Sadly, we are all too familiar with friends or family members who are troubled in spirit. We may have had personal experience of deep anxiety or mental health issues. What was often named demon possession in the ancient world is more likely to be considered a mental illness in our times. Last week’s gospel story featured a group of women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, including Mary Magdalene, ‘from whom seven demons had gone out’. These women, beneficiaries of the healing power of God, assume key roles in the movement founded by Jesus. This week’s gospel tells of a man of the city who is tormented by demons or an ‘unclean spirit’, is dramatically restored to health, is ‘seated at the feet of Jesus’ like Mary the sister of Martha, and is commissioned to preach the good news of his deliverance among his own people.
Some features of today’s story sound quite bizarre to contemporary ears. The man is naked and living ‘among the tombs’, the resting place of the dead rather than the dwelling place of the living. Luke is reworking a story from Mark’s gospel. Mark sets the story in Greek territory. The demons are released into a herd of pigs that finish up drowning in the lake. Some scholars see in Mark’s account a symbolic cleansing of Gentile territory in preparation for the Gentile reception of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. Others detect an allusion to the drowning of the Egyptians in theReed Sea.
For Luke, this story simply demonstrates the power of the prophet Jesus over the spirits, just as the immediately preceding story in 8:22-25 has demonstrated his power over the wind and the waves. Luke is concerned with the right order of creation and Jesus is the prophet of God who has power to restore the created order. The people of the Gerasene region cannot cope with the change in the man and are afraid of the power of Jesus to effect unwanted changes in their community.
Like the Gerasene man, those suffering from mental illnesses today often feel they are barely living. Others experience healing and then, like the liberated Gerasene, struggle for acceptance in the community. They cry out for the compassion and love that is the right of every person, and for acceptance in the community of the living. The image of the Gerasene disciple, seated at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, invites reflection and action for the sake of those isolated by anxiety, mental disorder or illness.