John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs, a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. 14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.Mark 5:1-20
The Gospel of the Lord
Two things this morning. Turn in your Bibles or tablet to Mark 4 & 5 and pull up in your head a map of Northern Israel, specifically the NW area of Lake Galilee around Capernaum and then look SE to “the other side of the lake” to the Decapolis. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a very busy person. Ch 4 begins a day with the crush of villagers, pushing Jesus into a fishing boat along the NW lake shore (vs.1-2). Once seated he talks about aspects of the Kingdom in four Wisdom sayings or parables: first, about how Kingdom Words scattered like seed produce an amazing harvest in spite of seemingly impossible obstacles (vs. 3-20), second, about how Kingdom truth, more than an oil lamp, can light up a whole life, astonishingly pushing back darkness, revealing the smallest of details (vs. 21-25), third, how the kingdom when planted is unstoppable like seeds that grow into a full harvest (vs. 26-29) and lastly, about how the Kingdom, insignificant like mustard seed, will grow beyond expectation (vs. 30-32).
Mark details the four parables with four stories taking us to the end of the next day. In the first story (4.35-41), readers ponder Kingdom power over nature. From a boat Jesus quiets a hurricane tossed lake. In a demon exorcism story, 5.1-20, our Gospel lesson, readers consider Kingdom power in conflict with evil spirit power. In two interwoven stories, the resurrection of a child and the healing of a hemorrhaging woman (5.21-43), readers ponder Kingdom power as it loosens the grip of death and illness.
Here’s how I would summarize Mark’s theological intentions in bringing the parables and stories together in a day in the life of Jesus. In Jesus, the Kingdom has been planted in human experience through the Spirit, Word and power. The kingdom is an insurgent uprising establishing YHWH’s rule and presence in ever increasing proportion. My goal this morning is to highlight some of the challenges of, the impact of and responses to the Kingdom we read in the exorcism.
In 1981 at the traditional site of ch. 5, near Gerasa, Israel constructed a state park. The shoreline is level but rises quickly to a hilly wilderness, pocketed with caves – a place suitable for tombs (vs. 2,5) and grazing livestock (vs. 11). I suppose that, in the best of times, it was a grim place. In the first century, the site was certainly not a place for a stroll in the park.
On “the other side of the lake”, this site is a place of spiritual opposition. The anguished cries of a man pierce the silence. A terrifying man driven forcefully to the margins of society. He’s so violent his family, others had tried to shackle him, to bring him under control. He tore chains apart and broke irons from his feet. All attempts at control or subjugation were unsuccessful (vs. 4). Everyone gave up. He is alive and mercilessly driven by demons among tombs (vs. 3). I suppose it’s natural to want to shut out someone like this man. He’s frightening. But in the midst of the violent description, Mark turns to us with his hands extended calling attention to the anguish, the utter helplessness “Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (vs. 5). Mark’s gut wrenching cry observing the man’s tormented life is intended to draw out our compassion. And to set us up for Jesus.
Having sailed to Gerasa with the Twelve, the Gospeler heightens the scene’s dramatic effect and intensity by removing everyone from the scene “They went to the other side of the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat….” (vs. 1-2). A solitary Jesus steps out of the boat to come face to face with a solitary man, whose fearsome force, whose madness was as wild as the hurricane tossed lake.
In this wild place Mark bids us to remember the spiritual contest Jesus just experienced “resisting Satan in the wilderness” after his baptism (1.12-13). Jesus exited from that wild place in the power of the Spirit. He won’t be distracted by this man’s craziness, nakedness. The man sees Jesus, adopts a posture of submission but howls in protest “what do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God!” (vs. 7). Jesus is about to engage in a tug of war between the Kingdom and an evil, spiritual power for control over the territory of this man. Momentarily, we reckon something within him can still recognize Jesus: the divine One, the Spirit empowered One, the Holy One. But the utter helplessness of possession is heard when the man sometimes uses the singular pronoun, sometimes the plural “And he begged Jesus earnestly not to send them out of the country”(vs. 10). The irony of “Swear to God” should not be missed. Jesus has been identified as “Son of the Most High God”. That’s not a messianic title but a divine one. The desperation invoking divine protection has no force – Jesus is the Son of God!
