The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
They [Jesus and the disciples] came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 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. 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 adjure 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 it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that 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.
“What is your name?” Who is Jesus asking? The man? The spirits? Both?
Tone, which is so important, is missing. Does he ask the man in the way someone who is trying to de-escalate a situation (like a hostage negotiator) asks, slowly and calmly, trying to build rapport with the hostage? Does he ask with a hint of compassion in his voice because he sees right in front of him a person who’s hurt himself, who lives completely isolated from his community, “What is your name?” Or does he ask with the authority given to him as the Anointed One, does he speak with the voice of the one who, in the previous chapter, stills the storm; is it a commanding, “What is your name?”
However Jesus asks the question, the answer might make your skin crawl: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” I’ll leave that tone of that one to your imagination.
No doubt Hollywood has probably shaped the possibilities for how that reply might sound in our heads. There is no shortage of demon possession films out there. Raise your hand if you’ve already pictured Linda Blair in your mind? Linda Blair played young Regan in the 1970s movie, The Exorcist. The first time I saw that, I watched it with the lights on!
My point is that pop culture takes stories like these in a certain direction that distracts from what the writer of Mark is trying to say: Jesus is a threat the powers-at-be. He comes as a harbinger of the Reign of God, to reclaim God’s dominion from all other pretenders to power, in whatever form they come. One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is this:
“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful [ruler] has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”from Mere Christianity
But what exactly is Jesus sabotaging here? Spiritual forces of darkness? Maybe the local economy; after all, the swine herders beg him to high-tail-it out of town since he drowned their assets. Is Jesus sabotaging the deep psychological pain that causes a person to live in a graveyard, shackled and alone because nobody else knows what to do with him anyway? Maybe. He restores the man to his friends. Or is it something more?
I should tell you what I told our Midweek Manna group on Wednesday morning in the chapel: this passage played a pivotal role in my life.
As many of you know, I grew up in Georgia in one of those towns that competed for the title “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” In the midst of what I would call “my brief fundamentalist phase” I went to see my pastor to ask him some questions about why we subdued Presbyterians didn’t interpret Scripture the same way that the more fervent Christians around us did.
“Why don’t we believe the Bible?” I asked him.
“What do you mean, ‘Believe the Bible’?”
“We don’t believe what it says, what the words say right there on the page.”
“Well, Bart, how do you know that what you’re thinking the words mean are what the words actually mean?” This man was good. We opened our Bibles right there in his office and read this story from Mark chapter 5.
“What’s happening here?” Dr. Sinclair kept the questions coming.
“This man is possessed by evil spirits and Jesus casts them out.”
“What’s the spirit’s name?”
“What’s a legion?”
“A unit of Roman soldiers.”
“Exactly. And what does he cast them into?”
“A herd of pigs?”
“And where pigs to the Jewish people back then?”
“Right. So Jesus is associating the Romans with…”
“Basically the nastiest thing anyone can think of! Well played, Jesus!”
“And where does he send the pigs?”
“Into the sea to be drowned.”
“Where else in the Bible do you remember a story about people being drowned in the sea?”
“Oh! Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea! [The light bulb flashed on.] So Jesus is making a political statement here? That’s awesome! So many layers…”
You can imagine the satisfied look on Dr. Sinclair’s face! It might have been then and there that I thought to myself, “I really should go to seminary one day.”
Mark is making a political statement here. The invading army that came by sea to plunder God’s land and enslave God’s people was an evil and oppressive force. And they were being put on notice that God will reign again, that there is another Lord in this world besides the one in Rome, that there is a different power that opposes Caesar and his minions.
So what does any of this have to do with us?
This otherworldly story that seems at first glance like the stuff movies are made of isn’t as far-off as we might think. One line of thought, which has a lot of validity to it, is that stories in the Bible like this one were ancient peoples’ way of wrapping their minds around what we now know as mental illness. That’s partially true, yet, as Richard Horsely points out:
In all societies, illness involves an inseparable social dimension, and illness, diagnosis, and healing are all culturally defined. More recently critical medical anthropologists have recognized that illness often involves particular relationships of power, domination, and deprivation… In exorcism cults the names of some of the demons were invasive foreign forces, such as “Lord Cromer” (the British general who led the military expedition south through Sudan).Richard Horsely, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance
Sometimes there are larger forces at work that just seem to take hold of people. Evil takes on a life of its own to the point that it almost has personality to it, “it” has a name and a face. For example, if you’ve lived in a community ridden with drug use, you know that many things are true at the same time: that people are not acting like themselves; that they have a sickness; that this poison brings out the worst in them; that somebody, somewhere is exploiting a weakness and making money off of the whole project; that this oppression often tends to wreak its greatest havoc along socioeconomic lines.
In Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrasing of Mark 5, when Jesus says to the man, “Tell me your name.” He replies, “My name is Mob. I’m a rioting mob.” If you’ve ever been in a crowd that’s gotten out of control, you’ve seen “Mob.” If you’ve been a part of a group and in the peer pressure of the moment caused you to do something you later regretted, you’ve seen “Mob.”
Do you remember the Charlottesville white supremacist march two years ago? I can still see the angry, contorted faces of those white men carrying torches. If ever there is a demon that rears its ugly head over and over in this country, its name is Racism.
What spirits oppress us? If we asked them their names, what would they be? Addiction? Sexism? Impatience? Self-hatred. Whatever their names, they are legion.
Whatever their names, the thing is that these spirits thrive in dark and lonely places. They feed on shame. They’re at their most powerful when they’re confined to secret places.
So what does Jesus do? He asks them their names. He calls them out. He brings them into the healing light of day. That’s the good news. He reminds the powers to whom people ultimately belong: God and one another.