Erwin Cabucos’s exegetical interpretation of Mark 5:1-20 argues for Jesus’ power of evil, a true Markan characteristic of the Son of Man as a divine person.
The story of the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac in the book of Mark (5:1-20) exemplifies the Markan representation of Jesus as the hero and the Messiah. It serves as a typical narrative that is contained devices, leading to the Markan climax that reveals the divinity of Jesus. This exorcism story also illustrates how the suffering messiah theme connects well with the audience of the time. In reading the second gospel for today’s society, Mark constantly strengthens the Christian vocation to uphold the dignity of those who are marginalized and the powerless in society.
The story of the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac is found in the earlier part of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus begins his mission after his baptism with John the Baptist and his encounter with the devil in the desert. This narrative in chapter 5 verses 1 to 20 of the gospel tells the story of Jesus exorcising an outcast who has been possessed by the devil. The plot affirms Jesus’ power ruling over the devil and the messiah that alleviates and saves the people of God.
The representation of the character of Jesus in this passage affirms the image of Jesus as powerful, the ultimate good over evil. In this classic story of good and evil, Jesus is the agent of the good, overpowering the devil that afflicts the poor person. Jesus has more power than the forces of evil. He commands: “…come out of the man you unclean spirit” (8). This is consistent with the overall depiction of Jesus in the Gospel as the Son of Man who can calm the storm (Mk 4:35-41), walk on water (Mk 6:45-52), feed thousands of people out of a few fish and bread (Mk 6:30-44), and cast out demons that spoil humanity (Mk 1:23-27, Mk 5: 1-20). His exorcism of the devil is consistent with his nature as the agent of God who has control over unfortunate circumstances, particularly that which causes suffering and pains on peoples. It is only someone who has Godly nature and power who could approach such strong force as the devil. Jesus is rightly positioned to be the just agent of goodness. He is the hero who, not only overcomes evil, but also drives out misery and restores normalcy. This image of Jesus foreshadows the declaration of the Roman Centurion at the climax of the Gospel at the crucifixion: “Truly this man is the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).
The passage reveals many forms of suffering, including psychological, social and spiritual. Social suffering is perhaps the most pervasive and hurtful than the symptoms of demonic possession. Social labeling and perception can really limit and suppress opportunities for happiness. The character has been unnamed, restrained and shackled. He lives among the tombs (Mk 5: 2, 3 and 5). The term ‘tomb’ repeated three times to emphasize its strong association with death. Being an outcast does give a feeling of being dead. His family and friends would have disowned him. The whole town would have wanted him dead. The effects of this exclusion would have been devastating to his esteem and self-worth, so much that it was almost a prize to have been healed and thus worthy of telling the world about it. Hence Jesus says to him in the end: “Go home to your friends… (19),” declaring the transformed nature of the man. Jesus has given the outcast a sense of dignity and respect as a person in society. Jesus restores the made-in-the-image-and-likeness-of-God status of the individual, reminiscent of the account in Genesis when God made man in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:27), the very basis upon which peoples should be respected regardless of their social status. Hence, as well, the first principle of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church: human dignity.
The man is possessed by the devil named Legion. The representation of the Legion may be referred to the political suppression of Rome to the Jewish and nearby provinces at the time. Fowler (1996) suspects that the name of the devil Legion is derived from the Latin word ‘legio’ referring to the Roman legions occupying Palestine. This alludes to the social and political suffering of people under the Roman Rule’s impositions of the time. Waetjen (1989:7) describes the Roman agrarian system over Palestine as that which is unjust. Peasants were asked to pay high rent and taxes. Rulers and governors dispossessed and marginalized the lower class, resulting to crop failures and unemployment. Mark places that Roman system as the devil, the antagonist in the narrative, the social malady that could be cured if people pay respect and dignity to the poor and the lowly.
The Markan Jesus is the hero Jesus who transforms the lowly and the outcast to the more dignified human being. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus breaks the boundary between suppression and recognition – a theme that shines in the climactic moment during crucifixion, specifically marked by the tearing of the curtain at the temple: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom,” (Mk 15:38-39). This occurrence is a powerful symbol that through his death, he has broken down the things or situation that separate humanity from being far from God to being close to God. And the plot of the exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac foretells the very meaning of the event at the temple during his death: the outcast is being stripped off his suffering to experience good, god-like life. Jesus Christ destroys the enmity between man and God. If that barrier may come in the form of sin, then Jesus rebukes that sin. If that division is caused by a social milieu, then the teachings of Jesus and faith in him should be the cure to obscure such hurdle. Jesus Christ is the liberator of anything that prevents man to become closer to God.
