Love Among The Ruins



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Scripture Reading:

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Mark 5:1-20

5 They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.  2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.  3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for 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.  5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.  6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and 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.”  8For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”  He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.”  13So 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 lake, and were drowned in the lake.

14The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  Then people came to see what it was that had happened.  15They 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.  16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.  17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood.  18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.  19But 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.”  20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.


The minute Jesus stepped out of the boat things began to change in the country of the Gerasenes.  As Jesus sloshed through the water to the shore, his movement created ripples in the water that reached out into the lake and disappeared.  But the ripple effect his prophetic presence made as his feet touched the shore that day would reverberate throughout that community for generations and through the Christian imagination for centuries.  Jesus came to bring change to the Gerasene community and that change was not warmly received.

The disciples hauled the boat up onto the sand, relieved to be on solid ground again.  They were still a bit shaky from the crossing to this shore.  A wild storm had raged about them in the night while Jesus slept peacefully in the boat. Awakened only by the disciples’ panic and fear, Jesus did something next that was as disturbing to them as the storm that raged around them.  Jesus rebuked the wind, which calmed down immediately and then he rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith.  The seeds of his teaching were beginning to break open and take root in their hearts and minds, but the disciples were a long way from trusting Jesus.

Their minds a muddle of hope and despair and their hands occupied with the boat, the disciples didn’t see the man approach them.  His shouting startled the disciples, whose nerves were already on edge.  They turned to see a ragged shell of a man bowing down inches away from Jesus and shouting at full volume as if Jesus was deaf: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  The disciples knew a storm when they saw one, and the terror of a midnight storm on the sea was radiating from the insides of this man.  Hair matted; his mostly naked body covered with bruises, sores and dirt; eyes afire with an unholy rage, the man shook and rattled all over like the chains that dangled from his wrists.

Had they spent the night in that city the disciples would have heard the voice of the demon-possessed man wailing like a wolf in the darkness, a sound half human, half animal.  For late at night, after the clatter and noise of the marketplace had died away and mothers were singing their babies to sleep, the man would shout and carry on like a trapped animal.  At first people would start from their sleep or run to the window to see who was being tortured, but over time the cries of the demoniac became a part of the background noise of the city, no more noticeable than chatter in the courtyard or cricket song in the night.

Jesus spoke gently but firmly to the man, searching the crazed eyes for a place to connect, for a way in.  The man was unclean, not only because of the dirt and filth caked on his skin but because he lived in the graveyard, a place ritually unclean by definition.  Jesus looked steadily into the man’s eyes; eyes that would not hold his gaze, eyes wild with something that made everyone else want to shrink back.    Jesus persisted, as if expecting to find in his eyes the story of what had taken the man into the graveyard in the first place.  Perhaps grief had shattered this man, pierced his heart, and broken his hold on reality.  But when Jesus asked the man his name, another story began to emerge.

“Legion,” the man hissed.  “My name is Legion.”  When he said the word Legion it was as if his voice multiplied and grew, echoing and reverberating so that it sounded like more than one man answering.  At the sound of it, Peter could feel the skin crawl on his scalp, and James moved forward as if to protect Jesus.  Legion was what the Roman troops were called.  Something more was going on here, something bigger than just one man who had gone off the rails of his life.  This man may have been occupied by something other than himself but no more or less than this region was occupied by Rome, whose soldiers were called pigs.  And before they knew what was happening, the demons rush into a herd of pigs who throw themselves over a cliff and are drowned in the sea.  The healing of the man mirrored the political situation, a people possessed by outsiders, whose ultimate fantasy was that the Roman pigs would drown in the sea. The disciples saw the last of the pigs drowning in the sea, the local economy going under, and they thought to themselves: “This is not going to end well.”

The Gerasene demoniac was, in some convoluted way, a scapegoat for the whole community, acting out the conflict between themselves and their occupiers. Theologian Walter Wink1 (Unmasking the Powers) suggests that the community has been colluding with this man, feeding him and keeping him alive, chaining him with chains that he is able to repeatedly break.  The people of this city could not directly rage against the war machine that occupied them, for fear of retaliation.  But they could repeatedly act out their fantasies of revenge through the demon possessed man.  But then Jesus brings compassion and love among the ruins of this man’s life, of this community’s suffering, and disrupts their fragile political ecosystem with this unsolicited healing.

When we think of the Gerasene demoniac’s broken life as a product of Rome’s war machine, then suddenly we began to imagine we see him everywhere in our own society.  One of my students2 preached on this passage last week and suggested that veterans from the Iraq war who are suffering from PTSD are the modern day Gerasene demoniacs, the vulnerable ones who carry the burden of a war we were at best ambivalent about, a war whose beginning was rooted in a deep reaction to the experience of vulnerability and loss of control of 9/11.  Listening to the many, many stories of how Iraqi war vets are struggling to put their lives back together it is easy to imagine the Gerasene demoniac reflected in their eyes.

