June 23, 2019
William G. Carter
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Every time this Bible story shows up in the cycle of readings, I lean forward and pay close attention.
It’s always been that way. Hearing the tale as a child, I was struck by the sheer wildness of it. There’s a crazy man, naked, living in the cemetery. There are scars on his wrists and ankles where he has torn off the shackles.He lunges at Jesus after the teacher gets out of the fishing boat. In a matter of minutes, Jesus and the wild man are screaming at one another. Then a large herd of pigs goes running off a cliff and into the sea. It’s like a scene made for a movie. For a horror movie! It is absolutely wild.
Sometimes when I hear it, I’m struck by the power of Jesus. He tells the evil spirits what to do and where to go. He has the authority from God to do this. Here is a poor soul, afflicted by forces he cannot understand. When the Lord asks for his name, he says, “Roman Legion, for we are many.” I don’t know if we should take that literally or numerically. A legion was a company of soldiers, either 4000 or 6000 soldiers, the kind of soldiers who were occupying that land.
They were there to “keep the peace,” and a Roman peace was kept with violence, force, and intimidation. These were the kind of soldiers who would crucify you if it would keep everybody else in line. They were terrorists in uniform. Apparently their military presence is driving one of local men out of his mind, out of his house, out of his clothing, and among the tombs – and Jesus makes him well.
That’s amazing power, and we saw it on the Sea of Galilee, right before this story happened. Jesus was out in the boat with the others when a storm blasted in. Waves are spilling over the sides of the boat, the wind is furious, and the Lord is taking a nap. They nudge him awake and say, “Master, master, we are perishing.” He opened his eyes and said, “Hush up! Be still.” He wasn’t talking to them; he was talking to the storm. Suddenly there was a dead calm. And they said to one another, “Who is this, who tells the storm to shut up?” He had that kind of power.
So there’s no question he could also chase away a legion of demons. He could do that. Calm the storm and save the disciples, drive out the demons and save the man – Jesus the teacher is also the savior. This is the kind of story that demonstrates his power.
As I’ve lived with the New Testament for a while, I also understand this as a story that the first Jewish followers would have loved to tell. They didn’t have a lot of time for pigs. God said, “Pigs are unclean, so no bacon or barbeque.” Of course, they are unclean – that’s why the demons said, “Send us into the pigs.” Since they were unclean spirits, they drove the unclean pigs out of their minds, too. When that large herd of swine was intoxicated with evil, they dashed down the hill and into the sea. A first-century Jew would have laughed and said, “Good riddance. No great loss!”
Obviously, they didn’t own the pigs. Those pig farmers would have been Gentiles. And that pig farm, like that graveyard, would have been in Gentile territory, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. According to the Gospel of Luke, this is the first and only time that Jesus steps onto Gentile land. It’s the first and only time he heals a Gentile man. And it is the first and only time he destroys the livelihood of some Gentile swineherds.
Call it, if you will, the high cost of health care. For somebody to get well, something else has to go. A man is healed and some farmers lose their herd. It’s a surprising picture that is still with us.
My friend Tony busted his wrist in a car accident back in March and the recovery is going slowly. I took him to lunch last week and he told me how much the medical bills are. Two aspirin aren’t going to fix him.
We have two addiction therapists in our family. One works with veterans who have seen trauma, the other works with affluent professionals who self-medicate themselves toward the abyss. I asked at the the dinner table: what it would cost to make them well? Not just the price tag of medical care or the residential treatment. They have to bid farewell to substances that have become part of their souls. Some would rather die than give up drugs. There’s a high cost to getting well.
We see the same theme in the great stories of good versus evil. There is always some cost for good to win. Harry Potter takes on Voldemort. They cast lightning at one another as the castle crumbles around them. Or any of Star Wars movies. For good to win over evil, a light saber will flash or a planet blows up.
And in our own Christian story, there is a man killed on a cross to benefit the health of the world. That is our central mystery. It was human evil that put him on the cross. It is his death that defeated the human evil. It’s a high cost indeed.
But in the account for today, there is one more factor, something more striking that power, pigs, or the cost of it all. Did you notice? When the man is healed, freshly clothed, in his right mind, and sitting with Jesus, the people from the nearby town come with a sad and pathetic message. They come to see Jesus and the wild man now settled. They hear the story of what has happened – so they ask Jesus to get out of town. “Please leave,” they say with a single voice.
