Demons, pigs and hope

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A look at Mark 5

By Pierre Gilbert

The story of the demon-possessed man in Mark 5 qualifies as one the oddest narratives in the Gospels. It is rarely the object of sermons. It is such a strange story that some people simply avoid it. It all makes for a very weird scene: a naked lunatic, the screaming, the legion of demons, pigs that commit suicide. 

What is this story all about? Is it a recipe to cast demons out of people? Mark himself provides a clue in the preceding chapters. The stories he reports in chapters 1-4 all emphasize one thing: the authority and the power of Jesus Christ. If we are going to give the immediate context any consideration then we have to recognize that the primary focus of Mark 5 may well be to illustrate the overwhelming power of Christ.

Hopelessness (Mark 5:1-5) 

So they arrived at the other side of the lake, in the land of the Gerasenes. Just as Jesus was climbing from the boat, a man possessed by an evil spirit ran out from a cemetery to meet him. This man lived among the tombs and could not be restrained, even with a chain. Whenever he was put into chains and shackles—as he often was—he snapped the chains from his wrists and smashed the shackles. No one was strong enough to control him. All day long and throughout the night, he would wander among the tombs and in the hills, screaming and hitting himself with stones (NLT).

Jesus’ arrival in the region of Gerasenes is no accident. He appears on the scene because there is a man in great need, and because it provides an opportunity to demonstrate that he has power over all. So far, Jesus’ ministry has been quite effective, but does his power extend beyond his own backyard? The only way to test him is to get Jesus out of his neighborhood and put him face-to-face with a most formidable challenge.

Jesus’ incursion in pagan territory is theologically very significant. It loudly proclaims that God’s offer of salvation is not limited to the Jews or any particular class of people. The worst of pagans can be the object of God’s love.

Verses 3-5 symbolize the extent to which a human being can be affected by evil. These verses describe a man who is alienated in every possible way. He is alienated from himself, his family and the rest of human society. He is completely out of control, and no one can do anything for him.

Confrontation (vv 6-13)

When Jesus was still some distance away, the man saw him. He ran to meet Jesus and fell down before him. He gave a terrible scream, shrieking, "Why are you bothering me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? For God's sake, don't torture me!" For Jesus had already said to the spirit, "Come out of the man, you evil spirit." Then Jesus asked, "What is your name?" And the spirit replied, "Legion, because there are many of us here inside this man." Then the spirits begged him again and again not to send them to some distant place. There happened to be a large herd of pigs feeding on the hillside nearby. "Send us into those pigs," the evil spirits begged. Jesus gave them permission. So the evil spirits came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the entire herd of two thousand pigs plunged down the steep hillside into the lake, where they drowned.

In verses 6-10, Mark notes four actions to show that at the sight of Jesus the man regains some measure of control.

He sees Jesus.

He runs to Jesus.

He falls on his knees in front of Jesus.

He shouts at the top of his voice.

The royal title the demons use to refer to Jesus underlines their utter powerlessness in the presence of Jesus. The lie that these evil entities have overwhelming powers is being unraveled. The demons know that this is “game over.” They are simply negotiating the terms of surrender.

In verse 9, Jesus asks the demon to identify itself, not so much to gain control over the creature as to demonstrate the extent to which this man had come under the control of these beings. The immediate response from the demon further underlines Jesus’ absolute authority.

In contrast to the popular belief of the time, Mark emphasizes in verses 11-13 the very limited range of freedom these spirits actually enjoy. They need permission to enter into the pigs. Taking possession of the pigs is not something they can do on their own authority.

While this text confirms the existence of demonic spirits, their power is extremely limited: 1) a “legion” of demons, possibly 6,000, is not sufficient to completely strip this man of his dignity; 2) the pig-demon ratio (2,000 pigs to 6,000 demons) sends a very subtle message about the real power of these demons. To an audience that believes in the overwhelming power of demons, we have a situation where three demons are insufficient to keep a pig from drowning itself and the demons with it.

The pig incident is no doubt on the strange side of the reality spectrum. But it was critical it happened this way, for how else would people know that this man was indeed under the influence of real demons? Jesus is not just a good psychologist. This man was under the dreadful influence of a legion of demons. The drowning of the pig herd is the incontrovertible demonstration of the overwhelming power of Jesus—not even an army of demons can stand in his presence.

Village idiots never get it! (vv 14-17)

The herdsmen fled to the nearby city and the surrounding countryside, spreading the news as they ran. Everyone rushed out to see for themselves. A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, but they were frightened when they saw the man who had been demon possessed, for he was sitting there fully clothed and perfectly sane. Those who had seen what happened to the man and to the pigs told everyone about it, and the crowd began pleading with Jesus to go away and leave them alone.

