Easter interrupted the Gospel of Mark commentary, happily, I might add, but we begin again with the twelfth installment, comprising Act 2. Scene 5, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the eleventh installment here which contains links to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, "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 had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" 9 Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." 13 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. 14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 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. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 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." 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. (NRSV)
In this long but contained scene, we are told that Jesus and his apostles have crossed to "the other side of the sea," to Gerasa. The geographical issues, or questions, whether this is Gerasa, Gadara, or Gergesa, since the first two cities do not border the sea, need not concern us. Jesus has gone to "the other side," which in this dramatic context means not just a geographical crossing, but more significantly a spiritual crossing: he has gone to a Gentile region, away from his people, to encounter the forces of evil. The encounter is immediate: the man who lives in the tombs is possessed by unclean spirits. Tombs were quite literally on the edge of town, or outside city limits, so, as on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so in the ancient world, demons or unclean spirits often dwelt in tombs. Unclean spirits haunt and torment the living, on the edge of civilization, on the boundary of the living and dead. Note, though, that here, as in Act 1. Scene 2, the unclean spirits recognize Jesus, even though his own disciples are still confused and misunderstand his role and purpose.
The man himself is not guided by his own free will - "he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke 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" (5:4-5) - he is out of his mind. But when he sees Jesus, who had instructed the demons "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!," the demoniac 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 adjure you by God, do not torment me" (5:6-8). Evil recognizes the presence of good and seems powerless before it, for Jesus asks the name of the demon and it responds: it is Legion, "for they were many" (5:9). The name Legion, of course, recalls the Roman military division, which contained over 5,120 soldiers. Jesus can easily control a Legion.
Yet, the demons ask to remain in the region, for reasons which are unclear, and Jesus grants their wish, casting them out of the poor man and into a herd of swine. The swine are a second clue that we are in a Gentile region 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 it in the city and in the country" (5:13-14). It is a strange scene: the man is healed of the evil which has possessed him, but the livelihood and food of many people is gone. Are we to consider the loss as irrelevant in light of a healed man? Or are we simply to reflect on Jesus' spiritual power to do what he will? And why does he listen, let alone grant, a demonic request?
The people come immediately - how could you not? - to see the demoniac sitting, in his right mind, and their pigs, I suspect, flailing in the sea and drowning. Are the demons now able to find another host, or are they gone from this region? Have only the pigs drowned? If so, what will save other people from possession in this region? Nothing is directly discussed here, except the response to Jesus and the demoniac and it is fear: "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" (5:15-17). Why are they afraid? We tend to think of the divine as soft and cuddly - God as loving Teddy Bear - but here is a scene in which God overpowers forces of evil by word of command and obedience and obeisance are given immediately. This is a scene of unleashed power and it is frightening. It is also a scene of loss of livelihood and possessions and that, too, must be frightening.
Only one person does not show fear and it is the one who was in the clutches of evil, the one who knoiws in his bones and innermost being what God has done for him: as Jesus "was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him" (5:18). Though Jesus grants the wish of the demons, he does not grant the wish of the healed demoniac. He has a task for him, and it is not the task he has given previously. Recall that in Act 1. Scene 5, the healed leper wants to tell everyone what Jesus has done for him, but Jesus will not allow him to speak: this is known as the "Messianic secret." But in this case, Jesus asks him not to keep a secret, but to "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you" (5:19). The demoniac performs this task and again we are told that he does it in a Gentile region, for "he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed" (5:20). The Decapolis were those cities, some dating back to the expeditions of Alexander the Great, which were Greek in language and character.
There is a difference in who has been sent - not in terms of one who is healed from demon possession as opposed to leprosy, but in that the one sent is a Gentile and not a Jew. Is Jesus less concerned with how Gentiles view him? Does he want the message to get out one way or another for Gentiles? Do they have fewer preconceptions of the Messiah, Son of God than those, the Jews, who have been waiting him? Is the display of power more necessary for those who are not awaiting a Messiah?
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens
If memory serves me correctly, Margaret Nutting Ralph's book "And God Said What?: An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms" has a very interesting analysis of this passage in terms of the Roman Legion's scorched earth tactics in the region during the Jewish way 66-72AD.ReplyDelete
As does "Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus" by Ched Myers
Thanks Chris! I will check those out (I think I have the Nutting book, but I do not know the Myers book).ReplyDelete