Here’s an odd story for you from Mark chapter 5.
Mark says that Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee and landed in a place called Gerasenes (that's pronounced "JAIR - A - SINS", in case you're wondering) where they immediately encountered a man who was being pestered by some kind of evil spirit.
The man, says Mark, lived in the tombs where all the dead people were buried and he was so strong that no one could bind him, not even with a chain.
And just when we think things couldn’t get any weirder, Mark apparently thinks that this piece about tombs and chains is an extremely important part of the story because he kind of slows it down and goes into great detail to tell us that ...
(1) No one could bind him.
(2) Chains wouldn’t even work.
(3) He had been chained hand and foot.
(4) But he was so strong that he tore the chains apart.
(More on that stuff later.)
And then he says that night and day the guy would be among the tombs crying and cutting himself with stones.
... Strange, indeed.
Suddenly, though, Mark says that the guy saw Jesus from a distance and yelled out, “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH ME, JESUS, SON OF THE MOST HIGH GOD? Swear to me that you won’t torture me!”
Then Jesus asked the evil spirit its name, to which it responded, “my name is Legion for we are many.” And then he begged Jesus, again, not to torture him, but to (instead) send him and his Legion buddies into a herd of pigs that were feeding nearby. Jesus graciously obliged and then the pigs (about 2,000, to be exact) rushed over a bank and into the lake where they drowned.
OK, a few observations.
(1) Mark is writing to Jewish Christians.
(And remember all the way back to our SECOND blog post - these Jewish Christians were living in Rome in the wake of Emperor Nero’s genocide against the Jewish Christian community. The city had burnt to the ground and rumor was that Nero had started the fire and so to save himself he pinned the blame on the Jews who then put the blame on a small sect of Jews, the Jewish Christians).
This story is taking place in a very NON-Jewish territory.
How do we know?
Pigs - to the Jews, pigs were the dirtiest of the unclean animals. No other animal was more dirty, more un-edible, more disgusting, more off-limits than pigs. No serious Jew would be caught anywhere near a pig (much less a herd of 2,000!) and so this piece about the pigs is a hint from Mark that Jesus and His disciples have made there way into Gentile, very non-Jewish territory.
So, again - Mark is writing to Jews, but this story about the man and the demons and the tombs is taking place in non-Jewish territory.
(2) To the Jews, the man in the story is as unclean as the herd of pigs that the demons end up jumping into.
Why? Why is this man unclean?
Because not only was he filled with a great “many” demons and not only was his body oozing with bloody sores from the rocks that he cut himself with, but he was living in a graveyard and to the Jews the only thing more unclean than a pig or a bloody sore or a demonized person was a dead body.
And so Mark wants us to know that the guy who is the focal point of our story is the dirtiest of the unclean living in the dirtiest of unclean places and that no Jew in their right mind would have dared stepped foot into this part of Gerasenes.
(3) Mark is using lots of military terms in the story because he’s telling the story not to simply give us an interesting memory from the life of Jesus, but to remind his Jewish Christian readers ...
Who have just lost a large part of their community to the Nero Genocide.
Who have been left to wonder where their Savior is.
Who find their throats under the foot of the Roman Empire.
... That God is still working even though they feel beat down and destroyed by the militant Roman Empire.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the military terms in the story. This is going to seem like a lot of weird facts, but I’ll tell you why it’s important in a moment, so just hang with me ...
For starters, the demon said that his name was “Legion”, for there were many demons in the man. Legion was a term used in reference to a division of Roman soldiers.
Next, Mark also said that the “herd” of pigs was around 2,000. Herd was a term used to refer to Roman recruits.
Then Mark tells us that Jesus “dismissed” the legion of demons into the pigs, a term that was actually a common military command.
And then Mark says that the pigs “charged” off the bank and into the sea, a term that was used to describe an army or legion rushing into battle.
And then we have the stuff about the “chains” not being able to bind the man because of the strength of the Legion of demons - the Roman Empire was known as the military powerhouse of its day, so strong that no one could bind it, no one could take it down. This legion of demons that Mark describes is not just an illustration of a Roman army, but of the entire Roman Empire.