But the numbered forces about to be revealed are much harder to understand, clearly frightening. Before the howl of protest fades, a demon breaks into negotiation “I beg you, don’t torment me” (vs. 7). Why? – because Jesus was pushing past the nameless man demanding a truthful identification. Legion, for we are many – with this blood-curdling response, we learn a weapon-ized 5,000 demon force has set up a camp in the man. Legion – a word rich in political/military, atrocious power that tears from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense. Everyone in first century Palestine had seen Roman legions – the ruthless instrument of Roman peace.
So beginning in vs. 10, YHWH’s salvific commander begins directing the Kingdom’s legion. The powerful demonic Legion, who for everyone but Jesus has been an object of terror, begins a desperate but unsuccessful retreat. Recognizing Jesus has authority to remove them from their camp, the demons negotiate a surrender. They think they might be better off in the nearby pigs. Jesus says okay. Whereupon they break camp and enter the pigs. Their violence so brutal and brutalizing to the man replays its vicious character in the pigs. But the pigs stampede, fly over a cliff into the lake and drown. The demons had driven a man to live among the dead. Ironically, they are dead; the man is alive (vs. 11-13). sidebar to humans – even pigs reject evil spirit power!
Mark turns our attention to the dramatically unemployed pig herders (vs. 14). They flee into the village with a tabloid story – Exorcism, demons fleeing into pigs, pigs stampeding, flying pigs. Not unexpectedly the village people go out to see for themselves looking for the pigs. But instead, they see the man clothed, in his right mind, sitting calmly in front of Jesus (vs. 15). This demonstration of Kingdom power gets a markedly cool reception by the locals. Fear takes center stage “and they were afraid” (again vs. 15). They were as afraid of the man’s sanity as of his gruesome existence. And note carefully, they were more afraid of the One who had the power to bring about this change. In their hardening posture of suspicion, they plead with Jesus to depart (vs. 17).
The crush of the villagers pushes Jesus back into the boat. The man wants to be with Jesus so badly, he tries to get into the boat too (vs. 18). He wants to sail away from everything, everyone. Surprisingly, Jesus tells the still nameless, once homeless man to Go home with this message “tell how much God has done for you” (vs. 19). But Mark then tells us the man replaces God with Jesus in the message. Because for Mark Jesus is the Son of God, the promise of YHWH to Israel and now, dramatically to Gentiles also. This still unnamed man is the first messenger for the first mission to Gentiles to the amazement of many (vs. 20). His deliverance, message and mission are a foreshadowing of other Gentile victories expected of the Kingdom.
Unarguably in words, the reality of supernatural evil and the societal destruction it brings is brought into sharp focus in this Gospel story. I’m going to make two applications for us from this story. First, when I first began to study the Bible seriously, to hear the Lord’s voice, I was taken aback that Jesus and the NT talk about demonic and spiritual evil in very vivid ways. Ways that cannot be explained satisfactorily in modern pathological categories. Or, should I say, downplayed
I believe in and have experience with the real spirit driven evil described in this story. And so does our culture. Just look around. It’s full of books, movies, supermarket tabloids, television shows, even documentaries that dwell on spiritual evil, demons at length. But this isn’t anything new. In the 4th cent. John Chrysostom in his Three Homilies on the Devil argued that demonic evil is too often disguised as goodness in society. In our Gospel lesson, when demonic evil is localized, it can be readily recognized. The bigger problem is the more evil is diluted in our society, the more often it goes unrecognized. More often nothing much or specific is done about it.
