Mark 5: 1 – 20 Jesus restores a demon-possessed man
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!’ For Jesus had said to him, ‘Come out of this man you impure spirit!’
Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Legion,’ he replied, ‘for we are many.’ And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man – and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
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This is the account of how Jesus healed a man whose mental illness was so severe that he was a feared outcast from society.
To my 21st century mind, the idea of demon possession is a symbolic way of talking about mental illness. It has to be said that our present day understanding of mental illness is very far from perfect. Still, we have at least some understanding of the causes of mental illness, and we know the illness arises from physical factors rather than supernatural ones.
Let’s look at the details of this passage in Mark’s gospel.
“This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain.”
The demon-possessed man was too strong to restrain. Even chains weren’t strong enough to hold him. Human power was inadequate to control him
“Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”
The man was in such a distressed condition that he may as well have been dead; indeed, he was dead to normal society.
“The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.”
Jesus dealt with the man’s illness by removing its causes in a controlled fashion. Jesus had complete control over what happened in this healing. The writer’s understanding of what happened to the man was that many demons were expelled from him and Jesus permitted them to enter the pigs. The pigs then stampeded into the lake and were drowned. The demons would never trouble the man again.
Our modern understanding might be to say that Jesus dealt in detail with the causes of the man’s mental illness and removed them entirely. We would think of the pigs as symbolic, although not necessarily an invention of the author. A large herd of pigs may well have stampeded; pigs will do that when they’re frightened. It’s easy to find reports of this on-line; I found one in the UK and one in Syria, without trying very hard. In the study passage, those tending the pigs ran away when Jesus healed the man. The fear they showed, their unexpected flight, would likely have been enough to trigger a stampede.
“As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.”
This is the heart of the miracle, that an uncontrollable and outcast man was restored to normal society, and it’s an astonishing miracle. The man’s mind was healed and made normal.
The man’s mind wasn’t made perfect, it was made ‘normal’. I ask myself the question “What does normal mean?” And at least one facet of the meaning of normal is right there, in the text.
Whereas before his healing the man had been terrified by Jesus, now he was able to respond to him with love and obedience.
How absolutely wonderful that this is ‘normal’ for humankind!
Thank you that you have created us all with the capacity to experience Jesus’ love and to respond to it. Thank you for the joy of worship and obedience.
In Jesus’ name, Amen