They’ve just witnessed Jesus calm a storm with a handful of words, displaying the sort of power reserved for God alone. And then, as they bring the boat ashore, they’re immediately hit with another situation. They’ve had no time to process the calming of the storm when they arrive, wet and scared, in a bad part of town.
Not that this is their town. This is an area known as the Gerasenes, part of the Decapolis, an unofficial confederacy of Greco-Roman cities just over the border of Jewish territory. This is a city of outsider, people who have different customs and worship different gods, and while the Roman Empire might have been fairly cosmopolitan, first century Judaism was known for its passionate desire to live up to its job description as a people set apart from the sin and corruption of the world around them. They were meant to be God’s people and everyone else had to deal with that, and yet here they were, a bunch of young scared men in a town that didn’t play by their rules.
To make it worse, they’re being accosted by a man possessed by an impure spirit, and while it may be tempting to say this is just a primitive reading of mental illness, there’s an atmosphere to the story, a darkness. Whatever’s going on, Mark wants us to be clear that this is supernatural.
And so a scarred and tormented man is running towards – but running from where? From the local tombs, a place of the dead. This just makes matters worse – for a Jew to come into physical contact with death like this would render them ceremonially unclean, at least until the necessary purification rituals could be carried out. Not only was someone charging towards them, which perhaps presented a physical threat, there was also a threat of spiritual contamination here.
And the man had been cutting himself with stones. Did this remind them of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal, ecstatics who slashed themselves with swords and spears in order to attract the attention of their god? This situation was getting worse by the minute.
To make matters worse, they’re near to a pig farm. Pigs, unclean animals. Maybe the disciples shuddered with disgust, wrinkled their noses at the stench. This place was bad, very bad. Everything about Mark’s description screams, to Jewish ears at least, get the heck out of there. There’s something about this in the way the story is told, the weight of oppression maybe. We’re not supposed to think this a nice place to go on our holidays.
But now Jesus is talking to the man – or rather the impure spirit. Only it’s not one spirit, it’s an army of them. Their name was Legion, simply because there were so many of them, and maybe there was a frisson here, as the impure spirits named themselves after a unit in the Roman army. Why would anyone be surprised that the hated and idolatrous Romans shared a military set-up with impure spirits?
But the man isn’t threatening Jesus. He’s not rendering him ceremonially unclean. He’s not a threat. He’s… He’s begging Jesus. He’s begging Jesus not to torture him.
What did the disciples take from this? Jesus hasn’t given any indication of being prone to torture or violence. And yet here’s an army of impure spirits grovelling before him. What’s going on here?
This man has just stilled a storm, and now he exercises authority over evil spiritual forces who seem to fear his very power and holiness.
And then there’s a terrible sound, the screams of tormented animals stampeding down the hills into the lake, because the impure spirits are no longer in the man, they’re in a maddened herd of pigs, a couple of thousand of them. The noise and panic must have been near unbearable.
And then silence.
The man, at last, is at peace and free.
The disciples are trying to process what just happened.
And the townsfolk?
The townsfolk, who lived with a man possessed who hid among tombs and who could snap chains like paper, are scared. So scared, in fact, that they beg Jesus to leave.
What does this tell us?
I mean, we’re not used to people being scared of Jesus. We’re more used to the image of him debating aggressive authority figures or, ultimately, crucified. And when we don’t see these conflicts, we seem him helping people – healing the sick, restoring someone’s life. We don’t often see people react to him in fear.
But maybe this is because this story forms part of a narrative in which Jesus overturns everyone’s expectations. Maybe it’s because, in the midst of this dark and oppressive environment, only just lashed by a storm, Jesus displays unbelievable power, the power of a god – and not just the power of a random member of Rome’s pantheon of deities but the power of the very specific God of Israel. This is taking everything that the locals – and to a degree the disciples – thought had power and overturning in it the face of God’s power. And that’s not only awe-inspiring, it’s frightening, because everything they thought they knew was wrong and they had to face a new reality, one that they were utterly unprepared for.
No wonder they were freaked out.
And yet, in the middle of all this fear and confusion, one man sits calmly – it’s perhaps the first time in years that he’s been able to do so. The man plagued by an army of spirits? He’s better. He’s restored. He’s healed.
Because while God’s power may sometimes demolish our preconceptions, it’s always for the best. He’s powerful and almighty, yes, but he’s reaching out for us and offering healing and peace. Restoration.
Don’t look at the storm. Don’t look at the tombs or the maddened animals or the unclean spirits.
Look at the man. He’s sitting there, clear-eyed and healed. All those things that threatened and oppressed him? Gone, dead and broken in the face of God’s power.
Look at the man.
And remember that God broke an army to make him whole.