This is really sad. They had come to tolerate a wild man out there, scaring every new group of mourners who went to bury their dead. But now when that same man is healed and restored, they are really unsettled.
It’s worth reflecting on this. Why did they want Jesus to go away?
Certainly there was the money lost by the pig farmers. They faced a huge economic loss, to say nothing of a good portion of the food supply for that Gentile town. If Jesus is going to stick around and heal somebody else, what’s he going to destroy next? And considering that the herd of swine was very, very large – in one account, there were two thousand pigs - we can guess those farmers were probably pretty well off. That suggests they had some influence in that region. “Jesus, get out of town. You’re not good for business!” We can’t have any more healings like that. It would hurt us in the pocketbook. Certainly that was part of the conversation.
At the heart of it all, Luke says there was fear. Great fear, or in the Greek phrase, “mega phobia.” The people were afraid. They were scared of the wild man, or more specifically, scared of the illness inside of him. But now they are doubly terrified of the power of Jesus to make the man well. They want him to leave, because God has come way too close.
When Jesus first meets the wild man, remember what the illness that inhabits has to say? “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” See, the illness wants to call all the shots, because the illness knows that the Son of the Most High God is stronger, holier, healthier, and kinder than the parasitic hold that it has on its host. The illness calls it “torment,” but for Jesus it is healing and restoration. Christ comes to make people well.
Does he ask permission before he starts to heal? Not in this case. He simply goes to work, for the work of the God of Life is to give abundant life to those who are infected, inflicted, and shackled by something they cannot control. True healing is disruptive. The sick man cannot howl and whine any more. He will have to put on clothes. He will have to grow up, give up his status as the wild man, and move away from the tombs and back among the “normal” people.
Meanwhile the so-called “normal” people aren’t so sure that they want him healthy and back among them. It might make them look not so normal. One thing’s for sure, they sure don’t want Jesus the Healer to stick around any longer. Get out of town, please.
We read the Bible, but it is the Bible that reads us. We read how Jesus comes to heal and restore in every corner of our lives – today, it’s a healing most likely of a man with a troubled mind and emotions. Christ comes to heal. We read that. But what the Bible reads in us is the stronger aversion to the only One who can heal us and what we would have to change to get well.
If the world really wanted to be healthy, it would have made that decision long ago. Somebody would have gotten rid of potato chips, cigarettes, and other addictive substances. All those things would be sent back into the abyss. And every week or two, we hear about some tormented soul doing terrible things somewhere else. We lock our doors, pray for mercy, and murmur, “I’m thankful it didn’t happen here.”
You know, we really don’t have to live like that. We don’t have to be fearful, held captive, immobilized by a “mega phobia.” We could live with freedom. We could live with grace. We could make decisions every day that create life, that enhance life, that declare that Jesus is more important than pigs, or money, or beating ourselves with stones, or living among the tombstones. We don’t have to push him away or ask him to get out of our town. We could say, “Lord, stay among us, and make the rest of us well one at a time.” Because that is what he wishes to do. It is the will of God to make us well.
There’s a scene in the new movie Rocketman that sums it up to me. It’s the opening scene of that biographical fantasy about singer Elton John. The chairs are circled up and a twelve-step meeting is under way. The door blows open, and here comes Elton John. He’s skipping out of a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, and he stomps in to interrupt that meeting. He’s still in his stage costume, a red devil with Styrofoam horns.
He’s belligerent, mouthy, conflicted, and angry. And he says, “My name is Elton…” He yells, he makes a fuss, and then in a near-whisper, he says, “and I want to get well.” With that, he tells his story. Because of that, his story has a future. He wants to get well.
It’s the best way I know to cooperate with the power of God: to pursue our own health, to improve the health of one another.
That day in the land of the Gerasenes, it was the townspeople’s fear that pushed Jesus back into the boat and back across the sea. But that’s not the end of the story.
Did you remember what Jesus did? The man who was healed wanted to get in the boat and go with him, but Jesus said, “No, stay here. Tell these people what God has done for you.” Tell them about the change in your health, about the change in your perspective. Stay right in the middle of them. Go right into the center of the community. Tell everybody you meet that it is God’s great desire that we live by health, freedom, and faith.
You know why he did that? Because the one thing they will not be able to dispute is the presence of someone who has come back from the tombs… and lives to tell about it.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Mark 5:13