There are only two occasions when Jesus dialogues directly with the demons (1:21ff and today’s passage). The two stories share similar language and style, suggesting Mark intended them to be linked. The first one is in a distinctly Jewish setting (synagogue on the sabbath). It symbolizes the conflict Jesus had with the Jewish religious institution and its rulers, highlighting his mission to liberate the people from its oppression. This second story happens on ‘the other side’ of Lake Galilee (that is, the eastern shore), a Gentile setting. It symbolizes the conflict with the ruling political order, Rome, and indeed all rulers. Ultimately, Jesus’ mission is the overthrow of God’s enemy, the Satan and all its forces, liberating all creation from bondage to sin and evil so that God’s kingdom is established on earth as it is in heaven. The Satan, as we’ll see in Mark, uses political and religious forces and rulers, and still does so today.
Up to this point in Mark, Jesus’ ministry has been primarily to Jews. From this point on, we see Jesus reaching out into Gentile communities, marking a shift in his ministry to include both Jew and Gentile. Pigs, an important aspect in today’s story, were on the list of unclean animals forbidden to Jews (see Leviticus 11:7).
Prepare to listen. Sit still, take a few deep breaths then pray: Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. (Psalm 25:4)
Note: Outside of the passion narratives, this is the most detailed story in Mark’s Gospel, suggesting its importance in his overall purpose. Notice the details as you prayerfully read.
Read Mark 5:1-13
They came to the other side of the lake, 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 lake, and were drowned in the lake.
This story is filled with both wonderful and disturbing elements. It takes place on ‘the other side’ of the lake in a mostly Gentile community. That alone would be alarming to any devout Jew, such as Jesus’ disciples. But, following Jesus meant going to people and places they normally avoided. But that wasn’t the worst for Jews in that place. As they disembarked, they were met by a man, whom we can resume was a Gentile, possessed of an unclean spirit, who came from the tombs (I’ve highlighted what made him ‘unclean’ to Jews). However, not only did Jews avoid the man, so too did his own people, chasing him out among the tombs. For some reason that Mark doesn’t explain, the man approached Jesus and his disciples rather than running away in fear.
Without hesitation, Jesus immediately began calling on the demons to come out. They protest, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ They call Jesus with a Greek title rarely used in Scripture. Jesus responds by asking, ‘What is your name?’ The question is personal showing Jesus’ willingness to befriend this friendless and lonely man.
There is more to this story than the miracle of exorcism. It contains hints of the oppressive Roman regime and signs of hope that Jesus would, in the end, destroy it, setting his people free. The story assures us that oppressive regimes are nothing new and nothing God can’t handle. The first hint is in the man’s name, at least the name the demons give him, Legion. A legion was a division of Roman soldiers thus, the legion of demons is a symbolic is a reference to Rome, whose destruction is as certain as the destruction of the demons who enter the pigs, hurtle into the Lake and drown. The image has similarities with the Egyptian army that drowned in the Red Sea, assuring Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery. And when that happened, the Israelites worshipped, singing the victory hymn of Moses: ‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army Yahweh cast into the sea; his elite officers are sunk in the Red Sea’ (Exodus 15:4). In the same way, Mark hints, Jesus will redeem the world from its present oppression. The story keeps hope in Jesus’ full redemption alive.
The destruction of two thousand pigs, while a wonderful symbol of God’s ultimate victory over the Satan, is also one of the more disturbing aspects of the story. Their loss wasn’t ‘salvation’ for the demons nor for the residents of that region who had, no doubt lost the means to earn their ‘daily bread’. This was a major blow to the economy of that area. We might well ask, What was Jesus thinking? He saved one man’s life but ruined the life of many others in a seemingly arbitrary act. But, think about the devastation caused by two thousand pigs foraging on a small piece of land. It would turn the region into a wasteland. Daniel Meeter asks, “how could such a huge herd of swine not be unnatural to begin with, destroying the vegetation and ruining the landscape?” (“Canada Geese and Gerasene Swine” in Perspectives, March/April 2018, p. 12). In destroying the land-destructive pigs Jesus showed a concern to redeem, not only humans, but all God’s creation. The land matters.
Jesus asked the demoniac: What is your name? His name, Legion, described who he was at that moment. Imagine Jesus asking you your name. What name do you think would describe you now?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Today, Lord I feel like a ___ (your ‘name’). Continue your work of healing so that I hear you say, “I have called you by name, ‘you are mine’.” Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world assured of Jesus’ ultimate triumph.