Mark’s action-soaked narrative testifies to the identity of Jesus. Who is Jesus? He calms storms, exorcizes demons, heals diseases, and raises the dead. The question the disciples raised after Jesus calms the storm is answered by a demon named “Legion.”
Ferried to the eastern side of the lake, “the region of Gerasenes,” Jesus encountered a demon-possessed man immediately after getting out of the boat. Mark describes the behavior and condition of this demoniac in great detail; in more detail than he does anywhere else. Mark uses this story to say something important about demon possession.
This demon-possessed man lived among tombs, presumably carved from the caves the line the hills that rise up from the shore of the lake. He lived in isolation. He practiced self-mutilation which is a form of self-destruction or self-hatred. He apparently had abnormal strength since he had broken chains with which others had attempted to restrain him. Whether the restraints were merely for his own protection or he was also a threat to the community is open to question. When healed in 5:15, he was calm (sitting), clothed, and in his “right mind” (able to exercise self-control and moderate his passions). This contrast indicates that his conduct previously was just the opposite: hyperactive, naked and disconnected from reality. He lived a self-destructive, isolated and miserable existence.
Demon possession dehumanizes a person. It reverses the dignity of a human being created in the image of God to enjoy life. Isolated, they cannot experience community. Self-destructive, they live with pain and degradation. They hate life and hate themselves rather than loving life. The demoniac power undermines the divine intent for human life; it destroys what it means to be human.
Whether or not actual demon possession is an ongoing reality in our present world (some think it was a measured, divinely permitted expression of Satanic activity for the sake of revealing the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus and in the ministry of the early church), any dehumanizing power is ultimately demonic or Satanic in origin. Dehumanization is an expression of the principalities and powers that are hostile to the kingdom of God.
This hostility is evident in the text. Indeed, the word Mark uses to describe the meeting between Jesus and the demoniac is sometimes used to describe the meeting of hostile powers on the battlefield (5:2). Whether it means that here is questionable, but the context underscores the hostile relationship that exists between Jesus and demons. The demoniac shouted at Jesus, “What is it between you and me” (5:7; my translation). The demon fears that Jesus will “torture” him.
The demon knows he is in trouble because he knows the identity of Jesus. The demon answers the disciples’ question in 4:41, “Who is this?” The demon acknowledges: “Jesus, Son of the Most High God!” The answer reminds us how Mark titled his narrative (1:1). This acknowledgement, unconfessed at this point by any disciple or human being, reminds us that the identity of Jesus is more than simply Messiah.
Jesus commands the winds and the waves, and he also commands demons. I say demons because when questioned, this demon sayings his name is “Legion, for we are many.” A Legion is a military grouping that could have four to six thousand men. Whether the many is possessed by literally thousands of demons or whether the name is a hyperbole for “many,” the point is that Jesus is commanding a larger number of demons. He is not simply doing battle with one demon but a “Legion” (or “many”). And the military term “Legion” underscores the hostile nature of the encounter. Jesus defeats demons, even when he is outnumbered.
When demons are exorcised, where do they go? Presumably, they roam the earth to do battle with the kingdom of God. The demons did not want to leave the region where they were but they sensed that the presence of Jesus meant they would have to flee. They beg to stay and go into a herd of pigs feeding “on the nearby hillside.”
“So,” Jesus ruminates, “you don’t want to leave, then, ok, go among the herd of pigs.” So, they did, and 2,000 pigs drowned themselves in the lake. Just as the demoniac pursued self-destructive behavior, so the pigs rushed to self-destruction. Demoniac powers are hostile to God’s kingdom, including God’s creation. They oppose and seek to destroy whatever good exists within God’s creation.
Why did Jesus do that? Some have thought that Jesus, a good Jew, did not like pigs anyway. While the Torah prohibits eating pork, there is no hatred of pigs in the Torah. This is not about Jesus’ Jewishness. Rather, it is about demoniac hostility to God’s creation. It reveals what the hostile powers intend for God’s creation. Jesus permits the demons to show their true colors. Even when unclean spirits go into unclean animals they are destructive. God is always permitting demons (and Satan) to do their work–God could rid the world of demons with a single fiat. But God does not do that; God permits them to pursue their hostile agenda, just as Jesus did here on this occasion.
Of course, the owners of the pigs did not appreciate Jesus’ permission. They saw Jesus as a threat. He healed a demoniac and, as far as they were concerned, he destroyed their pigs. No wonder they were afraid. They had the same fear that the disciples had after Jesus calmed the storm; at least Mark uses the same word to describe both (5:15 with 4:41). They, too, were likely asking the question, “Who is this?” Whoever he is, however, they want nothing to do with him. For all they know he might be a danger to their region. They begged him to leave; using the same word that the “many” used (5:17 with 5:10, 12). The people in the Decapolis (a Gentile region east of the Galilean Sea defined by ten cities) stand in the same relation to Jesus as the demonic “Legion.”
Jesus leaves but he also leaves a witness. The healed man begs (same word in 5:19 as in 5:17) to go “with him” (Jesus). He begs to be with Jesus while the people begged for Jesus to put some distance between him and them. The healed man wants to become a disciple of Jesus. To be “with” Jesus is technical language for intimate discipleship, perhaps becoming one of the Twelve (see 3:14 where Jesus chooses Twelve to be “with him”).
But Jesus denies his request. Rather, Jesus wants him to stay behind in the Decapolis to bear witness to God’s mighty act of healing and the mercy God bestowed. This raises several questions. Why does Jesus direct him to tell the good news of his healing while he asked others to remain quiet? Why does not Jesus say “follow me” to this grateful believer?
The answer probably lies in the geographical and social context of the healing. The Decapolis is a Gentile region. There is no need to keep a Messianic secret here since the danger of a militant, Jewish uprising does not exist. More than likely, the healed man was himself a Gentile and thus could not be one of the Twelve ministering among the people of Israel. His witness was best utilized in his homeland, and his witness was effective. When the people heard it, they were “amazed.”
Jesus sailed to a Gentile land, perhaps to escape the Jewish crowds on the western shores of the lake. He entered an unclean land, encountered an unclean man living in unclean tombs and possessed by an unclean spirit, and sent the unclean spirits into unclean animals. Jesus enacted the kingdom of God as he purified what was unclean and defeated hostile powers. Jesus demonstrateed the kingdom of God among the Gentiles.
Jesus restored the dignity of a human being to whom the good news of the kingdom of God was announced and enacted.
As we read this story, it calls us to place ourselves within it. Perhaps we are the unclean human who needs the good news, or having received healing must bear witness to the mercy of God. Perhaps, however, we are the people of the land who, fearful of the amazing work of God, resist commitment to the kingdom of God. Perhaps, most importantly, we are called to follow Jesus and restore the dignity of human beings whenever we find people mistreated, isolated or marginalized. Perhaps we find a little of all three in ourselves. May God have mercy.