Furthermore, the plot and the characterization of the passage foreshadow the theme of transformation of Jesus: from a man to the ‘adopted’ divine. The unnamed, minor character in Mark parallels the character of Jesus: who suffers, dies, entombed and resurrects. The whole experience of going through the depth of pain and suffering, by faith or by the mercy of God, becomes victorious in the glory of God. The man lives in the tombs, restrained, chained, shackled, and possessed. “Tombs were considered favourite dwelling places for demons” (Fowler, 1996).From the lowest of the low, from the depths and deaths of the earth, comes the transformed and dignified person due to the power of Jesus. The transformation of Mark’s minor characters such as the unnamed demoniac in this passage somehow parallels the transformation of Jesus from a suffering servant to a glorified God in the climax of the Gospel. In this situation where the story of the healing of the demoniac appears in the beginning part of the gospel somehow the minor character’s transformation foreshadows the nature of the transformation of Jesus Christ at his Crucifixion. Hours before he dies, Jesus is mocked by the crowd as the failed messiah, but later redeemed through the worlds of the Roman centurion that truly “this man was the son of God” (Mk 15:39) and further admitted into the kingship position in heaven (Col 1:15-2:1).
Looking further into the narrative of the passage, the theme of breaking boundaries, division and walls in association with the character of Jesus is interestingly apparent in other areas of the narrative. For example it is found in the opening line of the passage: “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (Mk 15:1). The setting that is portrayed in the action of the narrative reinforces the activity of Jesus to be crossing the Sea of Galilee that geographically separates the Jewish territory from the gentile side. Prior to this passage, in chapter 4, Jesus teaches parables of the sower, lamp under a bushel basket, the growing seed and the mustard seed. The chapter ends with Jesus calming the storm and disciples wondering why the wind and the sea obey him. His transfers between the Jewish and the non-Jewish territories significantly place the setting of the Sea at the forefront of Mark’s representation of Jesus as the one who can overcome barriers between peoples.
The sea becomes a symbol showing that Jesus’ control reigns. He calms the water of the sea. He leads two thousand folds of swine with the devils into the sea. In the history of the Jews, the sea is the chaotic area they had to cross at the Passover (Ex 14). Yet in this passage in Mark, the sea is the one that Jesus crosses over and over again to reach out to both types of community where he has control over and not hampered by its geographical hindrances. Jesus has subdued the monstrosity and the dividing power of the sea. Just like their forefathers have conquered the Reed Sea to attain liberation, Jesus has dominion over the sea to show salvation. This time is climactically echoed and dramatically illustrated by the tearing of the curtain in the temple – the very curtain that symbolized the division, parity and hindrance between the unholy and the holies. In the Kingdom of God that Jesus teaches, there is no longer division between peoples. In faith, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, east or west are one. We are all one family in Christ’s kingdom, marking the letter of Paul to the Romans: “though we are many, we are one body in Christ” (12:4-5).
The use of the pigs as the agents through which the devil lands reflects the agrarian nature of the socio-economic structure of the Roman-occupied Palestine and the Roman-occupied Syria where origins of the narrative come from. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great is reported to be a famous agrarian ruler, virtually owning and farming the areas of Galilee and Perea (Waetjen ,1989:5). Thus the number of references to the stories associated with vineyards owner, the sower, fishermen and peasant farmer. The inclusion of the use of pigs and swineherds is concordant with the agricultural setting of the narrative – farming swine for the gentiles. Waetjen (1989:7) describes the Roman agricultural system over Palestine that is marked by an unfair system. Peasants are asked to pay high rent and taxes. Rulers and governors take advantage of the workers, dispossessing and marginalizing the lower class, resulting to crop failures and unemployment. The plot of the passage tells the destruction of the swine, the by-product and symbol of the unjust system. And if that unjust system causes misery and suffering on people, then it might as well be gone. So the pigs were drowned in the sea. Doesn’t this remind the reader of Jesus’ teaching that says which ever causes you sin, then get rid of it, such as: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42) and “If your hand causes you to sin, cut if off…(Mk 9:43).
Furthermore, it is interesting to note the plot’s approach on the swine as the recipient of the unclean-ness of society. Jesus takes away the harm and the uncleanliness from people and dumps them into that which symbolizes the unjust structure of his time. The story of Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene demoniac is effectively a satire of the unjust social agrarian structure of the Roman Empire. In the power struggle between the powerful and the powerless, Jesus identifies himself with the underdogs. He associates with those who suffer.
The strong depiction of Jesus as the suffering servant in the gospel of Mark is the positioning device of the gospel that makes the book appealing for the audience who had had experience with the themes and preoccupation of the gospel. Edwards (2002:7) explains that the writing of the Gospel of Mark is in tandem with the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the mid to late 60s of the first century. Two recorded persecutions after the crucifixion of Jesus are recorded by historians: first of which was the murder of Caligula in 41 B.C.E., and second, the barbaric torture of Christians after a fire that occurred in Rome during the reign of Nero in 64B.C.E. – times which the writings of Mark would have begun. Thus the Markan community would have easily embraced the gospel by way of association and identification on the themes, preoccupation and experiences of the time.
