I reckon that most people, reading this story for the first time, would find it quite strange. It certainly is unusual, and describes a scene most of us would never have imagined. We would likely attribute the man’s condition to severe mental illness or trauma, rather than suspecting demons at work. Casting out demons – and sending them into a herd of swine – would be a very odd cure in our minds, and probably not one that we could imagine or recommend. The story is odd, but let’s take a closer look at it to see what insights it might provide.
The gospel writers recorded the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divine nature, and this story certainly reveals his amazing power. But one thing that sets it apart from other miracle stories is that it takes place in the country of the Gerasenes, and it involves people who were not Jews, as Jesus was. It is remarkable that Jesus would deliberately cross over the Sea of Galilee to reach this place and bring himself in contact with a person who was ritually impure, to say nothing of being possessed by evil spirits. But Jesus, as we know, had a habit of setting aside the religious laws and practices of his day in order to show compassion – which is what he does here.
His power to heal is certainly evident here. The extreme circumstances of this healing reveal that there is no human disorder, in any age or in any place, that he cannot overcome. Truly, his power knows no bounds or limitations.
If Jesus has the power to heal any disorder in any place or time, why, we might ask, doesn’t he heal all the persons for whom we pray? This story also seems to address that question. Though his power to heal knows no bounds, his exercise of this healing power belongs absolutely to his own decision. No one asks Jesus to heal this man. On the contrary, both the sick man and the onlookers want to be left alone. It is Jesus who takes the initiative. As “Son of the Most High God,” as the demons successfully name him, he exercises his authority and healing power in sovereign freedom. The implication for us is that we cannot control what Jesus will or will not do, and we will never fully know what to expect from him. But we can be assured that whatever he does or does not do will be consonant with the Kingdom of God. He acts in accordance with the divine rule, whose presence he embodies and whose coming he announces.
It’s significant to note the responses – first, of the possessed man, and then, of the villagers. The evil spirits beg Jesus not to torment them after he identifies them and calls them out. Jesus discovers that it is not one spirit, but a legion of them, and he grants their wish to be sent into the swine, which leads to their destruction. The onlookers, rather than praising God that the man’s health had been restored, seem more concerned about the lost revenue of the drowned pigs. They are afraid, and beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
We may not understand the work of demons as Jesus’ contemporaries did, but we do know the power that evil sometimes gains over us, a power that debilitates and destroys us over time. We know too that often we resist the help offered by others. We love our “demons” and do not want to be separated from them.
The essential nature of “demonic” powers, or evil forces, is multiplicity, disorder and violence. And we see plenty of that in our world today. Jesus, the gospel writers are telling us, brings light and life into the disorder and chaos of our lives. He is the source of healing and renewal, the one with ultimate power. The kingdom he brings is built on love, a love that mends and renews. The God he proclaims is a God of compassion and mercy, whose only desire for us is wholeness and peace.
As odd as this gospel story may be, it still points us to the One who brings light and life and hope into the world, and especially to its most dangerous and forsaken places. His love heals us, no matter what our need.
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