained in Southern California. She contracted with her local Catholic Diocese to work with those priests who were trained to do exorcisms. She explained that when someone reported that a person was demon possessed, it was her job to interview them and determine whether it was actual demon possession or mental illness. When she told me this, I was at first shocked, then horrified, then curious.
My world doesn’t include demon possessions. But I had to admit, I may not be able to tell the difference between demon possession and mental illness. She tried to assure me that demon possession was a real thing, that it was actually very different and clearly definable from mental illness and could be quite dangerous. If I am completely honest, I am still undecided in this department.
Here's where I see the concept of demons being most useful, though. I may not believe in actually separate beings entering someone’s physical body in order to possess them and torment them, but I can see, very clearly, those who are tortured by their minds and what our minds can conjure up. I’ve seen people who have suffered deeply from depression, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, and more. I am reminded of a client who suffered a serious brain trauma and then began to exhibit symptoms similar to schizophrenia. He had horrible delusions and hallucinations that made his thinking dark and twisted. He would engage in strange (well, strange to me) rituals whenever he was having acute symptoms that turned this mild-mannered individual into someone that was difficult to recognize. He was hospitalized long term at the state mental facility because his delusions and hallucinations caused him to commit two felonies.
Was my client possessed by demons? Perhaps in his mind he was, but in reality, his brain injury is what caused his delusions, hallucinations, and strange behavior. We might ask the same question of the demoniac. Was he really possessed by demons, or was there a mental health issue that was plaguing this poor guy? In truth, we don’t know. What I can tell you is that we often dismiss the possibility of demon possession because we are so unfamiliar with this kind of soul sickness. What we can attest to with some certainty is that he was healed by Jesus.
Some scholars suggest that the story of the demoniac is actually one created to discuss the more political aspects of this story. A way in, if you will, to discuss the relationship between the Jews living in Gerasene, a Roman occupied city and large camp of the Roman Army. The swine was for the Roman soldiers who lived in Gerasene. The Israelites saw swine as unclean and typically avoided being around pigs altogether. However, what we find here is a group of Israelites who were making money off the Roman Army by raising swine for them.
The last paragraph of this passage is where we find some context for the whole passage. The people weren’t happy that the demoniac was cured. In some sense, they could have cared less. What they were more concerned about is that their swine was all drowned in the lake. Their livelihood was just tanked; Jesus did not do them any favors. Jesus was concerned about 2 things, healing the demoniac, and following the law.
To live this kind of truth, Jesus had to take a risk to reshape the people’s understanding of the world, and subsequently ours.
Mark Nepo frames it this way, “This means staying committed to your inner path. This means not separating from yourself when things get tough or confusing. This means accepting and embracing your faults and limitations. It means loving yourself no matter how others see you. It means cherishing the unchangeable radiance that lives within you, no matter the cuts and bruises along the way. It means binding your life with a solemn pledge to the truth of your soul.”
The Israelites who were tending to this herd of swine had lost sight of the solemn pledge to the truth of their souls. They were more concerned about the herd than about another human being; a herd of swine, no less, a beast that was considered unclean according to God’s law.
This passage, in my estimation, reminds us of what is most important, the care of our souls. It is that care that binds us to one another and to the greater good of who we are and who we are to become. When we care for one another in this way, we love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus’ healing of the demoniac becomes healing for the whole community, even if they couldn’t see it yet. Let us use this passage as a reminder that we can’t always see the pain that others are experiencing, but we are called to ease suffering whenever possible.