“Those who had seen it told the others what had happened to the demon-possessed man and the pigs. At first they were in awe—and then they were upset, upset over the drowned pigs. They demanded that Jesus leave and not come back.”
When I was 18 years old, I was walking from a bus stop to a hotel in an unfamiliar place late at night when a strange woman approached me. I smiled in a friendly yet guarded Midwestern manner and tried to keep walking, but she blocked my path.
“WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!” she yelled. I was speechless. I wasn’t looking at anything in particular, just walking from point A to point B. I shrugged and smiled in a friendly but terrified Midwestern manner and tried to keep walking.
“I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE!” she continued, pointing at me, wild-eyed, sneering, and cackling. “YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN!”
Now, I didn’t own any “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts at the time, and as far as I recall, I wasn’t wearing a cross necklace or a WWJD bracelet. I wasn’t coming from a tent revival or an Ash Wednesday service. I was barely even a Christian, just a cute, little baby Christian, barely even crawling out of my newfound salvation’s playpen.
Nothing else happened between me and the wild-eyed woman, but the whole encounter shook me. Twenty-one years later, I can still see her frizzy hair, her penetrating stare, that sneer, and how I fled.
I’ve encountered other seemingly possessed people since that lady. Men who mumble to themselves or yell at nothing on the sidewalk as you pass them, women who seem stuck in a confused loop, and others who appear vacant, wandering shells of the person they once were.
Rarely have I been brave enough to stop, to hand over my leftovers, to offer some change or even the dignity of meeting their eyes and smiling, acknowledging our shared humanity, our brokenness, our demons, our woes.
Over the years I’ve grown cynical toward “the homeless,” that category of anonymous others that wander streets and hide in the shadows, possessed by alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, or some other force that tortures them, some trauma that has physiologically altered their ability to cope with the world.
I’ve turned my eyes from their suffering in order to preserve my personal comfort zone.
At the same time, I’ve returned to the story of the demon-possessed man and the herd of pigs again and again. It might be one of the strangest tales we have about Jesus in the gospels. Why did the demons need somewhere else to go? Why did they inhabit the man in the first place? What would it have been like to be the pig farmers? What would it have been like to be the man, set free from what tortured him?
Today, when I read this story, I find myself among those who had seen what happened to the demon possessed man. I would have been in awe.
And then I would have been angry. Look what he’s done to our meat!
What they’re really saying is, Look what has been taken from me in order to allow this man to walk free.
How many times have I prioritized my own safety, comfort, and possessions over the basic human needs of someone who was suffering? Countless times.
But not Jesus.
Jesus sees the suffering human in front of him and sets him free. Jesus sees underneath the signs of madness and recognizes them as manifestations of trauma, pain, abuse, neglect, isolation, and fear. He sees each human as another child of God, a son or daughter whose spirit has been broken, whose mind has been formed by chaos, whose heart has done its best to be resilient and yet there’s been so much they’ve had to try to overcome. Sometimes, it’s been too much.
The Lord sees the lost, the broken, the haunted, the possessed, and the Lord’s love sets them free.
When God sets people free, he invites the freed to tell their stories. “Go home to your own people. Tell them your story—what the Master did, how he had mercy on you” (v. 20).
God invites us, his children, into healing work with him, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have no reason to fear. We have every reason to love.
Points of Reflection
- Have you ever had an encounter with someone who seemed possessed? How did you respond?
- Which characters in the story of the demon possessed man do you most closely identify with?
For the Kids
- How do you think the demon possessed man felt before he met Jesus?
- How do you think he felt after Jesus healed him?
In many other stories in the Gospels, Jesus told his disciples—through word and deed—what it looked like to follow the heart of the Father. Who are “the least of these” in your life? It’s easy for all of us to insulate ourselves from people who are different from us, but God stretches across the barriers we’ve made to see, hear, and hold those that are otherwise invisible, silent, and untouchable to society. This week, ask the Lord to call you into caring for someone or something that the world is neglecting. And when the Holy Spirit nudges, heed its call.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that have a physiological impact on the way our brains develop, changing the way we experience the world. Research into trauma’s effect on our development has revolutionized the treatment of PTSD and many other psychological conditions that severely inhibit individuals from living free and satisfying lives. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk offers hope and understanding for survivors of trauma. With compassion, compelling case studies, and an array of various treatment possibilities, van der Kolk’s work will help you understand the effects of trauma on the brain and the possibilities for healing and recovery. If you’re looking for a Christian resource on trauma-informed care, you might also try The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture by Gabor Maté MD. (I haven’t read this book yet, but Dr. Maté’s work comes highly recommended by a friend who is a trauma-informed yogi.)