As this scene in ch. 5 unfolds, let’s not lose sight of vs. 2 “a man with an unclean spirit”. His degraded existence is rooted in spiritual oppression/possession. We’re not told how or why this happened. Somewhere/sometime the man in the story surrendered – just to the wrong power. The power of spirit evil in a society may appear energetic, glamorous, compared to the supposedly prim world of holiness. That’s just an outward show as Chrysostom says. I would say from our lesson, in reality, spirit driven evil is flat and superficial. It has no capacity for living at any depth. Demons are cynical creatures. Demons aren’t opposed to this or that human value. No, they’re opposed to all human value because it embodies the image of God. Demons itch to show humans for the miserable waste of space that they are. The voices of hell mock the preposterous idea that human existence could have any meaning or worth. Demons are cruel creatures. They infest dark, filthy places. They glory in decay and despair. They drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air. Their mission is to reap delight from the destructiveness that we read in this story. Jesus confronts demonic powers that tear us from wholeness, from one another, from society. So we should note carefully the narrative is telling us Jesus’ kingdom deliverance wasn’t only healing a demon possessed man. He was reconciling and spiritually healing a community by restoring someone who had been shut out.
Now I freely admit to you this is an area of theology and pastoral practice that’s filled with complications, pitfalls, mysteries, and, I believe sincerely, grave spiritual dangers. But what if we should find ourselves on the other side of the lake. Should we not, as a believing community, be slow to misidentify, misunderstand, misjudge or dismiss spiritual oppression, possession and deliverance in its many forms? Mark’s Gospel says Jesus the messiah king has gotten out of the boat and is calling all disciples, gifted with the Holy Spirit to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. Should we not be extra careful then? Heaven forbid, we should be the ones to ask King Jesus to get back into the boat.
Now for the second application. Notice in the scene, the man’s name is never disclosed. We only know him by description “a man with an unclean spirit” (vs. 2). His isolation was absolute – cut off from family, from society and also from himself. Names are nothing new. Starting in the Garden, the Bible’s narratives have always valued names. But it isn’t a name that hangs in the air in this story. It’s another kind of word – a label Legion – an evasive word, it turns out, intended to withhold the demon’s identification.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
“They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! (L. Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)
The perceived power in ideologically misrepresenting words/labels can subtly lull us into thinking by measuring, by judging, we are in control, have power over someone or something. Labels are relative, categorical. For good or for bad, as this Gospel suggests, labels influence identity affecting how to think about someone. We live in a society run amok with evasive labels – political, social and religious. In our Gospel, Through the Looking Glass and our society, misusing words/labels is a celebration of power. Labels hope for the suspension of critical faculties so that assumptions go unexamined.
The campaign of changing word meaning is on the march taking control over large areas of our culture. And the crowded crush of ideological labels in American society is pushing Jesus into the boat. More and more in public discourse individuals are not free to use the name Jesus Christ, except as a curse, of course. Part of society has already assigned “hate” to the Bible’s words about marriage, conception, sexual identity, justice and race. It has gutted the Bible’s words about love and rejected its words about mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. And it is no small matter that “pride” is a central word. I’m with St Augustine on this. ‘Pride’, he said, ‘hates a fellowship of equality under God, and seeks to impose its own dominion on fellow humans, in place of God’s rule” (City of God 19.12).
Words are at the heart of the conflict. Whenever conversations become irrational, violent, full of hate, scorn, that’s when you see the Devil’s military camp. That’s when you know it’s a spiritual conflict, a tug of war for the territory of someone’s mind/heart. By an Orwellian linguistic trick, a profound corruption/pollution of communication is taking shape, especially when furthered by spiritual evil. Whether Biblical words are politically/socially convenient or not, doesn’t affect their truth. The words of Biblical truth are a great campaign of sabotage against rebellious power and pride.
Whenever people set out to make others verbally, ideologically conform, there’ll always be someone like the Patristic John Chrysostom, the Baptist educator Voddie Bauchman, the Catholic Bishop Barron, the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher, the Anglican archbishops Beach and Sutton, hopefully you and me – ambassadors of the rightful king, who will resist, push back. Christians can push past labels to speak to the heart of someone pursuing the wrong programs for cultural wholeness, to someone with the wrong interpretation of the human condition or identity. It’s because Kingdom Christians have a proper understanding of human nature and a proper understanding of healing words.
Yes, it’s all about power. The surrender of power, the sitting of oneself calmly at the feet of Jesus. The solution to the corruption of words is Jesus the Word. Jesus the Word opens hearts with words of saving power, saving love, repentance, forgiveness, truth, reconciliation. Heaven forbid, we should be the ones to silence Jesus the Word.