“Mental Illness, Mental Wholeness”
Luke 8:35 – October 9, 2016
The focus of our service today is mental illness. The National Alliance for Mental Illness has designated this past week—the first week of October—as Mental Illness Awareness Week. On the back table in the narthex is a handout with some facts about mental illness and how to be understanding, how to be an advocate for those who suffer, and to their families and loved ones.
The Gospel reading for today is an extended one. We are going to look at it piece by piece during the sermon time today. Reading from the Gospel of Luke chapter 8, starting at verse 26: “Then [Jesus and the disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As[Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met Him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”
Let’s talk about the setting for this encounter—for it is a significant encounter in the life and ministry of Rabbi Jesus. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the sea of Galilee to the other side: the Gentile side. This is a non-Jewish town, in a non-Jewish area, the territory of the Decapolis. On top of that, the first person Jesus meets when He steps on land is a man with demons, unclean spirits, who lived in one of the most unclean places—among the tombs.
Continuing reading from Luke: “28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before Him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—“ Abrupt, confrontational, in your face.
Can you see it, in your mind’s eye? Or on a screen inside your head? The man, with wild eyes, disheveled hair, tattered beard. No clothes, falling on his face in front of Jesus. He doesn’t go to anyone else, but he singles out Jesus—whom he names “Son of the Most High God.” Isn’t it interesting, amazing, that the demonized people can always recognize Jesus—the Son of the Most High God—and infallibly identify the Messiah for who and what He is, long before the other people surrounding Jesus can.
These encounters where Jesus deals with demons have been discussed for centuries. Many modern day interpreters and commentators think that these people who were “demonized” (a direct transliteration of the Greek term) suffered from mental illness. Regardless of what we think about these narratives, we know that these demons are often “forces that take hold of us and prevent us from becoming what God intends us to be.”  And yes, demons can be represented by self-loathing and self-destructive words, actions, habits and thoughts.
The Reverend Jean Hite had some fascinating insights into this Gospel reading. She notes that “All the demons that Jesus confronts in the Gospel stories have three things in common:
- First: Demons cause self-destructive behavior in their victim.
- Second: The victim feels like he’s trapped – trapped in his life situation.
- And third: The demons keep the victim from living a normal, happy life in his family or community – the demons separate the victim from family and community.” 
Dr. Luke gives us some back story. “Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)” Superhuman strength this man displayed! A demon, or mental illness—whatever it was in the first century, whatever it is today, Jesus faces down the situation and the affliction fearlessly.
Dr. Luke continues with the encounter: “30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged [Jesus] not to order them to go back into the abyss.” A Roman legion had anywhere from 3000 to 6000 soldiers in it. Even if this was a great exaggeration, we are still talking about a whole lot of demons.
I want to interrupt to say that there could well be demons inhabiting this man. I am not denying the existence of demons and other spiritual forces. Not at all! However—I want to highlight the fact that throughout the centuries, people with any sort of mental challenge or mental illness have been incredibly misunderstood. Shunned. Excluded. Banished.
But, Jesus would not shun, would not exclude, would not banish anyone.
There is so much misinformation about mental illness, even today. It is amazing how many affected people are excluded. Astonishing how many live with the daily stigma of shunning, being ignored, or viciously teased. Population studies tell us that people who are affected by mental illness are between 20 and 25 percent of the population. Not only schizophrenia and paranoia, but chronic depression, the autism spectrum, anxiety disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorders. One in four or one in five of the people in line with you at the grocery store, or at the bank, or filling the tank at the gas station. Everyone knows someone.
Back to Luke chapter 8: “32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So He gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.”
Remember, this was a non-Jewish area, so herds of pigs were common. Whatever expression or definition we give to the demons, they ask Jesus whether they can enter the pigs. He agrees, and immediately the whole herd drowns in the lake. This scares the living daylights out of the pig herders! “34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.”
I suspect that people had written off this scary, unbalanced man as a totally lost cause. Today, we know that many, many people with mental illness can be helped a great deal. It is a physical challenge, just like diabetes and the imbalance involving the pancreas.
Moreover, illnesses and challenges do not need to be visible. For example, I am very nearsighted. I correct that with contact lenses. There are any number of different therapies, as well as medication that can control mental illness and outbreaks. But, such a drastic healing in the first century? No wonder everyone was scared to death of Jesus!
“36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So [Jesus] got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
Notice that Jesus wanted this healed man to stay where he was and tell his fellow townspeople about the marvelous things God has done! He was to tell his story. Be an evangelist.
Whether we are talking the first or the twenty-first century, we can all praise God—Jesus has come to heal our diseases, to free us from our bondage. Whether from sin, from demons, from mental illnesses. Jesus knows our sorrows and carries our griefs. Jesus comes alongside of us—all of us—and helps us to bear our heavy loads.
Whether the load is physical or mental, psychological or spiritual, Jesus gives a helping hand. Jesus shows up. All of which tells us that God is willing to go absolutely anywhere to come alongside, to free, sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.