“What have you to do with us, Son of God?” (Matt 8:29).
The issue of mental illness as a social crisis has been in the headlines of late because of mass shootings and suicides. Some of these tragedies involve former military personnel suffering from the effects of battlefield trauma. The larger national challenge reportedly stems from the failure of mental health policies that deinstitutionalize thousands of patients without providing adequate community programs to support them. Any major city dealing with homelessness and poverty is also facing serious mental illness issues.
In Jesus’ time, some members of society were discarded into the lowest ranks of the destitute; widows and orphans, landless peasants, street beggars, lepers, cripples and blind people without family support. Jesus moved among them with compassion, touching, healing and welcoming them as God’s anawim – little ones. He also confronted and cared for people like the two Gadarene demoniacs in today’s Gospel, driven over the edge by unknown causes compounded by rejection and isolation. Jesus frees them from their demons and restores them to the community, but at the cost of a herd of swine that rush into the sea and are drowned.
Demonic possession and mental illness are two different ways to describe these victims, but whether we see this scene spiritually or scientifically, the healing Jesus offers is both individual and social. In a real sense, social, cultural and religious forces played a major role in the disorientation the two men were experiencing. They were outcasts from their communities, adding to their personal suffering and cutting them off from the understanding and care they needed to be restored. Jesus gave them that care and they immediately came to their senses.
A good shepherd never abandons the lost sheep, but goes out searching for them, lifting them up and carrying them home. Who are those good shepherds today? Where does fear and anger end and compassion begin for those outcasts created by poverty, substance abuse, race, homophobia and xenophobia? God’s grace and power wait to be poured out in those who accept this difficult call to help the poorest of the poor. But all of us without exception are called to compassion and a deeper understanding or the real causes of suffering in so many of our brothers and sisters.