I know that today’s reading from St Luke makes many people uncomfortable. Jesus who performs exorcisms, is a difficult for us moderns perhaps. But, of course, Jesus was of his time and in his healings, he could not prescribe psychiatric drugs or antibiotics of do a heart transplant as they hadn’t been invented. Instead, he operated within the understanding of the times. And this was the way you dealt with what we call serious mental illness. This is how they understood it.
Of course I don’t want to rewrite the Bible through my own convenient lens. Many, many people have and do acknowledge the reality of the supernatural realm. It is just in this case I think we may be dealing with something a bit different.
It is a fascinating account of Jesus meeting with man possessed by demons and told by Luke who was, we think, both a doctor and a brilliant journalistic writer. He is precise in his words and descriptions. Calm and unflappable. I would quite like him to be my doctor.
To me this passage raises the big question – one that I had for a very long time before I became a Christian – the question of what is God like? I always thought it was pretty easy to believe that there might be a God but I wanted to know how He treated people- what were his characteristics.
I suppose if I found out that God was capricious or unreliable or cruel like some of the Greek Gods, I wouldn’t follow him even if he was God. I just wouldn’t follow him and I would take the consequences. This reading helps us and it certainly helps me to get into the very character of God.
One thing you can say is that Jesus was not looking to be popular. He destroyed the commercial pig population of an entire region and that’s no way to win friends and influence people. Especially if they were probably non-Jews – gentiles. No wonder they asked him to leave and not come back.
Philip Yancey who I think is probably the greatest living Christian journalist wrote a book called The Jesus I Never Knew. In it, he imagined himself as a journalist following Jesus around and wondering what he might make of him. What story he might tell. It is a good way of reading the Bible, to imagine ourselves into the life of Jesus and his ministry. And there were two people really that stand out – one of course is Jesus. The other is the poor afflicted man.
I always think when I come across someone who is very broken that once they were not like that. Once they were children adored by parents running around playing. Who could have known the turn life would take. And it is the same here. He is now a wreck of a man. He is howling at the moon, roaming the tombs which was thought to be a very unclean occupation. He is naked and he is filthy, and the locals can hear his screams in the dead of night. We imagine him uttering profanities chained and utterly desperate.
This is a man whose mental health has utterly collapsed. That’s how I understand it – he is alienated from himself and from his community and he is lonely. I do feel very sorry for him – I also feel quite sorry for the pigs who end up drowning.
Maybe his family lived nearby and were despairing. Perhaps they hear his shouts and felt ashamed, guilty or embarrassed – they just don’t know what to do because he appears to be beyond help. And maybe all of us have sometimes felt that way.
What I notice is just how calm Jesus is how unafraid. It is in sharp contrast to the disciples…it seems likely they were so scared of the raving and violent man that they stayed put in the boat.
Jesus takes the situation in and does not jump to do anything at first. He does what would make sense to the poor afflicted man who no longer made sense to himself. He casts out demons. He does it almost respectfully as though he knows what the man felt like. But what is for sure is that Jesus is the only calm one in this situation. In situations like this that isn’t easy. It would be easy to run when confronted with potential violence to remove himself from the chaos of this man’s life.
I go back to Philip Yancey and follow the events. The pig farmers they run off. Why not? I think I might have run off. It seems there are two mad men on the loose. One is the man in the tombs and the other is this Jewish fellow from across the lake: Jesus.
I imagine I have my notebook with me. And notice that people begin to creep back wondering what had happened and are afraid. Jesus we see is calm and he’s kind and he has a kind of awesome understated power.
We notice that the man is restored and we’re told he’s restored to himself which is the most profound way of putting it. His condition has changed – his health, his prospects. He is saved in its truest sense.
He had become a stranger to himself and the one thing he needed was to be himself again and there he is dressed, clean and we are told in his right mind.
All illnesses are difficult to recover from. But an illness of the mind is very difficult because when afflicted we just don’t know when we will ever be better or whether we will be better at all.
But here is a man restored to himself. We notice that the people around are afraid why are they so afraid? On the one hand they’ve lost money with the death of the pigs.
But maybe the real thing is that Jesus is a disruptive presence. This healing brought a huge change and it would take a vast change of worldview to really come to terms with this.
And so we get to the final scene. The man is restored and he asks if he can come on the road with Jesus. He wants to follow him maybe he wants to be a courtier – he wants to give everything up he wants to make a dramatic gesture. But Jesus says something very, very interesting. He says go home and be a blessing to your family and show by the way you live and the story you tell what God is all about.
This is a beautiful challenge and it’s one that speaks into my life. There is a very brittle form of our faith that says we should be preaching in season and out of season hammering the faith home issuing propositions of singular truth and then dusting our feet off with people don’t listen and leaving them to their fate. We escape in the life raft of salvation as the rest go down with the Titanic.
But how much more interesting and perhaps difficult is the instruction to go home and be a blessing. Start there. Sometimes end there.
Finally here’s the question that really struck me as I read this part of the Gospel. Maybe it’s the kind of question I’d have asked if I were a journalist at the scene. If I had a chance to ask Jesus I wouldn’t probably ask about how he did it.
I’d really be interested in why did he do it. Why did he do this thing for this man. You could say he did it to reveal his extraordinary power over the supernatural realm. Perhaps he did it to show that he was the God of all power, the God of all might. If so, he failed spectacularly because of course Jesus gets thrown out and asked to go away. I just don’t think that this is a kind clearly thought through piece of systematic theology from Luke. It isn’t a manifesto setting out the detailed power of God.
So no I don’t think that’s why Jesus did it and the answer my big question what is God like. I believe he did it because he could and wanted to.
He was stirred to compassion he had to do it because he wanted to help this poor afflicted man. He did it respectfully he didn’t diminish the problem. He brought this man back to himself and sent him home to his family because he could. We don’t hear from his family but presumably Jesus sent countless people back home when he had helped them.
A story told with great simplicity and economy by doctor Luke.
Thank God, I’m not roaming round tombs and I’m not raving. But I feel a real affinity with the man in this story because like so many people I need healing and this story points me to the character of God who is love. Philip Yancey says where love is God is. He also says that when you look at the evidence this is utterly believable. He says if his faith is low, he simply spends time with people who love him. At home – people who are a blessing to him.
Jesus does not just perform a healing, that is to diminish it. He offers something more than a healing miracle. He is no conjurer.
He helps a person to be whole and in this he gives us a signal of a time to come when our world will be made whole and so will we be within it.
It is as though something good has come into the world and won’t be stopped.
I believe in God because I believe in his character and I know that he will be gentle and bring ultimate healing to my life and to others even beyond our physical death. That seems to me to be a very good reason to be a Christian.
C S Lewis spoke about a yearning a joy that only God can bring. The ‘possessed’ man went back to his home and shared that deep joy with. His witness to his Saviour.