Today’s story from the Gospel of Mark is strange, funny, and terrifying all at once. The funny part, of course, is that there is something slapstick about a herd of pigs racing down the steep bank into the sea, and we often take the funny part of a story and make jokes as a way of deflecting our attention from the strangeness of the story. When we were assigned this story to preach on in a seminary class, and we were discussing it, suddenly all of the pig jokes started coming out. For example, now we understand where the phrase “when pigs fly” might come from. Or, this was the original Bay of Pigs incident, for those of you who remember that failed attempt by Cuban exiles in 1961 to reverse the Cuban revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power. And, finally, now we understand the true meaning of deviled ham. But once we got all of the jokes out of our system, we seminarians were left with the strangeness and the terror of this story of Jesus casting a legion of demons out of a man and into the pigs, and just as it did then, this story still today raises more questions than it answers.
So, let’s start at the beginning, with Jesus and the disciples crossing over to the other side of the sea. If you’ll remember last week, we heard Jesus teaching the crowds, including his disciples, about the kingdom of God using parables about seeds: casting the seeds and how the seeds grow. After he finished teaching them, Jesus said that they should get in the boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, presumably to continue his teaching ministry there. While they were on the sea, a windstorm arose, and waves swamped the boat while Jesus slept in the stern. The disciples woke him up, and, very irritated, Jesus stilled the storm with a few words. So, when they all land on the other side of the sea, they already know that there is something strange about this rabbi whom they’ve chosen to follow.
But things are about to get stranger still. When Jesus steps out of the boat, he is immediately met by a man who is possessed by an unclean spirit. Mark describes this man as having superhuman strength because of the spirit; able to break shackles and chains. When we studied this story in our Bible class on Thursday, Jesse said that it reminded him of Samson in the Old Testament. Your pastor’s mind, on the other hand, went straight to Marvel Comics and the Incredible Hulk! But if you think about it, it could be said that Bruce Banner was possessed by a spirit every time that he got angry; one that turned him green and gave him superhuman strength. Anyway, Jesus’ encounter with this man possessed by demons—demons that made the man howl, bruise himself with stones, and live among the tombs, raises many questions for us today.
The first question that we need to wrestle with is the question of whether evil still exists today. We like to pride ourselves on being more sophisticated than our 1st century ancestors. We look at the man in this story and maybe we think that what was going on was some kind of mental illness. Even today, many of us can point to people that we know, or maybe friends of friends, who suffer from illnesses like schizophrenia or any other illness that you can think of and say, “Oh, well, this man was suffering from one of those illnesses, and today he would have been treated with such-and-such medication, and he might be able to live a halfway normal life.” But you know something? That may explain away the man’s behavior, but it doesn’t explain away the pigs.
For all of our pride in our science and technology, we still suspect that there is something more out there. Our brothers in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, still train some of their priests to be exorcists. And we still tell stories to scare ourselves; if you ever want to be scared like this, watch the movie Fallen, with Denzel Washington. He plays a detective who is tracking a series of murders, and what he discovers is that there is a demon jumping from person to person, and it is the demon making the people commit these murders. And you find out which person the demon is in because they start singing, “Time is on my side, yes it is,” by the Rolling Stones. Instinctively we know that our scientific explanations of things can only go so far before we come up against the problem of both evil, and good, forces in this world.
Besides the problem of wrestling with the idea of evil forces in the world as opposed to our scientific, rational explanations for these ancient stories, the next thing that we need to wrestle with is the reaction of the people in the area to what Jesus has done for this man. You would think that after seeing this man healed from his affliction, the people would be thankful and would welcome Jesus to teach them more. But that’s not how they react. They are afraid and they beg Jesus to leave their country. Certainly, some of it has to do with the economic loss involved with the great herd of pigs drowning in the sea. But I think there’s more to it than that. Jesus has upset their societal order by what he has done. Because they couldn’t do anything to help this man with the demons, the people in the town had written him off; had told their children not to go out there; basically had accepted that the man was there and they didn’t have to deal with him. But now, here is the man, clothed and in his right mind, and they have no idea how to re-integrate him into their society. They are afraid that he will blame them for not doing more to help him. And perhaps they are afraid that Jesus will condemn them for not doing more to help.
And Jesus gets that. And that’s why he tells the man formerly possessed by the demons that he can’t come with him, but rather, he is to stay and tell everyone how much the Lord has done for him. Jesus knows that the only way his message is going to get through to the people in the country of the Gadarenes is if this one man witnesses to them about the great mercy that Jesus has shown to him. By the way, the Decapolis means “ten cities,” and consisted of areas of Roman settlement east of the Jordan River, with the exception of one on the west side of the Jordan. They were centers of Greek and Roman culture in an otherwise Jewish country, which explains why they were herding pigs. So, this one man had a mission: he traveled throughout these ten cities, who were Gentile, and told them about a Jewish rabbi who had had mercy on him and cast out the demons inside of him. And thus, word about Jesus spread not only among his own Jewish people, but among the peoples of the Greco-Roman culture surrounding them.
Here are some things that we can take away from this story today. First, we are very much like the people in the country of the Gadarenes who asked Jesus to leave. We know that there is evil in the world; all we have to do is turn on the news and see reports of shootings, of oil spills that decimate the environment, children locked in cages, people fleeing wars and being uncertain of welcome in other countries, people who live on the streets, children dying from the flu, and even something as mundane as an aging sewer system that spills waste into the Susquehanna River when the pipes can’t handle all the rainwater and the rest of it. It’s overwhelming. I am guilty of wanting to turn away from all of it myself because I just can’t handle more bad news. I want to just accept the way things are and try to get along with my ordinary life.
But here’s the thing: Jesus comes in and disrupts all of that. Jesus shines a light on the evil that’s going on and my blindness to it. And when I realize that I am complicit in these evil things, then Jesus brings healing and tells me to go and tell everyone how much he has done for me, and how much mercy he has shown me. And so, perhaps, in the end, that is the message that we can take away from this strange story. When we are like the man possessed by the Legion, when we feel that evil has overtaken us and there is nothing we can do about it, we can come to Jesus and ask for mercy, forgiveness, and the strength to tell others that evil will not win the day. Jesus’ love and mercy will, in the end, win out. And we are emissaries of that love and mercy to all of those around us. We participate in shining the light of Jesus in the darkness of the world and bringing that light to others who are shrouded in the darkness. So, shine where you are. Jesus is with you, and will strengthen you to stand against the forces of evil that threaten us. Amen.