Jesus' Case Notes - the man from Gerasa

Jesus and the Man from Gerasa

I believe passionately in integrative therapy. People are complex and their needs are diverse and intertwined. Consequently healing is likely to involve a range of interventions. Therapists may specialise in particular approaches but need to work with and learn from others, past and future. For Christians that means also learning from the Bible. As a Christian counsellor with theological training I find that the interface between the Bible and counselling theory can yield a rich seam of valuable insights, as this article hopefully demonstrates. Mark wrote up the original case notes of Jesus’ interaction with the person we shall call the man from Gerasa (see Mark 5). Luke added additional information in his gospel. Matthew recalls a similar story involving two men.

Homeless, self harming and a social outcast

The man in question appeared at first to be homeless but turned out to have a family who could have housed him were it not for his distressing behaviour (Mark 5 v. 20). Mark notes that he had been self harming – cutting himself with stones – and constantly crying out in distress, day and night. He lived in the local cemetery and went about naked. The local statutory authorities evidently considered him a danger to himself or others and so had tried often to restrain him, but without success. Being extremely strong, he always broke free.

Rejected and tormented

All too often restraint is society’s only response to broken people – iron bands, locked doors or being “sectioned”, along with the cruel shackles of public disdain, scapegoating, name-calling and hysterical mob rejection. The man immediately assumes that Jesus will bring him more of the same torture and his first words to the Lord are, “I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” Evidently the sufferings this man has endured have left a legacy of fear which makes him unable to trust others, even Jesus.

Unresolved Grief  - hurt child - insecure attachment - on the Asberger spectrum

Nowadays we recognize self-harm as a sign of deep emotional pain and a negative self image. This man’s choice to live among the tombs may give a clue that unresolved grief could be part of his problem. Was one of the tombs the resting place of someone he loved and had lost? Or of someone for whose death he felt responsible? Either would explain the intensity of his reaction. In Transactional Analysis terms we might say that he is responding to his environment from a hurt child ego state. In relation to Bowlby’s attachment theory, we could classify him as “insecure resistant” – clinging desperately to the object of his attachment even after death, refusing to let go. That classification is born out at the end of the story where he also clings to Jesus and wants to stay with him. His nakedness doesn’t seem to have a sexual motivation. Might it be that he had Asberger tendencies and simply failed to appreciate social conventions and the emotions that go with them? He struggles to accept a situation where the norms of law, lore and logic no longer apply.

Uncontrolled anger seems likely to be part of his problem, perhaps directed at someone whose body lay in one of the tombs? Was his unresolved anger multiplied because death had put his hated enemy beyond the reach of his avenging fists? Or was he angry with himself? Or racked with guilt?

Jesus’ therapeutic intervention

He invites the man into a relationship.

Jesus opens the “session” by asking the man “What is your name?” He doesn’t keep the man at arm’s length either with a polite but impersonal “sir”, or a detached but friendly “mate” but wants to call him by name.This is more than a routine, administrative question – It demonstrates unconditional personal regard and invites the man to engage in a relationship.

He helps the man to rediscover his identity.

 There are hidden depths to the question. “What is your name?” This is a way of asking “Who are you?” The question puts the man back in touch with his shattered identity, the self he has lost, the dreams he once wanted to turn into reality.  It calls him to accept an identity and a purpose, and it points him back to the family he has been uprooted from. Ultimately it leads him to rediscover God as the only reliable source of significance, security and self worth. Once he has re-established his identity in God he can build his life on a firm foundation.

The man answers, “My name is legion for we are many.” This response is usually interpreted as indicating a belief on the man’s part that a legion of demonic spirits is troubling him, but there are other possibilities, Multiple Personality Disorder (the effect of a fractured, dissociated self) for one. Another is to see this as an indication that he is not unique. There are thousands of others like him – he is but one representative of a legion of people with shattered lives who are incapable of slotting into a place in society.

Jesus takes demons seriously.

At the centre of Jesus’ therapeutic intervention is his interaction with the demons. This is problematic for us, surrounded as we are by a secular mindset which doesn’t have room for such a concept. Modern Christians respond to this in a variety of ways. Some follow Jesus’ example, exposing demons and commanding them to leave people or places. These range from authorised Catholic and Anglican exorcists to Pentecostal Christians who believe that following Jesus means doing things the way he did. Some Calvinists see the demons as servants of the Accuser (“Satan”) testing God’s work in order to demonstrate God’s glory. Less conservative theologians have reinterpreted demons as impersonal negative social forces (“powers”) that imprison and dehumanise people.

Jesus' authority

However you interpret the demons, the one thing you need to understand about them is that, whatever their nature, they are under Jesus’ authority and must obey him and those who represent him. In the synoptic gospels the deliverance of the man from Gerasa is one of a series of events where Jesus progressively reveals his divine authority – over nature, over the demons and over death.

I have not yet found a totally convincing reason why Jesus allowed the demons to go into the pigs, other than that their headlong rush into the sea must have provided the man with a dramatic confirmation of his release and freedom. There might be a link with Pharaoh’s army in the Exodus and the Psalm that talks of our iniquities being buried in the deepest sea. Drama can have huge therapeutic power.

He deals with every level of the man’s need.

The pigs’ owners run off, terrified, telling others what has happened. The report spreads rapidly through the local bars and markets. Those who hear flock back to Gerasa to see for themselves and a crowd gathers. Jesus has evidently continued to teach and counsel the man who is now “sitting, clothed and in his right mind”. Three aspects of this statement are significant. The man is now seated (No longer insecure), clothed (no longer vulnerable) and in his right mind, (no longer delusional). But there is one thing left for Jesus to deal with.

He brings the therapeutic relationship to a healthy conclusion.

We’ve already noted the possible relevance of Bowlby’s attachment theory in this man’s struggle with grief. This comes into play again at the end. Jesus is stepping into the boat to sail back to Capernaum when the man runs up, begging to go with Jesus. He is healed, but he is still insecure, clinging to others and finding it hard to let people go. As Jesus steps into the boat, the panicky fears of abandonment rise in his heart. “You can’t leave me! How am I going to cope if you’re not there?” he cries.

Jesus could have given in and taken the man with him, but that would have left his insecure detachment style unhealed. He doesn’t yield to the man’s manipulative pleas but instead gives him a new purpose, “Go home, to your own people and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you.” By accepting the call to be Jesus’ messenger the man is able to internalise Jesus in such a way that he will always carry Jesus with him. Instead of clinging to Jesus for his own security he is now going to help others to find the only person who can make them secure. Instead of acting as a vulnerable child, he now acts from an adult ego state.