They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus stepped out of the boat, immediately a man with an unclean spirit met him from out of the tombs. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart and he broke the shackles in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.
Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.
Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission.
And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
The swineherds ran off and told of it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.
Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus[ refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.Mark 5:1-17
This is surely one of the most visual stories of Jesus’ ministry, isn’t it? You can picture this scene happening in your minds’ eye- can’t you? The boat arriving on shore; small waves lapping on the beach, a man falling to his knees as Jesus comes ashore; with broken shackles hanging from his ankles and wrists. It seems an unlikely encounter, this battle raging within this man, between the torments inside him and the new life that Jesus represents. He was a strong man and people knew who he was. And they were afraid. They were afraid of what seemed to fill him with unpredictable, uncontrollable fits, threatening damage to himself, if not others as well.
Maybe they were afraid of what he was like when he was well, too. (Another verse from later in scripture comes to mind here, “Perfect love casts our fear,” from 1 John, but I’m getting way ahead of myself!) Plenty of questions arise for us in this story; most will remain unanswered. Why was this man filled with demons so attracted to this Jesus who threatened him with a cure? Didn’t the demons know better than to get within range of Jesus’ healing power- or did this Strong Man have the wherewithal to temporarily overcome the demons that took hold of him?
What about the swine? What are they about and why do they have to die like they do? And what about the people who saw this man now healed… why in the world do they ask Jesus to leave just after he’s done such an amazing and good thing?
And after this miraculous healing, Jesus does something he hasn’t done before. He tells this man to go home to tell his family what just happened. The fact that this is a gentile area allows for Jesus’ willingness to let the public know of his healing powers. Few people in the gentile cities of the Decapolis would have had any expectations about the Messiah; Jesus was no challenge to any of their local religious authorities. When Jesus returns to this area another chapter later, he will encounter people who have heard about his power. And though this now healed strong man was never included as one of the disciples, he became the first missionary to the Gentiles.
In some ways this is a win-win story for all involved; except, that is, for the average onlooker- whose role we generally assume as we read this story. We end up asking so many questions (probably a natural defense mechanism); we end up on the outside looking in. But still, this is an amazingly well composed story that connects on many levels. The Gospel writer Mark knew what he was doing. This is a powerfully compelling account, even from 2,000 years ago. I am very sure that this particular location has been identified along the shores and hills of the Galilee and tour groups must go to see these specific locations.
What they aren’t able to see, though, is inside the mind of Mark, the Gospel writer… the function, place and purpose of this story- and what it continues to mean for us today.
How do we bridge the gap from across the Mediterranean and Atlantic, across centuries of time and vast cultural differences?
The best we can do for now is to listen closely and then share in another story or two. Stories can carry the power needed to bring this message to life again in ways we haven’t before considered.
So, first, a little more background on where Mark is coming from, and then a couple stories… and that will be enough for today.
It’s important to know something of Mark’s purpose in writing, for he is our first source of hearing anything about Jesus. Mark’s audience was in some ways not unlike us. Most scholars agree that this Gospel was written in northern Palestine or Rome between 65 and 75 AD, in a time of Empire and religious diversity. ‘Mark,’ by the way, was the most common men’s name in the first century Roman Empire.
Whoever Mark was, he surely knew people who knew Jesus. Later on, Mark tells us how Jesus’ cross was carried in part by “Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus”. Since Alexander and Rufus get no introduction or further reference, it seems likely they were members of Mark’s community, personally known by his listeners. Mark was writing, first of all, for people who knew the sons of the man who had carried Jesus’ cross.
Mark’s audience was connected to each other, they knew their shared stories, and they were caught up in the events and meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry.
He interprets the story as it happened but also allows the symbolism of the event to shine through. Jesus’ healing of the Strong Man presents a not-so subtle jab at the Roman Empire who controlled Judea at the time. The man’s name, “Legion” refers to a unit of five thousand Roman soldiers. The wild pig or boar was the symbol on the banners of the Tenth Legion which was stationed in Judea in the years following the death of Herod the Great.
Jesus’s casting out the demon into two thousand swine and then into the sea stands as a critique of Roman power and an act of prayer that Jewish rule would be reestablished in the Land.
Mark’s hearers must have hoped a release from Rome would happen for them.
