Time was, when I was a boy of 9 or 10 or 11, that this was my favorite New Testament story. There were perhaps two reasons. First, I was the son of a Pentecostal preacher and had seen much evidence of the dramatic effects of the Holy Spirit on many people—so it was not a great stretch, with a boy’s overactive imagination, to conjure a vivid picture of the sort of havoc an unclean spirit might produce. Here was a New Testament story—and there weren’t many—to rival the Old Testament stories of David and Goliath (where, much to a young boy’s delight, the giant literally loses his head) and the so-called witch of Endor. Secondly, I think my fascination with the demoniac’s story derived also from a Pentecostal penchant for archaic language. The Holy Spirit was for us during my formative years the Holy Ghost—and Mark 5 (//Luke 8:26-39), read from the King James Version, the Bible of my youth, was inhabited by a man “possessed with devils”—and those “devils” appeared in the text quite frequently, even in verses where I now know that the Greek text is more restrained. Nowadays the Greek is “more faithfully” rendered by the NRSV’s antiseptic “they.” The KJV was so much better, don’t you think, for a boyish imagination?—far better “devils” than “they.” What my friends and I discovered back then was a ghost story to keep a boy up at night and devils enough to keep him whispering solemn speculations for hours into the night.
So, when, somewhat desperate for a text for this sermon before Presbytery (Middle Tennessee, 2003; Year 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary [RCL] Daily Lectionary, Week following Sunday between July 17 and 23 inclusive) I noticed that Mark 5 appeared as Thursday’s Gospel reading, I took it as a providential sign and was once again enticed to “turn aside to see” this strange text that “burns, yet is not consumed.”
We children of the Enlightenment, denizens of the 20th and now the 21st century, no longer believe in ghosts and devils. We assume that we have exorcised (that’s exorcise, not exercise) or can successfully exorcise all the devils from their hiding places in Mark 5. We are, after all, and with apologies to Amy Jill Levine, “the very model of a modern Bible exegete.” Naturally, we no longer subscribe to a literalistic reading in which two or four or six thousand demons drive two thousand swine off the side of a cliff and into the sea. We are older now, more mature, more civilized and sophisticated. We know all too well that what the ancient writers understood as spirit possession would likely be diagnosed today in a sterile, clinical hospital ward as some sort of mental illness—-though, if we are honest, we will also admit that it is no less terrible and terrifying for its diagnosis. We Presbyterian exegetes know to ask all those “who, what, where, and when” questions that domesticate and bind this text to its ancient context. And we know that we should not move on to a consideration of what the text means here, to us, today, until it has been “successfully” bound, gagged, and interred in the city of Gerasa or Gadara or Gergesa, in the region of the gentile Decapolis, between Galilee and Judea, under Roman Imperial administration, some two thousand years ago. We know all that.
Still, there are ghosts in this text that haunt me. This text, like the demoniac himself, refuses to stay confined to its modern shackles. Though commentary after modern commentary warns us against misreading this story as a condemnation by Jesus of an economic system in which 2,000 swine are more valuable than a single, though deranged human life, still pulpits resound with this “misreading” every time the text is read (though that may now be rarely done). Why does such an economic “misreading” persist? Perhaps the Spirit of Christ seeks once again by the reading of his Word to confront the very demons that possess us—our material possessions. Knowing full well that consumerism destroys our bodies and our spirits—and more so the bodies and spirits of our homeless, mentally ill neighbors—our modern reaction to the arrival of Jesus may be to run to him with the magic of rote prayers begging that he not torment us by “freeing” us of our possessions. Deluded, we may even say that we prefer our life in the caves, bound by our possessions, but free of God and one another. And, like the residents who found the man clothed and in his right mind, we may catch a serious case of NIMBY (not in my back yard) when cured demoniacs try to rejoin polite society—even polite church society.
Yes, there are still ghosts in this text that haunt me--21st century ghosts and devils aplenty. Horizons may have shifted with the computer age, but we still have horizons. We still, and with reason, fear loss of mental capacity, aging, and loneliness. We still succumb to sickness and pain, despite extraordinary efforts to avoid them. And we still loathe and fear death, that most fearsome and seemingly most invincible of all devils.
Friends, the good news is this: Jesus still confronts and casts out devils. Jesus is still the one who calms the storm and raised Jairus’s daughter. Jesus, though he died, lives forever more—and gives us life eternal. We, like the demoniac, are charged to go home to our friends to tell how much the Lord has done for us. I find it is ironic, then, that this text may NEVER be read in our churches, since Mark 5:1-20 conveniently drops out of the RCL for Sundays and Festivals somewhere between the 12th and 13th Sundays in Ordinary Time in Year B. Did we notice?
Note: the parallel text in Luke 8:26-39 does appear on the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.