Summary: Principles about demonic activity drawn from Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed with a legion of demons.
Note: This sermon was introduced with the drama "The Price of Pigs"
Today we’re going to look at a story that’s likely to make us uncomfortable. It’s the story described in the drama, the story of a man who was delivered from demonic possession. It’s a story of demons being sent into a heard of pigs. In fact, I thought about calling today’s sermon "Deviled Ham."
It’s a story that troubles us as modern readers, because we don’t know quite what to make of this story. We wonder if this story is describing what we now know of as mental illness? Or is there such a thing as demonic possession today? If so, what’s the difference between demonic possession and mental illness?
These are some of the questions we’re going to try to answer as we look at Jesus’ excursion into occupied territory. We’ve been in a series through the New Testament book of Mark called Following Jesus in the Real World, and today we’re going to talk about "Occupied Territory."
1. Setting The Scene (Mark 5:1-5)
Let’s look first at the setting of the scene in vv. 1-5. At the close of chapter 4 of Mark Jesus got into a boat to cross the sea of Galilee to journey to the other side. When Jesus finally arrives at the other side of the sea of Galilee, he’s immediately met by a deranged man who Mark describes as "a man with an evil spirit." Now you need to know that in Jesus’ lifetime, this side of the Sea of Galilee was exclusively Gentile, with not one Jewish settlement. This territory was part of the "Decapolis," or the "Ten Cities," and all ten of these cities were non-Jewish. To a devout Jewish person, this entire area was spiritually polluted by pagans who engaged in practices that were detestable to good, religious Jewish people.
This "man with an evil spirit" appears like a guard, a sentry, a demonic junkyard dog strategically placed to stop Jesus from entering this area. In fact the Greek word "came to meet" in v. 2 is often used as a military term to describe a person who goes out on a battlefield to meet an opponent for battle. This is occupied territory.
Mark’s description of this tormented man is graphic. He lives in a graveyard, sleeping among the cave-like tombs where dead bodies are buried. Now to a devout Jewish person, this type of setting would be repulsive, because coming in contact with a corpse would make you spiritually unclean. This the kind of setting you’d find in a Wes Craven film or a Stephen King story, yet here we find Jesus standing there, standing in occupied territory.
This man lives isolated from all human contact. He’s violent and out of control. People were unable to restrain him. In fact the word for "subdue" in v. 4 is the Greek word for "tame" and it almost always refers to "taming" wild animals. This guy was as out of control as a wild animal. He’s so tormented that he howls and wails day and night. He also mutilates himself with stones, slashing and cutting himself.
It’s an incredible picture of misery and torment.
And although Mark tells us that this man "has an evil spirit" many modern readers wonder if that’s really the problem. We wonder if perhaps this is something else, some kind of terrible mental illness. And as Christians many of us struggle to reconcile this picture we see here with modern psychology. We wonder: Is demon possession just an ancient way of describing mental illness?
Some people answer, "Yes." These people conclude that what we’re reading about here is how primitive people used to explain what we now know to be mental illness. Dr. Michael Cuneo is an example of this (American Exorcism [Broadway Books, 2001]). Dr. Cuneo is a professor of sociology and anthropology, and he spent a year investigating demon possession and exorcism in America. His book American Exorcism recounts his experiences in riveting detail. Dr. Cuneo says he started his study open to the possibility that demonic spirits might exist and that exorcisms might be real. But his conclusion at the end of his study was that there was nothing he saw that couldn’t be explained in terms of mental illness. Many others agree with Dr. Cuneo, even many Christians.
As some of you know, I worked in the mental health field for over ten years. Most of those years were spent working in a private psychiatric hospital here in southern California. (I often tell people that working in a psychiatric hospital was great preparation for working in the church!). In my years working as a psychiatric professional, I witnessed all the symptoms Mark uses to describe this man among the mentally ill. Isolation from people, violence, extraordinary strength, wailing and howling, and self mutilation. I’ve seen those things among the mentally ill numerous times. So it’s tempting to agree with Dr. Cuneo.