Of all the weird things Jesus did.
The story of Jesus driving out demons out of this guy called “Legion” into a herd of pigs which then, frenzied, run like lemmings over a cliff and drown (Mark 5).
The man was called “Legion” as a way of expressing the amount of demons that were inside him. One version calls him “Mob” which expresses the idea quite well. Driven, crazed, out of control.
I personally don’t have any difficulty believing that people can be demon-possessed because I’m pretty sure I’ve met one or two. The guy in the gospels is given quite a detailed description: it says that the local people chained him up so that he couldn’t damage himself (or them, presumably). It says he lived “amongst the tombs” (that is, outside the town) and would run around howling. Well, I’ve spent time with people chained up in mental institutions. I’ve also taught in Emotional Behaviour Disorder schools with special “Time-Out rooms” for children who just lost it and went crazy, attacking one another (or me, for that matter). One time, a little seven year old broke a toughened glass window with his head, on purpose. It took him about ten minutes of head-butting. One was in the school because he had killed his mum’s pet cat. He was jealous of it, he said.
There’s always a trajectory of how normal we are, isn’t there? We all have weird moments and odd little quirks, but some behaviour we have to label abnormal, strange or dangerous, and we have to deal with it appropriately.
So is this guy Legion mentally ill? Is that the same as demon-possessed? As I say, certain aspects sound like the territory of mental illness. Others do not. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say that so-and-so is “not themself today” but I honestly have witnessed it. Like an alien takeover.
Was Hitler mentally ill? Or any of the tyrants of history, for that matter. Was it just a chemical imbalance? In which case, we can’t blame them for their depravity, can we? But Hitler described the Holocaust twenty years before he put it into motion (in Mein Kampf). Pretty premeditated then.
So how nice are you on a scale of Mother Teresa to Hitler?
Well, even if you are uncomfortable with the phrase “Demon Possession” –and I’d have to agree, at least to an extent- I’d say that anyone who reads a newspaper, or who knows a little history, or has walked through life with their eyes open knows something of its reality. No matter what the terminology, the concept is real enough. People get addicted to stuff every day. Drug addiction is a huge and dreadful reality. Alcohol, nicotine….. -write your vice in the space provided- Russell Brand had treatment for “sex-addiction” and I have encountered some others for whom the only explanation that I can make for their conduct is that they have become addicted to evil.
A legion of evil driving you out of control. Imagine that. Unfortunately, we don’t have to: just ponder on some “Based on true events” film such as Hotel Rwanda or The Last King of Scotland, or some biography like that of Stalin or Fred West, Ian Brady… the list goes on and on. I think some people get addicted to evil.
So one side of this story is the claim that Jesus can break any addiction. And that was certainly in the manifesto, that the coming Messiah would “set the prisoners free.” There’s a whole tradition of Christian song-writing from Charles Wesley (“My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee”) to Matt Redman (“My Chains are gone, I’ve been set free”) that acknowledges that metaphor: “” Come to think of it, I guess those song-lines based on this very story.
But there are millions of people in the world today who would make the claim that Jesus broke the chains in their lives. I’m one of them.
But why the pigs?
In the story, Jesus addresses the demons in the man and tells them to leave. They acknowledge his authority to make such a command but then beg him to send them into a herd of pigs over there on yonder cliff top. Jesus agrees. The pigs go crazy and attempt to discover whether or not pigs can fly.
Now, even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Bible believer, it’s hard to suppress the odd raised eyebrow here? Surely?
So, I understand that the story must be telling us about a) the size of the problem (‘legion’) and b) the power of the Problem-solver. No job too big. But these days you tend to get the response: “Ah, the poor little pigs!” And this from non-Vegetarians too, who no doubt see the mass pig-leap as a waste of food, rather than a loss of life. Another reaction: a guy said to me: “Didn’t Jesus bring home a lost sheep on his shoulder?” Well, he didn’t, but he did tell a story about one (in Luke 15). (PS: The implied picture of Jesus lugging a pig on his back is not helpful.)
But why did the demons beg to be allowed to enter the herd of pigs? The narrative doesn’t make it clear. Perhaps they didn’t want to leave their immediate sphere of operation. Perhaps they were drawn to the “unclean” animals because of their own “uncleanness” (Leviticus 11:7). Whatever is going on here, it’s interesting that they had little power of their own and had to operate by permission.
And what about the pig-owners too? Not a word about the loss of their livelihood, though I guess that their begging Jesus to leave the area does constitute a negative reaction.
So what does the Gospel writer wish to say to us? I guess he wants us to understand the bigness of salvation. Maybe we’re all swept and swirled about by invisible forces that we don’t understand. If Love is a force in the world, then surely Hate is, too. The story says that Jesus can stand firmly against the power of the worst kind of destructive, addictive forces of evil (pictured for us as a herd of marauding pigs) and bid it go.
- Day 48 – Luke 8:26-39 (vesselsofclay.org)
- Day 47 – Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20 (vesselsofclay.org)
- Red Letter Year: 1/21 (mikeraburn.com)
- Mark, my words: Jesus freeing the demon possessed man. (brettfish.wordpress.com)