My thinking on this passage has been highly formed by a teacher of mine, Ched Myers, who I want to credit with many of the historical/social insights that brings this sermon together.
Please check out his excellent work with the Bartimeus Cooperative and consider reading one of his excellent books on the Gospel of Mark – Binding the Strong Man, Say to this Mountain, and Who Will Roll Away the Sone? – I have copies of all 3 which I am happy to loan. Stay tuned for more reflections on this subject and a study group based on Ched’s work early fall @ Knox-Metropolitan United Church.
Binding the Strong Man: Samplings from Mark’s Gospel
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, Mark 5:1-20
Sunday, April 22, 2018 – The 4th Sunday of Easter
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
It’s Book Sale week — so this seemed an appropriate time to speak about text and narrative as it relates to the Christian Tradition, particularly the piece of writing we call The Gospel According to Mark.
This morning, we have heard read, one of the strangest stories in the Gospel Tradition, in those 4 books that begin what we call the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
I should say from the outset, that much of my thinking on this subject should be credited to Ched Myers with whom I have been studying the Gospels over the past two years at St. Andrew’s College.
In particular, Ched’s work at re-placing these narratives in the context that they would have first been consumed, heard and read by their original audiences. Which is a key distinction from the context in which these stories are meant to have taken place – but more on that another time.
First, a word about how we generally encounter these in our context today.
At Knox-Metropolitan United Church, as within many mainline churches (United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran), we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which lays out appointed readings for each Sunday of the year, in a 3-year cycle. Each year focuses on one of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
We are currently in Year B, so readings have generally been coming from the Gospel of Mark.
This is the shortest of those 3 first books, which are referred to as synoptics, meaning summary, which is potentially a problematic term because it could convince readers, that the purpose of these 3 books is simply to offer a summary of the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now on the surface, that is indeed what they appear to do. But I would argue, as do many Biblical scholars, that the communities and individuals who composed these 3 accounts were seeking to do more than summarize the story of the founder of their fledging religious movement for other communities and future generations.
Aside from being the shortest, Mark is also very likely the oldest of these three books, likely written between 66-70 in the Common Era. Now a 4 year window is a pretty close guess for dating an almost 2000 year piece of writing.
The key to this is what is called the Jewish-Roman war which rages from 66-73 CE. There are a number of moments in Mark which are believed to be references to this war so it is assumed it must be written after it has begun. Now one of the most important events in this war is the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and in particular the Temple which happens in 70 CE, and the fact that this event itself is not alluded to (in the way that it is more clearly in the later Gospels) means it likely emerges during the war itself.
Being the first written we find that Mark’s Gospel is picked up in both Matthew and Luke and used in different ways, so much so that for a long time, it was believed that Mark was nothing but a list of events and sayings that were like source material for later writings.
But in the last 40 years there has been a lot of focus on how, when Mark is read as a whole, that there is a pretty unique plotting and thematic focus appears. This can be hard for us who often encounter this text through Sunday morning readings to see.
I think there are three reasons for this.
One, we encounter this text piecemeal, divided in chapter and verse (which happened centuries after it is written) and we read it in chunks, therefore sometimes missing the development of themes, the repetition of motifs, and other aspects.
Two, we read (or hear) in our context, religiously, socially, economically, politically, and since these texts have been considered Christian for almost 2000 years, Christian churches sometimes forget how much of a cross-cultural practice we engage with.
Mark emerges from a middle-Eastern, Jewish (a term I use loosely, because Judaism is not yet an established religion, neither is Christianity when it is written), communally focused, likely rural/village based, people, living in the midst of Imperial military occupation by Rome, administered by a religious-political elite based in Jerusalem, surrounding the Temple!
And three, we live in a moment in which religious and social are two separate, yet connected spheres of our lives. Yet we are reading a text that emerges from a moment in which religion, politics, economics and social are inseparable.
So it’s almost like we are at once, too familiar and not familiar enough with these texts – yet thoughtfully, I believe we can read in ways that seek to place ourselves with the first audiences of this text and in so doing, perhaps garner new insights for our own contexts!
In particular, I’d like to note throughout weeks of exploration of this text the ways in which Mark uses “scripts” from the Israelite Tradition – what we might call the Old Testament.
But we should remember this, while among the religious elite, there may be an established set of writings that make up the Holy Text of what will become known as Judaism, this is not a factor in life outside of Jerusalem.
The literacy rate is extremely low – by which I mean the ability to decode written letters into words. However the knowledge of oral tradition is extremely high, so key stories, characters and motifs are deeply familiar. Especially in Galilee, in the North of Roman controlled Palestine, the Israelite Tradition is well kept. This has some cross-over but is not the exact same as the Judean Tradition, which is the Southern part of the area where Jerusalem and the Temple are located.
So to Galileans, of which Jesus of Nazareth is one, Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah, the covenants and prophets are going to be the key thread and characters in their mythic/history where David and Solomon, the royal line, not so much.
I think today’s story acts as almost a cypher, where we can see in micro, the larger plot of the text emerging.
The story picked up for us today with Jesus and the disciples landing their boat on the other side of lake. The story before is Jesus asleep in the boat when a great storm hits, the disciples are terrified, they wake him up, and he calms the storm.
