Date: January 27, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Scripture: Mark 5:1-20

A very long time ago, when I was a little kid, the Peanuts comic strip had a week-long storyline about a new kid in the neighborhood with an unusual name: 5. When questioned, he said his parents named him that because they believed a day was coming soon when we would all be known by numbers instead of by names. I can’t remember what ended up happening over the course of the storyline, other than a fair amount of puzzlement about the kid’s name.

It seems sort of ridiculous for 5’s parents to imagine a future where we’d be known by numbers instead of names…except…Back in the days before identity theft was a major issue, my college professors would post our exam results in the hall outside the classrooms, and to keep everybody from knowing everybody else’s business, instead of our names the grades were listed by our Social Security numbers.

They wouldn’t do that nowadays.

And there are plenty of other times when numbers have been used to identify people that were less benevolent—I know we’ve all seen pictures (or maybe we’ve seen them up close and personal) of the numbers tattooed on the forearms of survivors of Auschwitz. [1] Jewish and other prisoners were given these number tattoos precisely to dehumanize them. (Genocide is always easier to carry out if you’re convinced the targets are less than human.)

Have you ever thought about the response the man with the demons in our reading today gave when Jesus asked his name?

“My name is Legion,” he said. His condition had completely obliterated all that made him a unique human being, so when asked for his name, instead of a name, he gave, for all practical purposes, a number: Legion—a group of 4,000 to 6,000 Roman soldiers—a number, not a name.

The ancient world had no concept of mental or neurological illness, so they interpreted his condition as demon possession. I’d love to say that we have better knowledge these days, so we don’t believe sicknesses to be caused by demons taking over a person’s body, mind, or spirit. But I’m not sure we should dismiss the notion so quickly. There are times even today when our modern medical science is not able to treat a mental illness effectively. And I daresay there are people in this world who are simply evil, or who have become part of evil systems to the point that they’re no longer able to recognize they are doing wrong.

But like so many of the stories the Gospels tell us about Jesus’ miracles, the point is not what the Gospel writers’ understanding of mental illness might have been. These stories are meant to tell us who Jesus is, and show us how people responded, and possibly continue to respond, to him.

So Jesus gets out of the boat in the territory of Gadara, [2] one of the towns of the Decapolis, a Gentile area on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. And he’s barely stepped on the shore when this man, naked and screaming, perhaps with broken shackles still attached to his wrists or ankles, comes up to him and falls down at his feet. Jesus recognizes demonic powers at work and commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man; and then he asks the man’s name, which leads us readers to recognize just how enormous this man’s problem truly is.

“My name is Legion,” he says. He doesn’t have an evil spirit within him; he has thousands of demons destroying him mentally and physically, and driving him to live among the graves, a place both Jews and Gentiles would have considered unclean.

The pronouns in this section of the story are strange; they constantly swing back and forth between singular (“he”) and plural (“they”). First Jesus is talking to one man, then he’s talking to thousands of demons, then he’s talking to the one man again, and then the legion of evil spirits again.
The man begs Jesus not to send the demons out of the country. It’s a strange request, and one that makes us wonder: why do they prefer this country, and why does the man want them to stay?

The second question has a familiar answer, although to those of us who are healthy or who have been sick and now are well it still seems puzzling. He’s gotten used to having a legion of demons living inside of him. Maybe they’ve been with him so long that he can’t remember what it was like for the inside of his head to be so quiet he could hear himself think. At the very least, losing the demons was a change—and as Mark Twain once quipped, the only person who likes change is a wet baby. What could life be like without my demons? he might have wondered when he heard Jesus command them to leave him.

The demons also beg Jesus to be treated in a certain way.
I’m not sure where demons were thought to go when Jesus cast them out of someone. Did they simply drift around until they found another likely host?

This time they ask to be sent into a huge herd of pigs on the hillside nearby. I’m told that fully-grown hogs can be pretty mean under the best of circumstances, and if that’s the case I’m not sure how anybody would know the difference if the pigs in that herd suddenly became possessed by three demons apiece. But nobody ever had to figure out what to do with huge, mean, demon-possessed hogs, because as soon as the demons entered them, they ran over a cliff and into the sea.

Again the question comes to mind, what happens to evil spirits when their host dies? In this case, we need to know a little bit about the worldviews of the Ancient Near East.

The sea was not just a body of water that was sometimes subject to the forces of weather or the moon. It was the gateway to the abyss, the place where various less-than-benevolent spirits lived; and it represented the forces of chaos that always oppose God and threaten to undo creation. In the first chapter of Genesis, remember that God separated the waters above from the waters below, established a boundary beyond which the waters could not go, pushed them back so dry land could appear and plants, animals, and people could live and thrive. God had power over the chaotic forces of the sea and the abyss.

This is made that much clearer for us as we hear today’s story if we know what comes right before it: At the end of Mark 4, Jesus and his disciples set out to cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat, when a huge storm blows up—the language used tells us this is no ordinary storm like the ones that are common on that lake. This storm is the elemental, chaotic forces of the sea trying to destroy Jesus and his disciples.

