One of the more interesting stories in the Bible is Jesus encountering a demon-possessed man. (Luke 8:26-39, Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34) Jesus and the disciples have just arrived in Gerasenes after crossing a sea, and a man runs up to them. For a “long time” he has lived among the caves/tombs. He would harm himself, did not wear clothes, and was often chained away from the local people. For an unspecified long time, he was tormented by demons (or “unclean spirits”).
Interestingly, the demons cause the man to run to Jesus immediately when he arrives. What do the demons ask of Jesus? To not be tormented. What have they been doing to the man for who knows how long? They’ve been tormenting him. The demons are said to have “begged” Jesus at one point. I’m guessing the man they tormented also begged to have relief from them in some fashion.
The demons ask to go into a nearby herd of pigs. (Pigs are considered an unclean animal by the Old Testament guidelines.) Jesus grants this request, and the demons entered the herd of pigs. Roughly 2,000 pigs rushed down a steep bank and drowned in the sea. The pig herdsmen fled and told it to the locals. They all come out to Jesus and see the former demon-possessed man in his right mind. He is clothed and sitting nearby. The locals beg Jesus to leave the region. The man who had been healed begs Jesus to go with him, but instead Jesus commissions him to share his story with people in the area. (The first person Jesus commissions to be a missionary is a former, demon-possessed man.) And then Jesus and the disciples leave.
Lots of interpretations have been bandied about with this story. The story itself may not seem applicable by some to today. Recently, this story was discussed with some friends and I in a weekly study group. A thought has stuck with me as I consider today’s society and culture in light of this story. It’s just a thought, and not necessarily one I am ready to extrapolate as biblically sound from the specific texts. With that said…
When I read this story now, one of the things I think of is mental illness. There are people around us who are tormented by mental illness. Often, these individuals are marginalized and cast out by families and communities. 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness. This is a segment of our community that lives in the modern day environments similar to what the demon possessed man did. Dirty. Unkempt. Outside the hustle and bustle of a city. Out of sight, out of mind.
The locals tried to chain up the demon-possessed man, but to no avail. There is nothing in the texts to lead us to believe the locals tried to help him in any way. Now, should a community be protected from people like this if they are a threat? Of course. Is there anything in the text to lead one to believe he was a threat to the local community? Yes, he showed signs of self-harm and eccentric behavior. But was he a threat to people? Again, the text isn’t clear.
Do most people today care about the homeless in their community? If you were to ask them you would probably hear they are, but what would their actions say? (And, I look at myself as well when asking that.) Deep down, would people rather lock up and keep the homeless away?
Jesus listens to the demons who instantly come to him and beg to be spared. I find this fascinating. Demons, who turned from Jesus and have done everything to ruin him and his creation, are begging him to be spared. They are begging him not to do to them what they have done to this man for who knows how long. Amazingly, Jesus hears their request, the request of demons whose sole purpose is to thwart Jesus, and grants it. Compassion? Mercy? Providential? A bigger story at play? Not the right time? Who knows for certain, but it is fascinating to me.
The demons go into the pig herd, and the pigs rush into the sea and drown. The locals come out to see what has happened. They were afraid. Instead of compassion or joy over the healing of this demon-possessed man, the locals ask Jesus to leave. Were they more concerned with 2,000 pigs (considered an unclean animal at the time) than the well-being of the man? Conjecture here, but one could interpret it that way.
The thought I have is do we do this today in our communities? There are homeless and forgotten people on the fringes of our communities. They suffer from mental illness or past trauma. They are often marginalized. Some people get upset when they interrupt their life (or local economy/well-being) by just being present in an area. The pressure to keep up appearances is more important than an individual struggling with mental illness or trauma. Our response isn’t one of compassion and engagement, but one to force the marginalized out of sight. Of course, people will say all the right things about the homeless in these situations, because we don’t want to appear to be unloving, but ultimately their own well-being matters more. We value our own version of a “pig herd” over them.
This isn’t everyone. I know this. There are some people in our community serving in tangible and inspiring ways to help the homeless in our community. And, yes, I know there are some homeless individuals who try and hustle compassionate people. I’m sure the same was found in Jesus’ time. I’m talking about individuals who are sick or are being tormented for whatever reason. More often than not, a community’s response isn’t one of concern for this individual. It may appear that way, but usually it’s more concern for self.
Again, as I write this, I am examining my own self. What have I done to affect these types of situations in the community? Has it been positive or negative?
I wish there was an easy solution to the homeless epidemic, but there isn’t. I wish there was an easy solution to help those who are marginalized by society, but there isn’t. I wish there was an easy solution to deal with mental illness, but there isn’t. In all those situations, it usually requires engaging with the problem and “getting your hands dirty”.
It’s more than liking a cause on Facebook, and/or saying what we should do. It’s important to raise awareness, and speak the truth when it comes to loving others, but ultimately we need to engage in a direct way. Jesus didn’t just speak platitudes, he engaged directly with those who were outcasts.
I love that about Jesus, and am challenged by it at the same time. Jesus engaged with the unclean, dirty, marginalized and forgotten people of the communities he was amongst. He gave them dignity when they had none, and restored them to full health/capacity in those encounters.
I think it’s one reason people love the recent photo of Pope Francis with a severely, disfigured man.
Such love and power. This photo reflects Jesus in so many ways. I think all of us want to be like Jesus when it comes to loving others, but doing so is difficult when it is someone who society deems an outcast. Doing so requires us to be uncomfortable. Doing so requires us to be vulnerable. Doing so invites ridicule from those who aren’t “sick”. Doing so requires us to get our hands dirty. Doing so requires a commitment of time.
What’s the answer? I don’t know. Of course we need to be more like Jesus, but how it plays out will be different from individual to individual.
I know I don’t want to be valuing “pigs” over the well-being of an individual. I don’t want to be more concerned for keeping up appearances, my local economy (especially if it is something “unclean”), over a marginalized segment of our community.
I want to be like Jesus, and love like he does.
Just a thought.
An Omaha organization I support that addresses homelessness is Open Door Mission. Christ Community Church also has a Benevolence Fund you can give toward that assists individuals in the Omaha community who are in need. For more on the topic of social justice and caring for our communities, I’d recommend Timothy Keller’s “Generous Justice“.