Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, there met him a man of the city who had demons. —Luke 8:26-27a
This story, recounted in all the Synoptic Gospels, stands as a central text in my faith, that particular Gospel anthology or playlist that I cling to and am always turning over. It is about a man who was infested with demons, and about how Jesus, the Merciful One, sought him out in the country of the Gerasenes, or Gadarenes, and rescued him. In my church we read it a couple of times every year. Sometimes it makes me cry.
Holden Caufield liked the demoniac better than anyone else in the Bible except Jesus, ten times more than the disciples. For me too, his story grips some special handle in my guts — this man is the picture of wretchedness. The Gospels tell us he was naked and had been for a long time. And he wasn’t living in a house with family or friends, but among the tombs (Luke 8:27b).
His affliction was so uncontrollable and violent that his loved ones had tried to restrain him. But even chaining him up and tying him down couldn’t hold him (Mark 5:5b). As if being chained like a dog wasn’t bad enough, the demons had taken even that from him: “he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert” (Luke 8:29b). And so he ran loose like a wild animal, stripped of every semblance of human living, roaming around, even howling at night. Mark’s Gospel adds that “night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5).
If that doesn’t move you to pity, just keep repeating that verse. Has there ever been anyone more wretched, more abjectly pitiful?
Jesus surely was moved to pity this man. But Jesus did something more: he sought him out. The Gospels don’t say why Jesus went “to the country of the Gerasenes,” but his encounter with this man and the demons who possessed him is the whole story, and the whole point of it. As soon as he lands there, Jesus is met by this man, and after he has cast out the demons, he leaves.
“When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him” (Luke 8:28). What does he call out? Son of David, have mercy on me? Or perhaps more demurely: If you will, you can make me clean? Does he reach out with his hand and grasp the hem of Jesus’ cloak?
No. He doesn’t do or say any of those things; he can’t. “A laughingstock and plaything of other powers,” this man is so far gone that he cannot even ask for help when help arrives. All he can manage is “Jesus, leave me alone.”
He “said with a loud voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me’” (Luke 8:28).
Jesus, leave me alone. Did this man manage to say more or less than the mutes that demons had silenced altogether (Matt. 9:32, 12:22)?
The infernal crowd begs Christ to let them enter a nearby herd of pigs, and he obliges:
And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. (Matt. 8:32)
It’s a dramatic ending, terrifying to the swineherds especially, but it is no more dramatic a sight than the restoration of this man to health and wholeness:
Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and 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. (Luke 8:35)
They ask him to leave, and the Savior of the world climbs back into his boat.
Surely this story serves in part to demonstrate Jesus’ power and authority. The demons are powerless to resist his command, and they whimper and grovel before him. On his way there, Jesus calms the stormy sea, and this confrontation with the demons on the far side doubtless extends and deepens that punchline: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
Who is this indeed, before whom tremble the powers of hell? But Jesus’ power is only the first word, serving to magnify his care and watchfulness for the lowly human creature: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Ps. 8:4). The Psalmist’s question is a kind of mystery, but it points us to another.
Who is this indeed! Who are you, Lord, that you care, that you notice us at all?
The One through whom all things were made, who commands the winds and waves and established the vast and numberless stars, went into the country of the Gadarenes in order to rescue this one wretched man. The demoniac is not an interruption or a kindly detour, and Jesus doesn’t merely go out of his way to help him. You or I might do that if we remember to be merciful at all. But Jesus makes his way to this suffering soul because he makes it his purpose to seek out and to rescue the one lost sheep.
What is this one wrecked man that you are mindful of him, Lord? And who are you, that you are indeed mindful of him?
Who is this indeed! He is the One “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2.6-8).
Who is this indeed, who seeks out one lost soul on the far shore? What brings me tears: the misery and abasement of this wretched man or the kindness of the Merciful One who stoops to reach him?
O Lover of Mankind! I hope I never forget your extravagance, nor grow inured to it.
I have never looked on Galilee’s lake, but if I ever get to, I am sure that I will look across the water and think of the demoniac. I have thought a lot about this distance: thirteen miles from north to south, eight miles across in the other direction. Somehow it measures the limits of my compassion.
I can be moved by the suffering of this man (or others), but my pity depends on and upholds the distance between us. I feel sorry for the suffering because they seem far away. Certainly I don’t really want to trade places with them nor cross to their side. I don’t want to empty myself.
Compassion for me is a long-range activity. It is easy for me to pity the demoniac, but it is very hard for me to identify with him. But how great is the distance between us? Next to the Lord’s own crossing, it can’t be all that far.
Is this distance an optical illusion, a trick of light and water? Or am I just kidding myself? It shouldn’t be surprising. This mortal dust is all we know, and I have made it homey, even pleasant. Without Christ’s victory in our flesh, could I even recognize my sickness? The Resurrection is our remedy and our diagnosis; it names our sickness and reveals it.
Christ is risen from the dead! By death he trampled death, and to those in the tombs he granted life!
Only the Immortal One can strip bare for us this body of death and unmask the regime of dark and ruinous powers.
About a month ago, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since then, the demoniac’s wretchedness has loomed in my mind — solidly, concretely. What debasement is waiting for my mom and maybe for me? She is only 64; I am nearly two-thirds there. In the end, perhaps even the demoniac’s plea will be more than I can manage. I am afraid of the future.
Who is this indeed? Maybe someday I will mean that when I say it.
Jesus, will you find me and save me, if I can’t call your name? Will you come for me and find me, even if I’ve forgotten who you are? I am not very hopeful about what is coming, but Christ is my hope, who is mindful of one wrecked and wretched creature.
Jesus, remember me! Find me, if I am lost and don’t know to look for you. Remember me, Master, even if I have forgotten your name.
Caleb Congrove is a high school teacher in Ohio and a father of three. A layman, he belongs to a Byzantine Catholic parish. His other posts are here.
 Commenting on the same story, Anthony Bloom offers this definition of a demoniac. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Awakening to New Life: Talks on the Gospel of Mark (Nov. 10, 2013), translated from the Russian by Dimitra Dwelley.