When the storm comes up, Jesus is sleeping in the boat, and the terrified disciples come and wake him up, saying, “Don’t you care that we’re about to die out here?!”

Jesus simply tells the storm to “Be still!” And that’s that.

When we hear that story with the events of Genesis 1 (and also the story of Jonah) in mind, we recognize something very important: God can control the forces of chaos represented by the sea, and so can Jesus. And then here in Mark 5 we first have Jesus stand alone against an entire legion of demons and cast them out of an unfortunate man in whom they had lived for who knows how long; and then we see the pigs in whom the demons take refuge plunge into the sea.

The question of where the legion of evil spirits go after leaving the man is answered, then: They aren’t drifting around in the world until they find some other likely victim; they go back to the abyss whence they came, back—in our colloquial language—to hell. They’re not going to bother anybody else, at least not for the foreseeable future.

The story of the Gerasene demoniac tells us something important about who Jesus is and what he is able to do. The previous story showed us that, just like God’s own self, Jesus is able to control the chaotic forces of wind and water; and now we learn that Jesus, this one man, as was thought, could stand singlehanded against an entire legion of demons and win the battle.

If you’ve studied any psychology at all, you have probably run into something called “family systems theory.” One of the foremost thinkers in family systems was the late Ed Friedman, author of Generation to Generation, which described how family systems theory works not just within families, but within faith communities and other human organizations.

I really know just enough about family systems to be dangerous, but I think it’s at work in this story.

This demon-possessed man was part of a community. Perhaps there was a whole cottage industry set up to try and control Legion, to keep him out in the graveyard and the hillside, to attempt to chain him up from time to time—maybe a blacksmith in town continually worked to create better and stronger shackles and chains.

Maybe some parents used him as a threat to get their children to behave, sort of like how my parents told my sister and me when we were little that we couldn’t swim in the lake at night because snakes would get us. (I was afraid of snakes, so it was a pretty effective threat, even though now that I’m an adult and know something about how snakes operate, I’m fairly sure they made it up.) So adults told kids, “Stay away from the graveyard” or back streets, or the wrong side of town, or whatever place they wanted the kids to avoid, “or Legion will get you.”

If there was a violent crime committed, it could have been that everybody assumed it was Legion who had come back into town and done it, and perhaps nobody bothered to look for another culprit. He may have functioned as the community’s “scapegoat,” the one to whom the whole community attributed all the evil that was present among them. With Legion out there in the graveyard screaming and cutting himself personifying all that was bad and scary, the people of Gadara never had to recognize or address the things that were bad or scary within themselves or their own families.

And then here came Jesus one morning, stepping off a boat and sending the legion of demons back to hell. Now what?

Family systems theory says that a system always seeks “equilibrium,” everything staying the same, nothing rocking the boat, no changes; and if that equilibrium is disrupted, the system will react in ways that often make no sense whatsoever, attempting to restore it.

A family in which one member has an addiction and then seeks to recover from it, even though everyone says they’re glad that member is getting well, often will begin to behave in ways that, unconsciously, seem to be about putting the recovering member back into the slot they formerly filled in the family system. It’s the reason why many formal addiction treatment programs try to involve as much family as possible, so the whole family system can get well.

So when the townspeople heard about the pigs, and went out to see for themselves and found the man who used to be known only by a number—Legion—sitting clothed and in his right mind, their system’s equilibrium went haywire. The demons having been sent back to hell where they belonged, of course there was no chance of putting the man back into that slot in the system; but something had to be done. So what they did was ask Jesus—begged him, actually, third time in this reading—to leave.

Everything they thought was nailed down and certain had come loose and was floating around, but at least they were doing something about it.

The man formerly known as Legion then does some more begging of his own: “Take me with you, Jesus!” I don’t know what they might do to me after you’re gone.

But Jesus says no. It doesn’t say why, but I’d imagine it’s because he’s a Gentile, and it’s not time for Gentiles to become part of the crowd that is following Jesus around. And instead Jesus gives the man a much harder job: “Go home and tell your friends, your neighbors, and your kinfolk what has happened, what the Lord has done for you.”

Jesus sends the man out, in a way, as a missionary to his fellow Gentiles. (And the Greek word for “sent out,” incidentally, is apostellō, from which we get the English word apostle.)

Will he be safe? We don’t know; the text doesn’t tell us. It does, however, say that the man went beyond just talking to folks he knew; he went through the whole Decapolis, all ten of the Gentile cities in that region, proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ healing, saving power.

Now here’s the “so what,” the question for us.

When Jesus comes into our lives, he will change things. How are we going to respond? Are we going to go tell everyone about what he has done for us, so they might also be amazed, and maybe also believe in him? Or are we going to decide we don’t want to allow things to change, and send him on his way?

[1] It’s a common misperception that all concentration camp prisoners received these tattoos.  But it was only done at Auschwitz, after 1941, and some prisoners were not tattooed, such as ethnic Germans and police prisoners.  See

[2] Ancient Gospel manuscripts record multiple names for this region, but history tells us there was a town called Gadara, so “Gadarene” (as in Matthew 8:28-34) is probably correct.