THE BANISHING OF THE DEMONS
They came to the other side of the lake, to the territory of the Gerasenes. Immediately Jesus had disembarked from the boat, there met him from the tombs a man in the grip of an unclean spirit. This man lived amongst the tombs. No one had ever been able to bind him with a chain, because he had often been bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been wrenched apart by him and the fetters shattered; and no one was strong enough to tame him. Continually, night and day, in the tombs and in the hills, he kept shrieking and gashing himself with stones. He saw Jesus when he was still a long way away, and he ran and knelt before him. “What,” he said, “have you and I to do with each other, Jesus, you son of the most high God? In God’s name, I adjure you, do not torture me!” For Jesus had been saying to him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!” “What is your name?” he asked him. “Legion is my name,” he said, “for we are many.” And he kept begging Jesus with many an entreaty not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of swine was feeding on the mountain-side. “Send us into the Swine,” they urged him, “that we may go into them.” And Jesus permitted them to go into them. And the unclean spirits came out and entered into the swine and the herd–there were about two thousand of them–rushed down the precipice into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
Here is a vivid and rather eerie story. It is the kind of story in which we have to do our best to read between the lines, because it is thinking and speaking in terms quite familiar to people in Palestine in the days of Jesus but quite alien to us.
If this is to be taken in close connection with what goes before–and that is Mark’s intention–it must have happened late in the evening or even when the night had fallen. The story becomes all the more weird and frightening when it is seen as happening in the shadows of the night.
Mk. 5:35 tells us that it was late in the evening when Jesus and his friends set sail. The Lake of Galilee is 13 miles long at its longest, and 8 miles wide at its widest. At this particular part it was about 5 miles across. They had made the journey and, on the way, they had encountered the storm, and now had reached land. It was a part of the lake-side where there were many caves in the limestone rock, and many of these caves were used as tombs in which bodies were laid. At the best of times it was an eerie place; as night fell it must have been grim indeed.
Out of the tombs there came a demon-possessed man. It was a fitting place for him to be, for demons, so they believed in those days, dwelt in woods and gardens and vineyards and dirty places, in lonely and desolate spots and among the tombs. It was in the night-time and before cock-crow that the demons were specially active. To sleep alone in an empty house at night was dangerous; to greet any person in the dark was perilous, for he might be a demon. To go out at night without a lantern or a torch was to court trouble. It was a perilous place and a perilous hour, and the man was a dangerous man.
How completely this man felt himself to be possessed is seen in his way of speaking. Sometimes he uses the singular, as if he himself was speaking; sometimes he uses the plural, as if all the demons in him were speaking. He was so convinced that the demons were in him, that he felt they were speaking through him. When asked his name he said his name was Legion. There were probably two reasons for that.
A legion was a Roman regiment of 6,000 troops. Very likely the man had seen one of these Roman regiments clanking along the road, and he felt that there was a whole battalion of demons inside him. In any event the Jews believed that no man would survive if he realized the number of demons with which he was surrounded. They were “like the earth that is thrown up around a bed that is sown.” There were a thousand at a man’s right hand and ten thousand at his left. The queen of the female spirits had no fewer than 180,000 followers. There was a Jewish saying, “A legion of hurtful spirits is on the watch for men, saying, `When shall he fall into the hands of one of these things and be taken?'” No doubt this wretched man knew all about this, and his poor, wandering mind was certain that a mass of those demons had taken up their residence in him.
Further, Palestine was an occupied country. The legions, at their wildest and most irresponsible, could sometimes be guilty of atrocities that would make the blood run cold. It may well be that this man had seen, perhaps even witnessed his loved ones suffer from, the murder and rapine that could sometimes follow the legions. It may well be that it was some such terrible experience which had driven him insane. The word Legion conjured up for him a vision of terror and death and destruction. He was convinced that demons like that were inside him.
We shall not even begin to understand this story unless we see how serious a case of demon-possession this man was. It is clear that Jesus made more than one attempt to heal him. Mk. 5:8 tells us that Jesus had begun by using his usual method–an authoritative order to the demon to come out. On this occasion that was not successful. Next, he demanded what the demon’s name was. It was always supposed in those days that, if a demon’s name could be discovered, it gave a certain power over it. An ancient magical formula says, “I adjure thee, every demonic spirit, Say whatsoever thou art.” The belief was that if the name was known the demon’s power was broken. In this case even that did not prove enough.
Jesus saw that there was only one way to cure this man–and that was to give him unanswerable demonstration that the demons had gone out of him, at least, unanswerable as far as his own mind was concerned. It does not matter whether we believe in demon-possession or not; the man believed in it. Even if it all lay in his disordered mind, the demons were terribly, real to him. Dr. Rendle Short, speaking about the supposed evil influence of the moon (Ps.121:6) which emerges in the words lunatic and moonstruck, says, “Modern science does not recognize any particular harm as coming from the moon. Yet it is a very widespread belief that the moon does affect people mentally. It is good to know that the Lord can deliver us from imaginary dangers as well as from real ones. Often the imaginary are harder to face.”
This man needed deliverance; whether that deliverance was from literal demon-possession, or from an all-powerful delusion does not matter. This is where the herd of swine comes in. They were grazing on the hillside. The man felt that the demons were asking to be not totally destroyed but sent into the swine. All the time he was uttering the shrieks and going through the paroxysms which were the sign of his malady. Suddenly, as his yells reached a new pitch of intensity, the whole herd took flight and plunged down a steep slope into the sea. There was the very proof that the man needed. This was almost the only thing on earth that could have convinced him that he was cured. Jesus, like a wise healer who understood so kindly and sympathetically the psychology of a mind diseased, used the event to help the man climb back to sanity, and his disordered mind was restored to peace.
There are ultra-fastidious people who will blame Jesus because the healing of the man involved the death of the pigs. Surely it is a singularly blind way to look at things. How could the fate of the pigs possibly be compared with the fate of a man’s immortal soul? We do not, presumably, have any objections to eating meat for dinner nor refuse pork because it involved the killing of some pig. Surely if we kill animals to avoid going hungry, we can raise no objection if the saving of a man’s mind and soul involved the death of a herd of these same animals. There is a cheap sentimentalism which will languish in grief over the pain of an animal and never turn a hair at the wretched state of millions of God’s men and women. This is not to say that we need not care what happens to God’s animal creation, for God loves every creature whom his hands have made, but it is to say that we must preserve a sense of proportion; and in God’s scale of proportions, there is nothing so important as a human soul.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary