Sunday, March 15, 2020
The Exorcism of the Gerasenes Demoniac – by Sebastien Bourdon (1653-1657).
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 (NRSVA).
The Gospel of Mark can be understood as a series of encounters with the authority of Jesus.
Jesus’ teaches with authority. His challenging of religious legalism displays authority over the law. When Jesus heals, his authority over disease and sickness is on display. Ultimately, Jesus displays authority even over death.
Jesus also shows authority in the spiritual realm. This has been on display since well before our passage – as early as Jesus’ visit to the Capernaum synagogue in the very first chapter. There an ‘unclean spirit’ challenged Jesus with the words: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (Mark 1:24, NRSVA). The demon threw the man into a fit of convulsions before obeying Jesus’ command to ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ (Mark 1:25, NRSVA).
The encounter with ‘Legion’, however, takes place well beyond the synagogue walls. ‘The country of the Gerasenes’ is foreign territory. It is gentile land and all the implications of uncleanness – under the Jewish law – are here. A grave site. Nakedness. Self-mutilation. Madness. Pigs and their headers.
And of course, another ‘unclean spirit’. It implies that such spirits are a challenge for all.
There are a number of characteristics to this account that highlight the extremity of this case. The exceptional strength displayed. The failed attempts to ‘subdue’. ‘Howling’. ‘Bruising’. The living beyond society. This is a picture of torment.
Yet the very presence of Jesus inspires a response that takes the reader back to that first spirit-encounter in the Capernaum synagogue: ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’
Another demon connecting Jesus with God. Another recognition of authority in the spirit realm.
Of course the difference here is the naming of this spirit as ‘Legion, for we are many’. Not that this multiplicity changes Jesus’ authority in any way. Jesus merely said ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit’ and the spirit’s response is to beg in regard to the location! Obedience seems to be the only option. Even after the odd request to ‘Send us into the swine’, there is a waiting for ‘permission’.
And once it is given, the maddening effect of their presence is on full display. 2,000 pigs hurtling themselves down into the lake. An insane power revealed.
So the hearders run – and the townsfolk come. Among the graves they find Jesus sitting with the man they repeatedly tried to chain. He is clothed. He is sane.
It leaves me wondering if this is another testimony to the authority of Jesus. It is this relatively calm scene that fills the people with fear. Clearly they knew and feared the strength and madness previously on display. Do they now recognise an even greater strength?
And then what is surely one of the saddest of all responses to a miracle: ‘Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood.‘ Blinding fear has a lot to answer for!
And yet, there is hope. Even as Jesus boards the boat a testimony is left on this shore. Although his desire is to leave, this recently released man is asked to stay. Go home. Tell of God’s mercy.
He did and ‘everyone was amazed’.
Are there experiences you have had that cause you to believe in the world of the spirits? Does this inspire fear? Does it inspire hope?
Jesus displays in this account authority over an extreme encounter within the spirit world. In what way does this give you confidence within this realm? In what way does it inspire your trust in Jesus?
We have come across the exemplary response of amazement to Jesus’ miracles before in the Gospel of Mark. Can this response of the people of the Decapolis to the testimony of the man Jesus set free be seen as faith?