Here in chapter 5, Jesus leaves his teaching in parables and continues on his miracle making ways. Last week he was teaching by the Sea of Galilee and overnight he and the disciples moved to the other side, landing on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s an interesting place for him to be as this is an area apparently populated by Gentiles, or all the people who weren’t Jews. I say apparently populated because the text doesn’t explicitly state that it was populated by Gentiles but we do know there were about 2,000 swine involved in today’s story. No self respecting Jewish person would be in proximity with that many pigs, since according to Jewish law, they were considered unclean animals. In fact, the region was known as the Decapolis, meaning ten cities, and from historical sources we know it was a rough area. Hard people, living hard lives, and definitely not believers in the God of Abraham. Thus, Jesus is in a very different place than hanging out with his Jewish brothers and sisters back on the Jewish side of the lake.
Which leaves me asking big questions about what Jesus is up to. You would think he’d have enough to do in his home region without making a trip across the Sea of Galilee to an unfriendly place. Whatever his reasoning we find him met by a man possessed by a demon as soon as he steps off the boat. Now this guy was in rough shape. He lived among the tombs and on the mountain and night and day he howled and bashed himself with rocks. Society had not been kind to him either, though the chains and shackles they tried to bind him with weren’t strong enough to hold him. For lots of reasons Jesus, or any other Jew, shouldn’t be near this guy. Not to mention, the way he’s described here he’d just be plain scary.
Jesus doesn’t seem to bat an eye as the man runs up to him shouting. I don’t know about you but if someone runs up, bows down before me, and starts shouting at the top of their voice, I’m going to be backing away. Not running away as I wouldn’t turn my back on them but backing away. Quickly.
Jesus doesn’t run and he doesn’t back away. At this point of the story I can kind of relate to the man in some respects. He kneels before Jesus while at the same time telling Jesus to leave him alone. I think that is a nice everyperson touch that Mark uses here. How many of us have at some time felt the same way? We want Jesus close but not always THAT close. People are like that.
Then begins an interesting scene I call ‘The Dance.’ It is a conversation with the man, the unclean spirit that is inside him, and Jesus as they dance around what is to be done with the man and the unclean spirit. The man wants the unclean spirit out of him but also he doesn’t. The unclean spirit, realizing that it will be cast out one way or the other, begs Jesus to cast it into a nearby herd of 2,000 swine. And Jesus asks the unclean spirit what its name is. The three are dancing around, having three different conversations about three different things, all at the same time. Faith is like that.
Jesus grants permission to the unclean spirits to leave the man so they do, jumping into the herd of swine. Which promptly leaps off a cliff, doing away with both the swine and the unclean spirits. Which seems like a good thing and all in all it probably is. Jesus healing a man and getting rid of the unclean spirits once and for all is a good thing. At this point of the story you would think there would be cheering and yelling and all kinds of ‘Yay, Jesus!’ stuff. Jesus has healed a man and gotten rid of some unclean spirits, for the cost of a couple thousand pigs. No biggee for a Jewish person because they’re unclean animals anyway. As it happened, it doesn’t work out with cheering and yelling or any kind of ‘Yay, Jesus!’ stuff.
The whole idea is a little problematic if you’re the owner of all those pigs. Because 2000 is a lot of pigs. You can believe me on this one. I grew up on a hog farm and we only had about a thousand head at any given time. Twice that amount is a lot of livestock to watch go over a cliff because this Jewish man from across the Sea of Galilee said so. That’d be pretty hard to take in, I should think.
It brings to mind that our actions as followers of Christ can have profound impacts on people who aren’t believers. I’m not questioning what Jesus did here healing the man but it does bring to mind that getting rid of the man’s unclean spirit wasn’t without a cost. The owners of the swine paid a heavy price for the man to be healed.
The reality of our faith can be like that sometimes. It’s all well and good to make the claim that as followers of Christ we’re commanded to do this or to do that but how we do this and that is important. Doing the right thing the wrong way can have unintended consequences, particularly in driving away people who are not yet believers in God. It’s just up to us to be wise about how we live out our faith so that the kingdom of God is expanded and more people learn the love of God in Christ.