At the end of Chapter 4 of Mark, the disciples had run into trouble on the Sea of Galilee: “A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up.” (Mark 4:37). This is another exhibit of the divine powers of Jesus that are in addition to the miracles cures and the casting out of demons. They have heard him preach about conversion and the kingdom of God – and yet still ask, “Who then is this?” (v.41).
In today’s gospel, Chapter 5 marks a change of location as Jesus moves into the Gentile territory east of the Jordan River. If the disciples are still asking themselves about the identity of Jesus, then this move will likely raise questions about the mission. If they are able to answer their own question and see Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, will they be able to grasp that his mission is to Israel and more? Will the disciples connect the cure of the demon-crazed man in the territory of the Gerasenes, Gentile territory with Jesus’ long-term mission, which includes their participation and will move beyond the borders of Israel to the ends of the earth?
This story is most often remembered as Jesus casting out the legion of demons from a man, sending the demons into a herd of swine, who then rush headlong into the sea and drown (5:13). If we are attentive to the details of the reading, this account, more graphically than any other in the Gospels, indicates that the function of demonic possession is to distort and destroy the image of God in man (cf. Gen 1:26).
The people of the surrounding area had attempted to bind him by chains to protect themselves from his violence. When this proved to be futile, they had driven him off to wander restlessly in the wild hill country and to dwell in the subterranean caves which served as tombs and dwellings for the poorest people of the district. His dwelling in the midst of the tombs and the inability of chains and fetters to bind him is especially stressed, but every word emphasizes his poverty of human condition both in a corporal and spiritual dimension. At intervals during the night and the day he is seen among the tombs or on the mountains, wildly shrieking, cutting his flesh with sharp stones, attempting to destroy himself and bring to an end the torment of an unbearable existence. Such is the result of demonic possession in distorting and destroying the divine likeness of man according to creation.
While the casting of the demons into the herd of swine and their ultimate demise by drowning, what should be seen is that the fate of the swine demonstrates the ultimate intention of the demons with respect to the man they had possessed. It is their purpose to destroy the creation of God, and halted in their destruction of a man, they fulfilled their purpose with the swine.
In the possessed man, Jesus sees the vestige of the image of God and acts with compassion and frees him to live a fully human life. He frees the man from the chains that continue to bind him.
Among us today live those “possessed” by illness that create a potential poverty of the corporal and spiritual dimension. Those conditions can be caused by illness, physical or mental, or by the effect of our modern demons: alcohol and drugs. We often find it easier to shun them in one way or another, to put distance between their lives and ours. It is exactly in those moments we are called to see the image of God and God’s creation in them and do our part: act with compassion that they might be freed to live a fully human existence. And maybe our part is to keep them in prayer. Maybe to join in outreach to them. But always to recognize they were divinely created.