Dear Sisters and Brothers,
There are many stories in Mark of people possessed by demons. In some cases, the people are described in ways that make us think of modern psychological disorders. In today’s passage from chapter five, we meet a man on the eastern shore of the Galilee who is plagued by a “legion” of demons. A “legion” was a military term that is like “regiment” or “battalion;” a large group of soldiers.
Although the idea of demonic possession is foreign to us, this story has many connections to our daily lives.
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
Here is a man who is living in a graveyard. It seems that part of his extreme torment has to do with the death of one or more loved ones. Many emotionally and mentally troubled people are frozen in a state of grief. Extreme grief shows up as self-isolation, deep depression, self-blame, and self-injury.
Clearly, this man was a danger to himself and others. He had often been subdued and chained, but he broke the chains and irons. This is long before the days before strong iron alloys or steel were made in Palestine. It is not clear if he was being treated as a human being or an animal.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
The man’s (or demons’) fear of Jesus is predictable. A person with so much self-loathing expects rejection. A person who is self-tortured can expect and fear that torture will come from others as well. “My name is legion,’ is a frightening statement; and this is seen as the most extreme demonic possession in the Gospel. These demons are seen as spirits (or bits of vapor) that are breathed in or exhaled.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
It is a strange scene and we are not told whether or not the demons drove the pigs into the water, but if they did, it is a measure of the man’s self-destructive impulses. Jesus simply gives permission for the demons to leave the man and they go. They seem to fear pain and destruction from Jesus. Pigs were seen as “unclean” animals by Jews, and the death of two-thousand of them by drowning in the freshwater lake must have sounded horrific to the early readers of the Gospel.
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
There is no mention of any sympathy for the pig herders who lost their large herd, but the local people are terrified by what happened to the pigs and the sudden change in the crazy man of the tombs. They are so terrified that they plead with Jesus to leave the area. From their point of view, Jesus has done a huge amount of damage since his arrival. It was good that the demon-possessed man was no longer a threat, but the death of two thousand pigs was seen as too high of a price.
Without argument, Jesus gets back into the boat to leave the area.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
So the man is sent home to share the story of God’s mercy to the people of the “Decapolis” (or “ten cities” in English). The Decapolis region was beyond the area ruled by King Herod, and were mostly Greek (with Jewish people in the minority). It is never made clear if the demon possessed man was a Jew or Gentile (non-Jew).
Even though we are not demon-possessed or ravaged by mental illness, we can relate to the “demon-possessed man.” He is troubled and self-destructive. By his self-description as “legion,” he shows that there are many negative voices in his mind.
We are also plagued with hundreds of messages each day. From advertisements to news manipulated into entertainment, we are torn in many directions. One of the worst demons of modern times comes in packaged ideologies that turn the whole world into a circus of competition. The goal is not a meeting of the minds or co-existence, but an endless fight that is used to distract masses of people from their real problems. It is an idea that the Roman Empire referred to as “bread and circuses.” If you feed people and keep them entertained, they will surrender their power and are completely controlled.
But the result of all these conflicting voices can make us feel like the demon-possessed man among the tombs. There is so much hatred and suspicion in the world that it is easy to be torn to pieces by your own fear and anger.
It is vital to see that the man is healed by Jesus. The end of his suffering comes with peace and contentment. That is not what anyone had expected. People would have expected the man to have died of neglect or suicide. Instead, Jesus comes into his life, and allows all those voices to run away and leave the man behind.
Some people are ruined by too much self-admiration, but no amount of self-hatred leads to salvation.
Whether we are possessed, mentally ill, or nearly destroyed by grief, pain, or isolation, the only healing comes from the kind of restoration and peace that Jesus has to offer.
Or as the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Jesus is the expression of God’s ultimate goodness.
A Question to Ponder: What is the difference between things that distract you and things that fulfill you?