So they came over the sea to the land of the Gerasenes. When they got out of the boat, they were suddenly confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. He was emerging from a grave-yard, which was where he lived. Nobody had been able to tie him up, not even with a chain; he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he used to tear up the chains and snap the shackles. No one had the strength to tame him. On and on, night and day, he used to shout out in the graveyard and on the hillside, and slash himself with stones. When he saw Jesus a long way away, he ran and threw himself down in front of him. ‘Why you and me, Jesus?’ he shouted at the top of his voice. ‘Why you and me, son of the High God? By God, stop torturing me!’ – this last, because Jesus was saying to him, ‘Unclean spirit, come out of him!’ ‘What’s your name?’ Jesus asked him. ‘Legion,’ he replied. ‘That’s my name – there are lots of us!’ And he implored Jesus not to send them out of the country. It so happened that right there, near the hillside, was a sizeable herd of pigs. They were grazing. ‘Send us to the pigs,’ begged the spirits, ‘so that we can enter them’. So Jesus gave them permission. The unclean spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd rushed down the steep slope into the sea – about two thousand of them! – and were drowned. The herdsmen fled. They told it in the town, they told it in the countryside, and people came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus; and there they saw the man who had been demon-possessed, who had had the ‘legion’, seated, clothed and stone-cold sober. They were afraid. The people who had seen it all told them what had happened to the man – and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to leave their district. Jesus was getting back into the boat, when the man asked if he could go with him. Jesus wouldn’t let him. ‘Go back home,’ he said. ‘Go to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you. Tell them how he had pity on you.’ He went off, and began to announce in the Ten Towns what Jesus had done for him. Everyone was astonished.
When Bertrand Russell wrote his famous book, Why I am Not a Christian, he listed various things about the life of Jesus which, he said, put him off. One was the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Mark 11.12–14, 20 –24). Another was this incident: Russell objected to Jesus’ apparently cavalier treatment of two thousand pigs. I have sometimes had atheists write to me, or speak to me after lectures, and repeat these same charges. Was Jesus not guilty of rough, violent treatment of the world of animals and plants?
Objections like these completely miss the point, and raise worrying questions about how serious Russell actually was in his consideration of Christianity. The gospels are not written to be a compendium of useful moral teaching and behaviour, to be offered to a world that simply needs good advice and good example. They are written to describe a one-off, unique moment in the history of the world. They make the sense they do only on the assumption that the world as a whole, and human beings in particular, and some human beings especially, are in an almighty mess and need a drastic rescue operation. They tell the story of how that dramatic and dangerous rescue operation was carried out.
In particular, they demand to be read at several different levels. (This is why I think Russell was hardly being serious. He must have known that most important books operate this way; one would hardly read a Shakespeare play simply as an interesting story of some Danish royalty, some Scottish noblemen, or some Italian families. True, Mark isn’t Shakespeare; but he isn’t a flat-footed one-dimensional writer, either.) There are several stories in the gospel that carry echoes and resonances far beyond their surface meaning, and this is one of them.
Whether or not (as some people think) Mark was written for the young church in Rome, everyone in the first-century Mediterranean world would know what a ‘legion’ was. It was the basic unit of the Roman army. Each legion comprised between five and six thousand men. There were Roman outposts across the Middle East, with the nearest legion itself based just to the north of Palestine, in Syria. Legions meant Roman power; and Roman power meant a smouldering resentment on the part of local people, who resented being ruled by foreigners, resented (and sometimes, dangerously, resisted) paying tax to them, and resented above all the insult to their national way of life be-cause their own leaders (including the chief priests!) colluded with this pagan power. ‘Legion’ meant all of that and more.
With resentment there can come obsession. Suppose a Roman soldier had, with casual brutality, killed your best friend. Sup-pose a legionary had raped your daughter. You would go home that night fuming, furious but helpless. You would get up in the morning with this word hammering away in your head. Legion! Legion! Legion!
And with obsession there can come possession. Oh, I’m not pretending we can understand how that ‘works’. There is nothing logical or easily analysed about destructive evil. It wouldn’t be so dangerous if we could understand it. But I know that in this way, and in many others, ordinary people can, as it were, be taken over by strange forces. Sometimes they speak in their own voice. Sometimes, though, another voice – or several other voices – seem to be coming out of them. And the destructive nature of this ‘possession’ can often be seen in self-destructive behaviour. People who have worked in this area (I haven’t done so very much, but I know and trust some who have) will recognize all this as depressingly familiar.
The story, then, seems to operate on at least three levels. First, there is the striking story of a very sick man being wonderfully healed and restored by Jesus. That, as always, is moving and powerful.
But second, underneath that, there is the shadow of a story that a great many first-century Jews longed to tell: the story of the Romans, with their legions, their garrisons, their sneering officials, their tax-collectors, and all their no-good works, being driven out of the country, out of the region, preferably down the hill into the Mediterranean Sea, never to return . . .
Third, linked to that, there is something going on here about Jesus’ work on the edge of the Holy Land. The region he went into, that of the ‘Gerasenes’, is on the east side of the Sea of Galilee – disputed territory, then as now. And there was a herd of pigs, as there certainly wouldn’t have been if the inhabitants had been living as good, law-abiding Jews, who of course didn’t eat pork. There is an implicit challenge here: the story is an acted parable not only of cleansing the land of pagan pollution in the form of the Romans and their legions, but also, perhaps, of cleansing the land from the internal pollution of those who were sitting light to the ancestral codes (though this then stands in some tension with Mark 7, as we shall see).
Underneath it all is the larger picture, that of a God who never abandons anyone, no matter how ‘far gone’ they seem to be; of a Jesus who is acting with authority over all the ‘forces’ that rear their ugly heads in this world; of the spiritual power that can transform the saddest and most frightening of human situations (consider what it was like for the man’s family, know-ing the behaviour described in verse 4, and then being con-fronted with their brother, their son, perhaps their husband, their father, coming home cured). This, Mark is saying, is what it’s like when God takes charge. It will be a bumpy ride, because the terrain is so uneven. But the kingdom is on the way.
Grant us, good Lord, to reach out for your help no matter how appalling things may seem. Give us your healing and hope at every level of our lives.