The characters Jesus interacts with in most of the narratives in Mark are the lowly, the sick, the lame, the outcast – the poor in society. The gospel has strong association of the misfortunes and the suffering people. Rhoads and Michie (1982:133) call these characters ‘little people’, mostly unnamed, unimportant and are suffering in many forms. Jesus, the messiah, is with them, healing them, dining with them and being with them, alleviating their suffering. Not only Jesus associates himself with them, he also mirrors their life. Jesus himself suffers. He is scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, made to carry his cross, mocked, robbed, insulted, ridiculed, stripped, given with vile drink, died, abandoned, left alone in the company of strangers. However, amidst all those suffering, Jesus comes out victorious. In the narrative of Mark, in God’s new rule those who suffer will find glory in God. Suffering is a journey through which hope and liberation will soon be achieved and death or the experience of it may simply be part of it. This theme is exemplified in the healing of the demoniac: the man lived in the death-like situation but because of Jesus’ power, he was restored to life. It is this very message that the gospel of Mark becomes meaningful in its positioning of the audience. The readers or hearers (when read) of Mark in the Roman rule would have been able to associate and identify themselves with those experiences of pain, suffering, powerlessness, marginalization and the longing for hope for a redeemer. The Gospel presents Jesus rightly that: the suffering Messiah who exemplifies the power of faith to God, bringing hope and salvation to all those who are poor and powerless.
The attitude shown by the protagonist – Jesus – is one that is discreet. After refusing to include the newly exorcised man from becoming one of his close followers, Jesus goes away. There is a sense of hastiness in the telling of the story – another general observation of the narrative of the whole gospel. Then Jesus begins to proclaim in another place – Decapolis. This reserved or secretive nature of Jesus in the passage signals the ‘messianic secret’ which Mark adopts to hide the identity of Jesus, which Raisanen (1990:224) argues to have been withheld until towards the climax where it is truly revealed by the words of the Roman soldier at the cross. The ‘use of the messianic secret’ is distinctive rhetorical feature of Mark that attests to the suspenseful nature of the Gospel. The real identity of Jesus – the Lord and Messiah is all revealed in the death on the cross.
Perhaps the practical purpose of the use of ‘Messianic secret’ is its direct outcome: to hide the subversive nature of Jesus. He is a leader who stirs up conventions, challenges law and questions the norm. Relating with the demoniac and certainly visiting him in the cemetery is a bizarre practice at the time, but that is the very point of the Markan Kingdom of God: giving power to the powerless and giving dignity to those who are denied of them.
In reflecting the on the opportunities to apply the themes of the Gospel of Mark in today’s situation, it will be foolish for the contemporary reader to discord Mark from the promotion of Social Justice. If there is one that stands out to be the strongest meaning of the second gospel it would be our Christian calling to become like Jesus at a grass-root level. A more discerning application of the Gospel of Mark would be to enact the Christian vocation to give dignity to those who are powerless, marginalized and the poor. The encyclicals that promote social liberation, such as ‘Rerum Nuvarum’ is a concrete example of such effort of our contemporary society. Where the poor are, there is Jesus.
The story of the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac in the book of Mark (5:1-20) is a typical example of the Markan representation of Jesus as the hero and the Messiah. It exemplifies the narrative devices that lead to the Markan climax on the divinity of Jesus. This exorcism story shows how the suffering messiah theme connects well with the audience. Mark constantly strengthens the Christian calling to uphold the dignity of those who are poor and powerless in society.
Boomershine, T. (2011). Audience Address and Purpose in the Performance of Mark. In: Iverson, K. & Skinner, C. eds. (2011). Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, pp. 115-142.
Edwards, J. (2002). The Gospel According to Mark. Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Fowler, R. M. (1996). ‘Exorcising a Demon’, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Brown, R.E., Fitzmyer, J.A. and Murphy, R.E. (Eds.). London, England: Geoffrey Chapman. (Original work published 1989).
Grabbe, L. L. (2010). ‘Textual Judaism: The Priestly and Scribal Current’, in Introduction to Second Temple Judaism : History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel, and Jesus (pp. 57-65). London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing. (Original work published 06/2010).
Raisanen, H. (1990). The ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark’s Gospel. Tuckett, C. (Trans). Edinburg: T. &. T. Clark.
Rhoads, D. & Michie, D. (1982). Mark as Story: An introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (1st ed.). Minneapolis, USA: Fortress Press.
Vincent, J. (Ed). (2006). Mark: Gospel of Action. Personal and Community Responses. London: Soceity for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).
Waetjen, H. C. (1989). A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel. USA: Random House.
About the author:
Erwin Cabucos studied Religious Education from Australian Catholic Uniiversity, Brisbane Campus.