In Mark 5:1-20, Jesus shows himself to be the world’s all-time champion exorcist. Here in this episode from the life of Jesus, we find a man whose personality has actually been hijacked by the world’s worst recorded case of alien spirits. If Jesus can set this man free, Jesus can set anybody free. He can set you free from any demon that is tormenting you.
Cases of genuine demon possession are relatively rare. Psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck had been trained at Yale to believe that demon possession does not exist. But in his years of practice, Peck was surprised to find a small handful of cases that could not be explained in terms of mental illness alone, cases where the patient was set free from what Peck described as an outside malicious personality. (See https://www.salon.com/2005/01/18/peck_5/ and http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2005/01/the-patient-is-the-exorcist-interview-with-m-scott-peck.aspx.)
This Gospel encounter showcases Jesus as the supreme expert in handling such paranormal cases. He has power unequalled by anyone who attempts this kind of intervention. Jesus has just demonstrated his authority over the wind and waves. Here we see that his name and his presence are feared by all the powers of hell.
Jesus’ encounter takes place on the east of the Sea of Galilee, in the territory of the Gerasenes. (Matthew’s original text probably reads “Gadarenes.” Gadara refers to the whole region, while Gerasa is a specific town in the area.) Here we have a wild man whom no one has been able to tame or restrain. He acts like a wild animal. He is a danger to the public and to himself. He has super-human strength. He can break any chain or handcuff they try to use on him. Night and day he is screaming, and gashing himself with rocks trying to put himself out of his misery.
Not only is this man himself miserable, he is also a terror to his neighborhood. Can you imagine living next door to this guy? Substandard housing is all he can get. As one commentator says, he is “condemned to live out his days alone among the decaying bones of the dead, with no one to love him and no one to love. He is one tough customer, and only a power more potent than iron bars and chains will bridle him.”Try putting yourself in the shoes of this man in the Gospel story. Maybe you know exactly what it feels like to be imprisoned by forces that are destroying your life. You’ve known insanity. You’ve known unrelenting torment. You’ve known what it’s like to be out of control. You know what it’s like to fight with beasts within. You know how this man longs to be set free from his chains of misery.
How did this guy get into such shape? Because the Bible gives us no clues to go on, it is impossible (and pointless) to speculate. The Good News is that Jesus rescues this man from his intolerable misery.
Jesus comes into this man’s life with vastly superior firepower. As soon as Jesus steps off the boat, our tormented man runs to meet him at the shoreline, falls at his feet, and cries, “What business do you have with us, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I charge you by God, do not torment me!”
The possessed man comes to Jesus with a schizophrenic approach-avoidance. He doesn’t try to flee from Jesus. He comes running. The soul who is held hostage deep inside this man reaches out to Jesus. He yearns to be set free. But the spirits that hold him hostage are terrified by Jesus. They already know who Jesus is. They understand more clearly than anybody else does at this point. They know that he is God in the flesh.
These evil spirits have the audacity to invoke the name of God as they beg Jesus not to torment them. After all the misery they have inflicted on this poor man, now they are afraid of torture! Now they want pity! They claim they’re not ready to burn forever yet. Jesus can send them to their eternal fate at any time.
Jesus demands that the evil power identify itself by name. To know the name of an evil power is to gain power over it (like the power of identity theft today). The man answers, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a military unit of up to 6,000 troops. If we take this name literally, it sounds like this poor man was filled with hundreds of evil spirits. What happens next would seem to back that up.
Watch for our next post, as this real-life paranormal encounter between the world’s worst case of demon possession and the world’s all-time champion exorcist takes some even more bizarre turns.