Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac is rich in interest, but also in pathos. What is it to be so controlled by other forces, whatever we name them, that you cannot control your behavior even to the point of harming yourself and being removed from community?
The man was possessed by Legion. A Roman legion was 4000-6000 soldiers, so the passage suggests that this poor man was possessed by thousands of hostile and destructive demons. But the questions asked and the answers given also bring up the identity. Where is the “I” that I reference, the “Jennifer”? We tend to think that we are what we think—that we are our cognitive, thinking minds—but we are more than that and different from that. Everyone one of us has experience of deciding to do something—exercise every day, finishing a chore before watching a favorite show (these are mild examples)—and then doing exactly the opposite of what our minds tell us are wrong. We are not our minds. It is all very confusing: we speak of people with mental illnesses and dementia as having “lost their minds” but also say that they are “not themselves” which are really two distinct functions, the “self” including but not limited to the mind.
These can be academic questions, but they are painfully real life as well, and have been since recorded history. I don’t think that we need to make a final decision about whether “demons” means the same thing as “mental illness” in order to learn from Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene demoniac. What we realize in this encounter is our own helplessness and need for healing. And we realize that the painful change and adjustment which is for the good is requires more than just individual will, whatever we may call that power. And as I said on Sunday, we can all appreciate the need for healing of the man possessed, but we also need to be aware of the need for healing, and the reluctance to be healed of those who were “normal” but who begged Jesus to go away when they realized that the man with the demons was now “in his right mind.”
I think you will enjoy this reflection by Nadia Boltz-Weber about her demon which she named “Francis.” She has wonderfully insightful, piercing, and honest reflections about things religious—and despite her irreverence and bad language, she is orthodox in her theology. (If you want to read more, you can check her blog; I also have two of her books, each chapter an essay like this one.)
Wishing you peace of heart, mind and body,