The story of the Gerasenes’ demoniac appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, with Mark’s being the earliest and most complete version. It is one of the most vivid stories about Jesus’ ministry as an exorcist, but there is much more to the story than “Jesus meets a man possessed by demons; Jesus casts out demons; man becomes Jesus’ disciple.”
Entering into this story requires us to let go of preconceived notions that inhibit understanding of the narrative on its own terms. Most of us read this story through the lens of The Exorcist, and in so doing we make several interpretative mistakes.
The first is to overly sensationalize the story. There is plenty enough drama here without our imagining levitation, projectile vomiting, vulgar guttural vocalizations, and 360 degree head spins! This biblical description of possession is comparatively mild and straightforward, not so far from an anthropological account of similar experiences in a variety of cultures. What is required is not an imaginative leap, but rather imaginative restraint. We don’t need to read more into the story than what is there already.
The second interpretive mistake is to view possession as a personal problem. The story is reduced to the exorcism of an individual, isolated from the wider context that gives it meaning. But this story is not only about the relationship between Jesus and the unnamed demoniac. It also is about the relationships between Jesus, the demoniac, and the people of Gerasa.
The final and related interpretive mistake is to focus only on the response of the demoniac to Jesus’ healing intervention. But what is equally of interest to the Gospel writers is the response of the Gerasenes. The exorcism performed by Jesus has implications for everybody, and it is in teasing out these implications that the full force of the story is realized.
Let’s begin with the relationship between the Gerasenes and the demoniac. Who are the Gerasenes? The country of the Gerasenes was part of the Decapolis, ten Greek city-states established and populated by veterans of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. These Gentile cities, originally autonomous, were subsequently caught between Jewish rebels from Galilee and the army of the Roman occupation. Struggling to maintain their proud independence, these cities were at various times sacked by both Jewish and Roman forces.
There was no love lost between the Gerasenses and either the Jews or the Romans. In fact, the Gerasenes seethed with resentment over the indignities of Roman subjugation. In Jesus’ time, this repressed anger, this despair of ever being free again, simmered well below the surface of Roman control. This is the context in which we must understand the relationship between the Gerasenes and their demoniac.
It is no surprise that the demons possessing the man are collectively named “Legion.” A “legion” was a unit of the Roman Army consisting of between 5,000 and 6,000 men. The spirit of the Gerasenes under Roman occupation has possessed the demoniac. It is a spirit of fear, rage, powerlessness, and despair. Unable to acknowledge the painful reality of Roman colonization, the Gerasenes in turn collectively “colonize” the demoniac. Legion mirrors the social structure and the collective psyche of the people of Gerasa, internalized by the demoniac.
Legion is demonic because it expresses the evil of social unity based on scapegoating. The Gerasenes needed their demoniac. He was the bearer of the shadow side of their collective life: the envy, hatred and violence that they dare not acknowledge. Their engagement with the demoniac in a ritual drama of bondage and escape provided a container for the tension they felt between their powerlessness under Roman occupation and their desire for freedom.
In Mark’s version of the story, we are told that the demoniac would bruise himself with stones. Stoning was the means whereby communities collectively sacrificed individuals or groups to contain their violence and maintain their unity over against the selected scapegoat. The demoniac has internalized the identity of scapegoat so thoroughly that he punishes himself. The actual innocence or guilt of the scapegoat is quite beside the point; the point is the scapegoat’s usefulness to maintain social order. The people need to believe that he deserves what he gets.
Contrast this with the relationship between Jesus and the demoniac. Notice that the story opens with Jesus arriving by boat from across the Sea of Galilee, to find the demoniac waiting for him as soon as he steps on land. It would seem that there is something in the demoniac that draws him to Jesus, even as he fears him. The demoniac is divided against himself. Will he continue to be defined by the demonic identity he has internalized, or will he receive his identity from Jesus?
Jesus perceptively asks him, “What is your name?” Until now, it seems, no one has bothered to ask this question. He is only who others want him to be, need him to be. With Jesus, however, there is no need for the man to be anyone other than who he is, because Jesus has no need to define himself over and against anyone or anything. Secure in his own identity as Son of the Most High God, Jesus is free to relate to others as fellow beloved children of God.
I wonder if it isn’t this transparency to God that accounts for the demoniac’s attraction and resistance to Jesus. Jesus mirrors back to this man something entirely different than what the Gerasenes have shown him: a love that invites him to discover his true name. Is the demoniac willing to give himself to this love, to receive an identity that will completely transform his life and relationships? He may want to change, but just how much change can he stand? Will he be willing to be possessed by love?
What happens next is a surprising reversal of all normal expectations. This man, naked, dwelling among the tombs – this man who is essentially a dead man walking - is restored to life. His exorcism is a kind of resurrection. When the Gerasenes find him next, he is clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus in the posture of a disciple. Where the Gerasenes saw a scapegoat, Jesus saw a child of God.
Jesus completely undoes the carefully constructed social equilibrium upon which the Gerasenes – and, I dare say, the Romans – depended. And in so doing he uncovers the reality of evil at the heart of that equilibrium. That is what happens when scapegoats are given a voice instead of being sacrificed.
Evil is real. The latent violence of the Gerasenes channeled into the demoniac has to be expressed somehow. Jesus releases that violence into the herd of pigs, which throws itself over a cliff into the sea (which by the way, was another way in which scapegoats were often sacrificed by communities). Rather than sacrificing the scapegoat, it is Legion – the scapegoating mechanism itself - which is sacrificed as Jesus allows evil to take its own self-destructive course.
This brings us to the relationship between Jesus and the Gerasenes. They are terrified by the turn of events. Without their scapegoat, they are forced to acknowledge their own shadow side. The drowning pigs present them with a vivid sign of their own future if they are driven by the evil within them. Giving vent to their violent despair will only lead to chaos and self-destruction.
Their response, however, is to beg Jesus to leave. The former demoniac remains among them as a faithful witness to the alternative to the scapegoating mechanism: the giving and receiving of forgiveness that brings new life to scapegoats and those who create them. He receives a most challenging commission: to follow Jesus by remaining where he is, reconstituting his relationships on the basis of the love that now possesses him. He is to joyfully proclaim the good things that God has done for him, regardless of how others respond.
The Gerasenes, sadly, apparently refused to be possessed by love. In a stunning example of what Freud referred to as the return of the repressed, the Gerasenes irrupted in a violent revolt against Rome and were destroyed by an actual Roman legion some forty years later.
The Gerasenes’ demoniac is a cautionary tale. It unmasks the scapegoating mechanism that structures the dynamic of evil in history. To be a disciple of Jesus is to live like the former demoniac among the Gerasenes: as a sign of forgiveness in a world rife with violence ending in self-destructive chaos. Following Jesus is a process of discovering our true identity as we practice reconciling love, unraveling the scapegoating mechanism as we do so.
Will we be possessed by Love or by Legion? What is your name?