And, lastly, he says that when the pigs rushed off the bank they “sunk” into the sea, which brings back illusions of Pharaoh’s army sinking into the Red Sea after God parted the waters for the Israelites to pass through.
And (as a side note - last thing!), the “sea” - for the Jews, the sea or the ocean represented a dark and dreary place. In fact, it was known as “the place of the monsters”. They believed that it was the dwelling place of evil and the place of chaos.
That’s a lot, I know, but all of these insights ...
The fact that the story takes place in GENTILE territory.
The fact that the man in the story would have been considered by Mark’s Jewish readers to be UNCLEAN.
The fact that Mark uses a mountain of MILITARY terms.
... These insights can give us a fresh perspective on what Mark was telling his readers because although you and I might not be aware of it, these first century Jews who were living in Rome would have picked up on this language IMMEDIATELY.
Mark was telling them that although the foot of the Empire was pressed tightly against their throats and even though Nero had just had their families and men, women, and children brutally murdered, and even though it seemed like all hope was lost ... It wasn’t.
Because even though they might feel like the man in the story ...
Controlled by the Legion, dominated by the Roman Empire.
Cut to pieces.
Left for dead in a graveyard of their dead family and friends.
... Even though they might feel like him, Jesus is greater, and just as He did for the man in the graveyard, so He would do for them - He would step into their situation just as He stepped into Gerasense, cast off the dominance of the Roman Empire, and dismiss that unclean herd of pigs into the sea, the place where all beasts and all monsters go and die.
NOW, let’s bring this into 2018.
We could easily use this story to encourage us today. Right? Like, we could talk about all the Roman Empires in our lives and all the places where we feel chased down and overwhelmed and we could talk about how those things won’t have the last word and we could say that even when it feels like all hope is lost, it’s not.
And all of that would be true.
I wonder, what if - what if this story can challenge you and me today even more than it can encourage us?
Look, we live in a world and in a time and in a place where the Empires of the world (whether those empires be governments, churches, or some other kinds of systems) are pressing their boot tight against the throats of a lot of different people groups.
There are places in the world where people have no water.
There are churches in your neighborhood who refuse to welcome the LGBTQ community.
There are likely people living on the streets somewhere in driving distance of your house all the while rich and wealthy politicians go to sleep in mansions.
There is always the threat of war and of bloodshed somewhere on the planet.
We live in a world ...
Where exclusion is common.
Where basic human needs often go unmet.
And where violence is more often than not the norm.
... Just like it was in the Roman Empire.
Sure, we might not have soldiers running through the streets with swords like the Jewish Christians of Rome had to worry about, but we do have the spirit of the Empire slicing its way through our streets and cities and communities and homes to wreck havoc in the before-mentioned ways (and more).
And so with all of that in mind, what if Jesus has called YOU to be the voice that casts the Legion into the sea?
Follow me here ...
What if Jesus has called YOU to be the answer to the prayers that the people who are feeling pressed on and alone and misunderstood and cast out have been praying?
What if Jesus has called YOU to be the one who will help get water to those who have access to none?
What if Jesus has called YOU to be the one who stands up to the Empire - to speak in front of your local government on behalf of the poor? To approach the church elders on behalf of the LGBTQ community?
What if Jesus has called YOU to be the hand that reaches out to and helps the homeless near you?
What if Jesus has called YOU to be the one who starts that blog or starts that project that will take on some sort of injustice that keeps you up at night?
Yeah - how might YOU be able to cast the spirit of the Empire out of your community? Out of your part of the world? What can YOU do this week or this month or this year to be a voice for those who feel like they’ve lost theirs? For those who feel like they’re roaming lifelessly and hopelessly around a graveyard with little or no control over their next move?
What will YOU do in this next season of your life to cast out the Legion and dismiss the pigs into the sea?
Yes, what if Mark wasn’t telling us a nice story about Jesus as much as he was giving us a model for how to live as His representative on earth?
Think about that, and go chuck a pig into the sea.
Grace and peace, my friends.