Monday, October 28, 2019

Mark 5 1-20

and they came over unto the other side of the sea into the country of the Gadarenes

and when he was come out of the ship, 
immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,
who had his dwelling among the tombs;

and no man could bind him, no, not with chains:
because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains,
and the chains had been plucked asunder by him,
and the fetters broken in pieces:
neither could any man tame him.

and always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones

but when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,
and cried with a loud voice,
and said, "what have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?
I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not."
for he said unto him,
"come out of the man, thou unclean spirit"
and he asked him,
"what is thy name?"
and he answered, saying,
"my name is Legion: for we are many"
and he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.

mow there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.
and all the devils besought him, saying,
"send us into the swine, that we may enter into them"
and forthwith Jesus gave them leave.
and the unclean spirits went out,
and entered into the swine:
and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea,
(they were about two thousand;)
and were choked in the sea

and they that fed the swine fled,
and told it in the city, and in the country.
and they went out to see what it was that was done.
and they come to Jesus,
and see him that was possessed with the devil,
and had the legion,
sitting, and clothed,
and in his right mind:
and they were afraid.
and they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil,
and also concerning the swine
and they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts

and when he was come into the ship,
he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him.
howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him,
"Go home to thy friends,
and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee,
and hath had compassion on thee."
and he departed,
and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him:
and all men did marvel.

Capernaum is on the west side of Galilee. Anything on the East could be said to be "on the other side", although the lake is only about eight miles across. No-one knows where "the country of the Gardarenes" is: even the various manuscripts of Mark don't agree. Some say "Gadarenes"; some say "Gergesenes", some say "Geresenes". Some people would like it to be "the country of Girgashites" because that might make it a place where some of the original, pagan inhabitants of Israel still lived. Pilgrims have settled on a place called Kursi, which was once near a town called Gergasa.

But for the purposes of the story, it doesn't matter a great deal. The Country of the Gadarenes is foreign; far away; different; a place where no-one has heard of Jesus; a place where they farm disgusting animals. I said that chapter one of Mark felt like the opening of a movie and chapter three more like a cinematic montage. Chapter five feels a little like a dream sequence. We go from Capernaum, where there is a house and a boat and a synagogue, and pass through a storm, and end up in this strange place, full of pigs and demons.

The tone of Mark's story telling changes. We heard how Jesus healed a leper: but we weren't invited to look at his skin or his disease or the rags. We have been told that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand, but we don't actually look at the stump. But this story is full of poetry and description. A strong man; a man who smashes chains; a man who makes a lot of noise and self harms; very probably a naked man; a man who prefers the company of the dead to the company of the living; a man who is by Jewish standards, unclean. Mark really wants us to imagine what he looks like.

The narrative feels like a stream of consciousness: it jumps forwards and backwards. A man came from the tombs who couldn't be tied up. He couldn't be tied up with chains. Because did I mention that people kept on trying to chain him up? But when they tried to chain him up he just broke the chains and ran away. To the graveyard; which is in the hills. Did I mention he lived in a graveyard? Like I said he came down from the tombs and begged Jesus not to punish him. That's because, I forgot to say, that Jesus spoke first and told the demon to come out of the guy. He even asked the demon's name. But it wasn't just a single demon, it was loads and loads...

King James says that the mob of demons worshiped Jesus; but that makes it sound too much as if they were engaging in a rousing chorus of Kum-By-Ya. What they actually did was fall on their knees and beg for mercy. "What do you want with me? Please don't punish me…."

One has to assume that Jesus's disciples are on the boat, and don't hear any of this. They have just witnessed the weather-miracle and are presumably still wondering who Jesus is. The regiment of demons is yelling the solution to the mystery. "Jesus, Son of God in heaven!" But they don't hear or aren't listening.

Legion is very specifically a Latin word, denoting a unit of the Roman Army -- maybe as many as six thousand men. "My name is Legion" is on a level with "My name is Panzer Division" or "My name is S.A.S". The Good News Bible has no excuse whatsoever to make the demon say "My name is Mob, there are so many of us." The American Bible Society produces a document called the Contemporary English Bible which hugely improves "My name is Legion" to "My name is 'Lots'". (If Contemporary Americans don't know what a legion is. couldn't he have said "My name is Army.")

Jesus orders the demons to leave the man, but gives them permission to go into a drove of pigs. Are demons like Nazgul and hate the idea of being disembodied? Or are they going to inhabit the pigs for a few years as an alternative to heading back down to hell and reporting their failure to Beelzebub? Did Jesus trick the demons? Or was he honestly showing them mercy by letting them go into the pigs? Demon-possessed people seem to know they are demon-possessed and to dislike it; I suppose the man was cutting himself with stones to try to get the devils to leave him. The pigs take a more drastic approach, and commit mass porcine suicide, presumably depriving the devils of their host body. The man ran down from the mountains when he saw Jesus, so the beach must have hills and cliffs all round it. I think we often imagine the pigs running off a cliff into the water, like so many curly-tailed lemmings, but the story only requires them to run down a hill into the water.

The news that something amazing has happened on the beach flies round town, and people come to have a look. The reporters have decided that the headline is "Two Thousand Pigs Jump Into Sea For No Reason". But when they arrive, they discover that the real story is "Graveyard Lunatic Totally Cured". Mark mentions that he has put some clothes on. This obviously struck Luke as important, because when he retells the story, he adds the detail that the demon-possessed man was naked. Presumably, Peter or James kept a change of clothes on the boat in case anyone fell in the water on a fishing trip. The reaction of the onlookers is not "Thank goodness! You've cured that poor man." It is "Please go away. We can't afford to lose any more livestock."

It seems a bit hard on the swineherds, I must admit. I suppose Jesus' disciples would have said "If you will raise non-kosher beasts, you can't expect much sympathy from us. "

The local people want Jesus to leave. The demon-free man wants to come with Jesus and be one of his students. But for some reason, Jesus won't have him. (You don't think the boat was already overloaded with disciples, do you?)

Howbeit is a peculiar choice of words. Pretentious people still occasionally say "albeit" when they want to say "even though". (It would never occur to them to say "all be it" but they are happy to lapse into Middle English.) But howbeit is completely obsolete. It isn't clear why King James's men preferred it to "however" or "but" or simply another "and". This is why some people like Contemporary American texts.

In a few pages Jesus will send his special twelve out to extend the reach of his message; but he wants this man to start spreading the good news on this side of the lake right away. (Remember that fact: one of these days it will turn up in a religious themed pub quiz. The first Apostle to the Gentiles was not St Paul, but the Gardarene demoniac.) I don't how much proclaiming he was able to do. He hasn't heard any of the Jesus' preaching. All he knows is that out in Capernaum there is a supremely powerful exorcist.

Maybe we have to see miracles and exorcisms as a kind of theological loss-leader. The man goes round the city saying "Jesus can control demons! Jesus controls demons!" And some of the people who hear will cross over to Capernaum to find out for themselves…..

Pigs can swim.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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