Now Mark’s audience, would have immediately seen in that moment, the story of the Israelite prophet Jonah – who we may think of first as being swallowed by a whale, or big fish. Jonah, in his story, is called by God to go to Ninevah, the stronghold of the Assyrian army under whose oppressive rule Jonah’s people are living. He is to go to Ninevah and confront them for their unjust ways. But he won’t, he hops on a ship heading in the opposite direction, a storm rises, and the crew, believing that the storm has come because Jonah is disobeying the command of God, throws him over.
So we begin with this reversal of Jonah’s story – which becomes clearer in the end.
They arrive in the country of the Gerasenes – also known as the Decapolis, the 10 cities where many of the large estates would be owned by retired Roman Soldiers who many decades earlier had lead the campaigns that first brought this area under Roman rule. This was Roman colonialism, offering prized land as reward to their military conquerors – an affordable payment and also a way to remind the local population of their might.
They are met with a man who is being troubled by an unclean spirit, he lives among the tombs in deep torment, hurting himself and causing deep fear in others for he cannot be bound.
Two allusions here.
First the Israelite prophet Isaiah, when calling the ruling class of his day, he accuses them of being ones who live in tombs in secret places, eating the flesh of pigs – stay tuned for the appearance of pigs in this story.
Secondly, earlier in Mark, after Jesus becomes known for casting out demons, the rulers send from Jerusalem, scribes to check him out – again noting the division between the elite in Jerusalem attached to the temple and the people among whom Jesus ministers. These scribes accuse Jesus of casting out demons, with the help of demons, to which Jesus replies that if one wants to enter a house of a strong man to rob it, one must first bind the strong man – and here Jesus is, confronting a man no one can bind!
Jesus asks the spirit it’s name – to which he replies – I am Legion, for we are many.
Today, Legion is a word sometimes used as synonym for “many”, but this usage comes from this passage itself so shouldn’t be applied to it. Mark’s audience knew one meaning of Legion, a troop of Roman forces, the face and presence of military domination!
A few years before Jesus of Nazareth is born, the city of Sepphoris, about an hour north of Nazareth, is burnt to the ground in response to an uprising among the people. For the next 30 years, anyone with skills in carpentry would have worked here. Sometimes when Jesus is remembered as carpenter, I think we imagine, he and Joseph making artisanal furniture or something like that, but at this moment, carpentry and construction worker are one and the same.
One of the most well-known tourist attractions in Israel is the city of Masada, built on a plateau. Outside the city, one can still see today an imprint in the ground of a square, a mile on each side, where the Roman Legion camped out during the siege of the city, almost 2000 years ago.
I am Legion, for we are many.
And the most well known, the most feared fighting force in this part of the world is the Legio X Fretensis, the 10th Legion, known for their ability to quell uprising through brutal violence.
And when they march into battle, which always ends in slaughter that will torment the survivors of an area for years, they carry their flag, upon which is emblazoned their emblem – a wild, charging, boar.
Suddenly, Jesus’ casting the demons from the man and into a herd of pigs, becomes a meaning-laden symbol, not an act of animal cruelty, for the pigs will run head long off the cliff and the whole Legion is drowned in the sea.
A vivid and almost satirical, political cartoon like reference to the great Hebrew myth the defining communal narrative. Pharaoh’s army drowning in the Red Sea as Moses leads the people to freedom.
Incidentally, the Jewish historian Josephus, whose work emerges at the same time as Mark writes about a battle in the mid 60s in the land of Capernaum in which the 10th Roman Legion is regularly attacked by a band of rebels, under the leadership of Jesus son of Sherat (a good reminder, that Jesus was a reasonably common name). After a number of skirmishes, the Legion chases the rebels to the lake of Generesat where the fleeing rebels get in boats, are surrounded and subsequently every last one of them is drowned.
So in Mark’s Gospel, we find, when we know where to look for it, vivid imagery pulled from the Israelite cultural and prophetic tradition, being applied in the story of Jesus’ ministry to the conditions of an oppressed people, terrorized by Roman military might, unaided by the elite in Jerusalem, who control the Temple and taxes and collude with Rome to their own profit.
The experience of the common person would be horrific, and I would suggest that in the demoniac living among the tombs in the country of the Gerasenes, we find a metaphor for life in Mark’s Palestine. Oppression on the outside, internalized into terror.
And in the ministry of Jesus a promise of subversion. An exposure of the impotence of violence and imperialism, and a call to resist.
When the townspeople come and see the man standing next to Jesus – clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.
This man is then sent by Jesus to preach to those in the Decapolis, and I don’t believe he is meant to share a testimony of healing, but a call to those who like him have been tormented and oppressed to look again, and see that the liberation of God, as in Egypt, is greater than the power to control, wielded from Jerusalem or Rome itself.
In the weeks to come, as we continue through Mark in our regular readings, we will see how Jesus story becomes one of restoring communities and individuals from the crushing oppression of imperial colonial violence, and how this brings the Rabbi from Nazareth closer into direct confrontation with the powerful in Jerusalem and their Roman backers.
For those touched by him ministry, indeed another was not only possible, it was on it’s way!
The really stunning moment in this story, which I believe is a bit of a cypher to see what is happening in Mark’s Gospel, is when Jesus forces the spirit to name itself, exposing it’s true nature. For Empire, power made permanent works by becoming hidden/invisible. This is how good people become complicit, for they are not directly involved in oppression, just simply living life according to the way it is laid out for them, not recognizing that life as they know it, privileges them by oppressing others.
This was the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to many wealthy northern churches of his day, and I believe it is the call of Mark’s Gospel to we who live in the modern West, for when we can see this naming and exposing in Mark, we become better equipped to see it in our own context.
For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.