I’ve also seen the face of the demoniac this week in the face of the homeless vet, most likely from the Vietnam War, who approached my car on Wednesday with a cardboard sign asking for money or food.  And I can’t help but think of the Gerasene demoniac over the past two weeks as I have listened to and read the stories of Robert Bales3, the US army staff sergeant who is facing charges of seventeen counts of murder and six charges of attempted murder for his alleged shooting spree against Afghani citizens in their own homes.  Bales, a soldier who was on his fourth tour of duty in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, snaps, and there is a lot of speculation and little information about why he lost control and committed such horrific crimes. Is this just a story of one individual going off the deep end, or might he be a scapegoat in some way for our society? We can’t help but wonder about our own complicity in the convoluted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their tragic by-products.  Like the Gerasene demoniac, Bales is in need of redeeming love among the ruins of his life.

“What is your name,” Jesus asks the possessed man, the occupied man, and he replies “Legion.”  Rome is the army who occupies him.  Jesus does not turn away from him, but sees him fully in his vulnerability.  And fundamentally, vulnerability is at the heart of this passage.  The people who live in the Decapolis region are vulnerable to Rome’s occupation.  They cannot tolerate their own helplessness, and this repeating scenario of the scapegoated man breaking the chains and being chained again somehow helps them manage their shame at being occupied.  Jesus sees through all of this immediately and wades right into humanity’s profound sense of vulnerability.  Dr. Brené Brown, who is a shame researcher, says that our culture does many things to defend itself against vulnerability and shame: “we consume, we medicate, we overeat, we are addicted, we lose ourselves in trying to blame, control, be perfect, and pretend (I would add that we hide behind our war machine)- all efforts to discharge the pain and discomfort of our vulnerability.”4 Of vulnerability Dr. Brown says: “Vulnerability, with its core of shame, fear, and our struggle for worthiness is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love…”  The deal is, if we are going to have all of the good feelings that are born in vulnerability, we also have to learn how to tolerate all of the painful feelings that come with the package of being human.  Jesus gets this.  He looks into the eyes of the one whose life is completely bound up in vulnerability, whose shame has broken the connections with community, and he heals all of that.  Jesus sees the scenario of this broken man expressing the community’s rage against Rome, against being occupied, possessed.  And Jesus heals the man.  Audaciously heals the man.  And the community begins to come apart at the seams.

Interestingly enough, when the healed demoniac begs Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says no.  Is this the same Jesus who is forever demanding that people leave their commitments behind to follow him?  The townspeople are enraged that Jesus has disrupted the homeostasis of their lives.  The community’s fragile collusion with Rome is dismantled in the healing of the demoniac.  If the demoniac is no longer their scapegoat, acting out a drama on their behalf, then what is the community to do with him?  The man is rightly afraid to return to the community clothed and in his right mind, fearful that they will make him sick again.

This part of the story feels much like the classic conflict between the alcoholic and the codependent family member.  The codependent spends a lot of time and energy focused on the drinking of the alcoholic.  Worrying, fretting, rearranging their lives, pouring hidden bottles of alcohol down the drain when the alcoholic is not looking.  But then when the alcoholic sobers up, suddenly the one who has been unconsciously enabling them all those years now has to deal with their own feelings, their own needs, their own issues.  It is not uncommon for the partner of a recovering alcoholic to say:  “I wish they were drinking again.  Anything would be better than this.” Like the townspeople, they want things back the way they were, the familiar way.  But when the scapegoat is healed, then people are faced with their own issues, their own rage, their own shame and deeply felt inadequacies.

“Go back to your community,” Jesus says to the man.  And now the real challenge begins for the man who found love among the ruins.  He is called to be a healing force in a community that is faced with its own shame and deep vulnerability.  He is called to have courage, and compassion- toward himself and others.

In many ways, this is a story about exile and restoration.  A theme as ancient as the Hebrew slaves being set free from bondage in Egypt and as current as our wondering how we will deal with modern day demons of racism, sexism, homophobia, and our own war machine.  It is a story as collective as it is personal.  And we see our own lives mirrored in the questions of how we, too, can be freed from the things that keep us tied up in knots.  The demon-possessed man was in exile: he was cut off from his community, ruled by isolation, fear, and shame.  He had no one to love him, and no one to love.  He was clean cut off from the land of the living.  And Jesus came to set him free.  When God comes to free us from the things that possess us, the forces that occupy us, will we welcome that healing?  Or will we beg Jesus to go away?

1Walter Wink.  1986.  Unmasking the Powers.  See also Rene Girard’s work in The Scapegoat.

2Heidi Ward in her sermon in class at ANTS on March 12, 2012.

3NPR News.

4Dr. Brené Brown in a YouTube TED talk.  See also her work on shame: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t).

  • Ben Maruca