They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.
This account of Jesus exorcising a demon from the man at Gerasenes is quite detailed, at least relative to the other mentions of demonic possession that Mark has made thus far. There are many interesting elements to this passage, so I'm breaking it up into smaller chunks. These first five verses set the scene, briefly describing the location and the man's condition.
The country of the Gerasenes
Looking at the map in the back of my Bible the only thing I could find similar was a place called Gergesa. Therefore, I had to research a little further to find out if this was the "Gerasenes". Some sources point out that there is debate about the exact location, but tradition holds it to be in Gersa, near a place called Khersa or Kursi today. There is an Israeli National Park on the site today of a 5th century monastery discovered in the late 1960's. William Lane, in The Gospel According to Mark, comments,
Kursi, looking at Sea of Galilee
"The point of arrival is indicated in a general way as the district of the Gerasenes, most probably in reference to a town whose name is preserved in the modern Kersa or Koursi. At the site of Kersa the shore is level, and there are no tombs. But a mile further south there is a fairly steep slope awithin forty yards from the shore, and about two miles south from there cavern tombs are found which appear to have been used for dwellings."
As I read God's Word, I try to imagine myself there in the story, filling in some of the scenic details we are not provided with my imagination, even facial expressions or body language. Or if I am reading one of the epistles, I imagine it is being read to me by the author, trying to imagine the inflections in their voice, or how they might try to enhance my understanding with gestures or drawing on elements in the environment.
Because of my tendency to read in this manner, this story stirs some interesting feelings and thoughts. I imagine that being there would have been very uncomfortable for me. Mark spends some time drawing this out for us. He obviously wants us to get the full picture. Let's walk through each element, trying to appreciate what he was trying to describe for us.
"He lived among the tombs."
The parallel passage in Luke 8:27 adds a detail to this part (the emphasis is mine): For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.
The man lived in the tombs. From my understanding of this region, this wasn't a cemetery as I picture it, but caves (some man-made) in the mountains where the dead would be laid to rest. The area would have been an "unclean" place in the Hebrew culture (Numbers 19:11-18), so I can imagine that there was some anxiety already about having to pass by the place, let alone having this man living in the area.
Let's not skip to quickly over the fact that he had not worn clothes for a long time. The shameful exposure compounded with his constant exposure to the weather and elements would have taken physical, spiritual, and mental tolls on the man and the people in that area.
"And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces."
Luke adds (once again, the emphasis is mine): 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 desert.
He was really strong! The people in this area had apparently tried to keep him under control, but he kept breaking out. This had to be very intimidating, and quite simply terrifying for anyone having to go past on way to somewhere else. Matthew 8:28 speaks to this, "...so fierce that no one could pass that way." Being one of the disciples with Jesus during this encounter, I imagine would have been an adrenaline spiked experience being unsure of what was to happen and if you were going to be assaulted or possibly killed by this maniac. Of course, we can't know for sure. Maybe they were still thinking about the storm and how Jesus calmed the wind and water... coming upon this man may have seemed trivial. I doubt it though.
We don't know exactly how long this man had been like this, though it would seem that it had been a while since Luke says, "For a long time...". There had been time enough for him to have been caught and bound "often" only to escape later.
"Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones."
No order, no peace, no rest. He was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. The man had to be physically and mentally exhausted, and his crying out would have been a constant annoyance and persistent reminder to the people that he was still there and unpredictable as always.
But I want to step back and look at this picture as a whole now. This man was not "normal". I do not think it's unfounded to say he would have been called "crazy" or "mentally ill" today. Am I off-base here? What would this look like in modern age? How would we treat him? How would the world react him? Yes, I'm now going to broach the subject of mental illness vs demonic possession today.
Take for instance, the "cutting himself with stones" phrase in this sentence. Is this normal? Does the typical, average person do this? No, not on purpose anyway. Besides, the phrasing doesn't lend to an accidental, clumsy situation - he was cutting himself. Yet, we do see this today. The phenomenon referred to as "cutting" or "self-injury" and if you look this up, you will discover that it's a sign of depression and/or a handful of other psychiatric conditions. The Mayo Clinic says that cutting is "considered an impulse-control behavior problem" and "may accompany a variety of mental illnesses, such as depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder".
In all seriousness, I believe that the near-complete absence of any serious consideration to demonic possession today (in full favor of "mental illness") is not a sign that possession doesn't necessarily exist. Because in a culture that denies the existence of any objective spiritual truths, for Satan to remove all doubt to the existence of a spiritual realm by propagating possession by and through his army of demons would be counter-productive to his cause: to blind people to a spiritual war, and ultimately to Christ and the Gospel. Yet, in that 1st century Hebraic culture, that spiritual realm was believed in and an integral part of daily life. Demonic possession served its purpose: to distort the image of God and introduce fear and doubt into a culture that understood it to be what it is - an assault on God's rule and order.
So, my question is this: do we see demon possession in any way today in America? Even if the psychiatric and medical communities do not see it, does the church see it? When we see similar behaviors among the "churched", are we even considering demonic oppression or possession? What about outside America? Is it something we see in the 21st century?