Leave us alone!

May 16 2006

Mark 5:1-20 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 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. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 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." 8 For he had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" 9 Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." 13 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 sea, and were drowned in the sea. 14 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. 15 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. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 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." 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

We do not come fresh to this story. We are properly cautious of exorcism given the excesses of some groups. Yet there are persistent stories of "something going on," and many of us have seen more or less realistic Hollywood dramatisations. ''Nice" church people that we are, we are out of our depth! Others of us are inclined to dismiss the whole phenomenon as outdated superstition. Rather than pass judgment on the reality of such events, we should first of all simply listen to the story. Exorcism may not be the only theme.

This is a story of uncontrollable violence. 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. I think of the street people you sometimes see. Not the moderately scary ones who race by muttering to themselves, but the wild ones, who scream in the street with a violent torrent of abuse, ready to attack anyone who comes near them. They are terrifying, and terrified. Some restraining part of their humanity has been damaged or overcome. Whatever we call it, and however we explain it, anyone who has not seen the man with the legion of demons, simply has not been watching.

These people shatter our urbane sophistication and confront us with the unpleasant reality of life. They give us an unwelcome window into places we would rather not see. Take the voices that clamour in the hearing of some people: it is all very well to say the voices an unwell person hears relate to brain chemistry. Knowledge of chemistry does not reduce the power, the fear, the danger, or the incomprehensible otherness of such episodes. Or the reality! In some way, those voices are there. Despite all our scientific language or dismissive prejudice, we are afraid. That dismissive prejudice, along with our determination to keep such people invisible and at arms length is the sign we recognise possession, whatever it is, is real. And sometimes, usually blessedly innocuous, and occasionally unexpectedly benevolent, we hear a voice ourselves.

Mark tells us two things. The powers recognise who Jesus is, and Jesus is greater than the powers- that other we are so afraid of. He is very clear, as is the New Testament generally, that there are entities beyond and yet close to us.

The startling thing is that the people of the ten cities, amongst whom this healing has taken place, want him to go away! There is no hint in the story that this is about the loss of the swine. They are afraid of the power he has shown... or should we say, let loose in their midst. They would rather have their neighbour lost to the tombs, than bear the cost of his freedom.

At a very prosaic level we see this in Adelaide. We would rather see lost souls wandering the streets, than pay the cost of decent mental health care. More generally the gospel claims to offer us tremendous power as the heirs of Christ, but at the cost of going amongst the tombs. We world rather stay safe where we are than embark on the dirty and dangerous life of faith. So mostly, we beg Jesus to leave us alone. We are afraid if we answer his call we will either find it is all a story that is not true, or worse still, it really is true and we are in the thick of it! And we know we are the space of a few synapses away from that wild man. He is us. We'd rather leave undisturbed the tomb raving turmoil we know, or suspect, is below our careful and painfully constructed public face...

"Jesus, please go away!"

Perhaps Mark is telling us that unless we let him drive the legion clamour out of us, we cannot be in our right mind. 

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



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