The story functioned, perhaps, as a modern American story would on the surface center on one person’s addiction issues but at a symbolic and larger level be about the Opioid Crisis. Or maybe it would be a story of a new immigrant in our country, facing larger forces larger than themselves and beyond their control. For most of us, our own position in the story would be complicated.
This leads me to a couple of stories.
As I’ve read and re-read this story this week, I’ve had some flashbacks to earlier times in my ministry; specifically when I was serving as Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian, Sanford NC, some thirty-three years ago now. Sanford is about thirty miles north of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, one of the largest military bases in the country and within the bounds of Coastal Carolina Presbytery.
During my time there I came to know a number of Pastors and Chaplains who were in close and regular contact with soldiers and veterans, many of whom had returned from war broken not only in body, but often in spirit. Many tried to fix the broken pieces left by war through drinking. This meant that when they discovered their drinking only made things worse, many went through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I remember one chaplain told me of one man that he and his sponsor were trying to help. “He’s back drinking and he’s homeless again, sleeping in the graveyard among the tombs. We aren’t sure what to do.” I’d never heard that euphemism used before, but it fit.
The man lying among the tombstones was a vet who came back broken from war. Members of the local AA group found him sick and hungry, living in somebody’s basement. With the help of the VA they helped him get into rehab and find an apartment.
For a short time it seemed to work: he quit his drinking. Then he disappeared. No one could find him for weeks. When they did finally find him, he was in this heartbreaking state.
Mark’s story is not as ancient as it at first may seem.
Because of the particular language in Mark’s story of possession, spirits and graveyards, we assume this story is dealing with the kind of spooky, scary supernatural situations popularized by the Stephen King’s and Anne Rice’s of the world. But spooky and terrifying things are not what Mark has in mind when he describes Jesus delivering people from spirits that possess. Instead they show Jesus confronting what the Apostle Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ at work, Powers which Paul also says Christ has conquered. The Powers are systems and patterns that take on a life of their own.
A key to confronting the powers around us is to not give in to those voices, but to identify, resist and confront them, in the ways we’re given to act- which can be more creative than you would imagine.
To conclude, let me share a story of hope: of a man who confronted the principalities and powers in a creative and liberating way. It’s a also story from Coastal Carolina Presbytery 33 years back… and particularly about Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, who was invited to play piano at a Presbytery meeting, good Gospel tunes, at Barbecue Presbyterian Church, in Barbecue, NC.
Besides being an incredible jazz pianist, Daryl Davis had a unique avocation; befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. (You can google Daryl Davis and read all about him.) The friendships he built on his journey have led over 200 Klansmen to realize their hatred of men like Daryl, based on the color of his skin, was wrong, and to give up their Klan robes.
Daryl Davis spoke at the Presbytery meeting and said something like this, “I was playing my music — it was my first time playing in a bar called something like the Silver Dollar Lounge and this white gentleman approached me and he says, “I really enjoy y’all’s music.” I thanked him, shook his hand and he says, “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I was surprised that he didn’t know the origin of this kind of music and I said, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” He’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “He learned it from the same place I did. Black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players.”
That’s where rockabilly and rock ‘n roll style came from.” He said, “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. I ain’t ever heard no black man except for you play like that.”
So I’m thinking this guy has never heard Fats Domino or Little Richard and then he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a talk with a black man.”
“Well, now I’m getting curious. I’m trying to figure out, now how is it that in my 35 years on the face of this earth that I have sat down, literally, with thousands of white people, had a beverage, a meal, and a conversation, and this guy is 15-20 years older than me and he’s never sat down with a black guy before and talked. I said, “How is that? Why?”
At first, he didn’t answer me and he had a friend sitting next to him and he elbowed him and said, “Tell him, tell him,” and he finally said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“I just burst out laughing because I really didn’t believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg. As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and pulled out his Klan card and handed it to me. Then, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo, the Klan symbol and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn’t joking. And now I’m wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman?”
“But he was very friendly, it was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with my band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed that was planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it.”
There are more ways of loosening the shackles that bind us than we know. There are more ways to understand and accept others than we are aware. The tools that Christ gives us are friendship, love, the abilities to connect that come our way- and the grace that draws us all together. “Perfect love casts out fear.” Amen and Amen.