Jesus’ intervention does not meet with the grateful response one would expect. It is irrelevant that the “demoniac” is sitting, clothed and in full control of himself. The “village idiots” are very upset by the economic cost of this good deed. They want Jesus to leave. They would have preferred to see the demon-possessed man remain in his miserable condition than to see him saved. At the cost of a herd of pigs per man, salvation is just too expensive.

The “village idiots” just don’t get Jesus. They never do! This is Mark’s way of reminding us of a very sobering truth. There is one thing over which Jesus has no ultimate authority and that is people themselves.

As for the man, he is no longer mad. The redemption brought by Jesus affects every aspect of this man’s life: spiritual, mental, physical and social.

Jesus and the liberated man (vv 18-20)

When Jesus got back into the boat, the man who had been demon possessed begged to go, too. But Jesus said, "No, go home to your friends, and tell them what wonderful things the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been." So the man started off to visit the Ten Towns of that region and began to tell everyone about the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed at what he told them.

Jesus leaves, not as a concession to anyone, but because his mission is completed. The man wishes to go with Jesus, but Jesus does not let him. When the village idiots come back to their senses, there will be questions, an inquiry will be conducted to find out what went wrong when the strange healer from Galilee showed up and healed the lunatic. The man must stay behind to tell the truth. He must go back to his family and reenter the social fabric of his community. The man is healed. He is given a new lease on life, a new identity, a new purpose, a reason to live as God’s partner. His responsibility is to tell the truth about the man from Galilee. 

What can we learn?

What can we learn from such a text? Let me propose a few elements of biblical theology and suggest how this text can be relevant for us today. 

  • Something is wrong with human beings. This story shows the extent to which evil can affect human beings. The debilitating impact of sin and evil on human nature is beyond self-help books and pop psychology. In our ever-renewed rush of good will and naivety, we too often forget the extent to which men and women can be damaged by evil. Because we forget, we too often prescribe sugar pills to people who need spiritual cancer treatment.

  • Sin and evil ultimately result in human alienation. Alienation from ourselves, from others, and God.

  • The universality of salvation. The story of the demoniac man clearly teaches that God intensely wishes to bring salvation to all men and women, regardless of where they are, who they are and what condition they are in. But God does not only wish to reach, he actually does it. Jesus did not wait for this man to come to his neighborhood. He actively sought this poor soul. This is the story of God seeking humanity. From the very beginning, God has been calling on men and women to turn to him.

  • The social cost of redemption. This text reminds us that there is often, most often in fact, a social cost to the redemption of men and women. God provides the foundation for redemption, but it takes the involvement of real men and women in the lives of other men and women to bring about the emergence of the kingdom of God in the human heart. And that is sometimes costly in terms of human and financial resources. Why? Simple! Keep reading.

  • God works in partnership. God has chosen to establish his kingdom by working with human beings (1 Cor. 3:9). God never does by himself what he can do in partnership with men and women.

  • Redemption. Redemption impacts every aspect of a person’s life, but it affects first and foremost the inner person. If there is no transformation of the heart, the rest is superficial. Mere reform, but no transformation. True redemption begins in the heart of the person and then extends outward into the community.

Hidden truths

In conclusion, I want to highlight two fundamental truths that this story reveals. These are truths the “world”—that which is opposite of God and his work—has hidden and is still attempting to hide at all costs. For were we to see them plainly, they would transform every person that comes into contact with them and, in time, transform the whole world.

Truth #1: No one is beyond the reach of God. 

Regardless of what evil has done to a human being. Regardless of the extent to which a man or a woman has given himself or herself to evil. Regardless of the grip evil may have on a person, God has an infinite ability to reach into the human soul and bring redemption. No one is beyond the reach of God. Absolutely no one!

This truth implies that we should never give up on anyone or on Christ’s ability to redeem even the most unlikely of candidates for salvation. God can reach into the soul of the drug addict. God can reach into the soul of the most hardened criminal. God can reach into the soul of a child born with Down syndrome. God can reach anyone.

Truth #2: We are free. 

Here is the second truth that, as far as the “world” is concerned, must never come to light. Here is the truth that countless human ideologies forever seek to hide from us. Here is the truth that the intellectual elites tell us is a lie, at best an illusion: We are free.

Regardless of what life has thrown at us, we are free. We are free to turn to God and be healed. No demon, no degree of evil, no amount of abuse, nothing can keep us from turning our face to God and crying for help. The biggest lie is that we can’t.

Hope can shine through in the darkest places. There is only one thing that stands in the way of our redemption and that one thing is our own free will. Christ can overcome all obstacles but one: Our own unwillingness to accept his invitation.

Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Bible and theology at Canadian Mennonite University and MB Biblical Seminary. He lives in Winnipeg, Man. 

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