Thursday, July 23, 2009

My name is Legion

They came to the other side of the lake, 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 lake, and were drowned in the lake.

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 neighbourhood. 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 5:1-20

In March, I wrote another commentary on this passage, which can be read here. I'd like to point out much the same things here today -- this man is consigned to the tombs, to live among the dead. He's not fit for dwelling with living human society, as far as the judgment of his society goes. This reminds me of the way that those with deeply disturbing mental illness must still live separate from the society - and how in years past they were shut away, with horrible or cruel treatment often the result. We somehow still have with us those who, for one reason or another, are not allowed to function within the society - and who are in deep need of healing. I have a good friend from childhood who is one such person. Mental illness can be as utterly devastating to the person as the worst physical affliction. In some way, just as we may view this story of the demoniac, I feel that mental illness of all kinds is very closely linked to the need for a grounding spirituality that teaches love.

My study bible points out that the man worships Jesus (he "bowed down" in verse 6), but the demons fear Jesus; they fear torment. Neither can they escape confrontation with Jesus. Although the demons have power over the poor man, Jesus has absolute authority over the demons. He casts them out - what chains and shackles could not accomplish over these demons, Jesus' word has power over.

In the view of Jewish law, the swine are unclean - so the fact that the demons occupy them and send them to their destruction is appropriate from that perspective. The men who tend the swine do not understand Jesus' power; they fear it. Again, my study bible points out that these individuals are more concerned with animals and property rights - while Jesus' concern is about healing the man.

Finally, the healed man wishes to follow Jesus. This is understandable in several ways: not only has Jesus the power to heal and so possibly to prevent another attack and keep him healthy, but this man has already been cast out of his own society where they know him only as one possessed and subject to violent illness. The man is a Gentile, of course. We are in the country of Gentiles here among he Gadarenes who raise swine. It is most notable that with this healed man, Jesus allows a great exception to the messianic secret: the healed man is sent to tell others what has happened to him. He becomes the first great bearer - authorized and commanded by Christ - to bring the good news to others. He goes and spreads the word in the Decapolis - among the Greek-speaking cities of the Gentiles. My study bible points out that perhaps this was not so much of a problem, because there would be no pre-conception or particular expectations of the Messiah. So our healed demoniac, with a legion of demons, too violently ill for the society, becomes the first great evangelist. We know that the gospels are written in Greek - our healed demoniac goes to the Greek-speaking cities of the Decapolis, becoming a forerunner, the prototype in a sense, of the great evangelists that we study who will follow.

There's something tremendously poetic about the strength to heal, our capacity for renewal and regeneration. It also must be noted that this is a battleground - a spiritual battleground. By what shall we be held, kept hostage, made unfit to participate in the living society? This man is afflicted with something that steals his life from him; it is through no fault of his own. Within himself, he immediately bows down before Jesus; it is his faith that saves him, because in that bowing down there is already a plea and a desire for wholeness and healing - which is granted by Jesus with his power over the demons. We should not forget that this is a spiritual battleground - that inside of ourselves we fight a good fight too. Just as Jesus, when he was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, pointed out that it takes a stronger man to bind a strong man and take away the goods of his house, so we are taught by this passage of Jesus' great strength and power which allies itself with us when we call upon it. I think it's very important to remember this healing power and grace, and its tremendous strength, as something which is shared with us, which comes to our assistance, and heals us of our ills. Our enemies may be those thoughts and fears or things which torment us in some way, but by the strength of this healing power which can be allied with us, we can call for help. The transformation of the demoniac is so complete that Jesus sends him out to proclaim the good news as the "first evangelist" to my way of thinking. May we be so bold as to call upon this healing power to ally with us and save us from everything from which we ail.

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