Read Mark 5: 1-20


22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Way back in my very first post about Mark, themes were laid out and one of those themes was “Jesus has authority.”

The end of Mark Chapter 4 and the beginning of Mark Chapter 5 is about demonstrating the breadth and power of that authority.  If you have read the Gospel of Mark before or even just the first few posts on Mark in this blog then you are aware that Jesus has the authority to cast out demons.   We have seen this already.

A quick word about demons.  Some times modern readers of the Bible are put off by the appearance of the supernatural.  Being scientifically minded they cannot find the wisdom in the account because they are too busy worrying about the validity of the concept of demons. I personally do not know if demons exist.  I do know that the world is full of many strange and wondrous things and I am not willing to say that the supernatural doesn’t exist.  If you want to chalk demons in the Bible up to primitive understandings of mental illness and the like that is your choice.  It is one of those things that cannot be proven beyond all doubt.  The choice you make will change the story some and will limit the range and power of God but it is at the end of the day your choice to make.

Jesus and the disciples arrive in the land of the Gentiles on the other side of the Sea of Galilee some time in the morning.  We are told that they encounter a man who lives in the caves that serve as tombs; a man who is crazed and who cannot be bound or controlled by anyone or even held by chains.  Wow!  We are told that he spends his days and his nights crying out and cutting himself with stones.

I do think it is useful to spend a moment empathizing with the man.  Have you ever felt outcast from the group?  Have you ever seen fear in the eyes of other people when they encounter you? I do not suspect that he chose to live in the tombs but rather had to because that is where the people allowed him to be.  Children were probably warned to stay away from him.  Older brothers probably threatened to turn their younger siblings over to him.  He probably had a host of unflattering nicknames.  Clearly, he has no community.  He has no positive interaction with others.  They fear him and shun him.  He lives in the ancient equivalent of the cemetery.  The community has left him for dead.

We soon learn the reason for this man’s isolation.  He is tormented by something greater than himself that seeks to destroy him completely.  When he sees Jesus in the distance he immediately closes the gap and falls at his feet.  Some translations say worshiped but the context means that he likely just went prostrate before Jesus; it is the same word in Greek for both.  The man speaks “What is it that you want from me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you by God leave me alone.”

Again we learn from context that this wasn’t the man speaking but rather the demonic entity that has possessed him.  In the beginning of Mark the only ones who know who Jesus is are the demons, they address him by the title Son of God.  They also seem to know that the purpose of Jesus is counter to their own purposes because their response is always one of fear.  As the letter of James says, the demons believe and they tremble.

There is an irony here that the demon seems to pray to God that Jesus would be gracious unto them.  Jesus will not answer that prayer because they are at cross purposes.  The demonic, in so far as it is real (remember, you get to choose), has a singular purpose to destroy that which God has created.  More specifically to destroy the image of God present in this human being.  This is the purpose of the torment and the cutting and the driving the man out of the community.  God is love.  As such, God is relational.  In effecting the isolation of the host the demon has been working on destroying him physically as well as mentally through self-inflicted wounds.  The presence of Jesus introduces the purpose of the Holy One to effect salvation and redemption, not just for individuals but for all of creation.

And so the battle is enjoined.  Christ demands that the spirit comes out and that the demon reveal his name.  Legion is the name because they are many and they make a request of Jesus that they not be sent out of the country but rather be allowed to infest a neighboring herd of pigs.  Jesus allows it and immediately the demons leave the man, enter the pigs, and drive them all headlong into the ocean drowning them some 2000 in total!

The pig herders report to their bosses what has happened and people from the neighboring town come out to see for themselves.  They find Jesus and with him the man that had been crazy seated beside him.  He is right-minded, calm, and clothed even! For emphasis, Mark says the very same man that had been possessed by Legion just so there is no mistake for us. And a curious thing has happened the people are afraid.  So afraid in fact that they demand that Jesus and his friends leave at once.

Here is another good place to camp out and reflect.  Fear?  Anger would be the more likely response.  2000 pigs killed is a lot of money and the people may not have seen that as a good trade, one crazy man made well at the cost of 2000 pigs.  By modern standards the loss of that many pigs could have been a price tag of half a million dollars or more! Even at the cheapest level you would be looking at a hundred grand for a herd that size.  Is the peace of mind of one person worth the economic output of the community?  Praise the Lord in the eyes of Jesus the answer is yes.  Perhaps the fear is related to the power of Jesus to compel the demon in the first place.  Forget the pigs, let’s be afraid of the exorcist!  It makes sense to a point although you would like for someone to be happy for the formerly demon-possessed man.

I think the fear is reflective of something deeper within us as sinners.

The people were comfortable with the way things were.  Sure there was the demon possessed guy, but he lived away in the tombs where the evil people belong. He was avoidable and that meant no one had to deal with the reality that they were powerless to help him. They didn’t have to admit to themselves that they didn’t care about him.  they didn’t have to wrestle with the truth that they were too much like him and could have easily been him had the demons chosen differently.  He had his place and so long as he was out there they didn’t have to wrestle with what it meant.  He was darkness personified, but a darkness contained, and that is what people want is the darkness contained — categorized and prioritized; this sin unacceptable and outside the community but these other sins normalized and accepted.  People fear the devil but the devil can be avoided or explained away.  Recall that the demons were afraid because they knew they were at cross purpose with God.  The power of God invokes a greater fear and far too many of us want nothing to do with it because it exposes us as those who also are at cross purposes with the Lord.

Jesus knows when he isn’t wanted and leaves.  Before he goes however, the man who had been possessed, who now has been healed and restored to fullness of life, wishes to come along.  In fact the language that is used is the language of discipleship.  He wishes to follow Jesus.  Who can blame him for wanting to get way from the place that is filled with such ugly memories. Why wouldn’t you want to rid yourselves of the community that is more concerned about the loss of pigs than they are about what has happened to you?

Jesus refuses.  Not the offer of discipleship, but rather the change of venue; instead of allowing him to leave Jesus tells him that he is to stay and share with others what the Lord has done for him.  And we are told that he does this.

When you think about all that has befallen this man it can seem cruel that Jesus makes him stay amidst a people who must have mistreated him and labelled him.  I think the lesson to all of us that follow Jesus is that sometimes Jesus bids us stay in the very place that caused us pain, albeit pain that we were rescued from because that is where we will make the most difference.  It is a difficult place to be.  It couldn’t have been easy for this man but I cannot help but think that a few years later in the aftermath of Resurrection and Pentecost that his seed-sowing bore much fruit.

  • Where do you find yourself in this story?
  • Have you ever wanted to run when you felt the urge of Jesus to remain?
  • Are you afraid of the power of God to bring light into your heart? your community? your church? your world?
  • Are you afraid to admit that you are at cross purposes with the Holy One of God?
  • What sins are you too comfortable with and which sins do you ignore because they are over there?
  • Is there someone you have left for dead amidst the tombs?

As always this reflection is freely given. Use this Bible Study for your own groups or discussion.  If you do share it with a group I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.