This is one of my favorite accounts in all of Scripture, and this chapter is one of the most powerful in all of Mark’s Gospel. It is simply packed with his key themes and emphasis. Christ has come for sinners—all sinners. He has authority over sin, death . . . and the Gentile. He races from one healing to another. He mends the most broken. It is wonderful! Here we see Jesus going full Jesus in a way perhaps only surpassed by His passion.
We next travel with Jesus to Gentile country. The pigs are evidence of that. We sometimes forget one of the wonderful blessings of being New Testament believers: bacon! We race with Jesus to Gentile country, and there we find a most odd welcome. Immediately Jesus was confronted by a demoniac, a man in an unclean spirit. This was the welcoming committee—a crazy man. Everything about this man is disheveled. He lives in the tombs, and surely smells like them. No one could bind him. But why would they want to? Well, they had tried, again and again, because he was out of his mind, he was in an unclean spirit, and he was, as many would diagnose it today, insane. They couldn’t bind him, even with chains. They had bound him with shackles by his legs, and it did nothing. No one could control him. He broke any fetters. He threw off anyone who took hold of him. He wasn’t only crazy; he was crazy strong. Moreover, he was naked, at least it would seem. Later those who see him are surprised he is clothed. There must have been a reason for that. It was out of the ordinary, in other words. This crazy, smelly, violent, uncontrollable man welcomes Jesus, runs up to confront Him. What might be a reasonable response? Fear, anger, and a threat of retaliation should he place a hand on Jesus or His disciples?
At this point, something very interesting happens. Sometimes Mark puts confessions in the mouths of demons, but here he places these words not in the mouths of the demons that possessed him, and there were a lot of them, but in the man himself, or at least the antecedent indicates that. The man in an unclean spirit says—no, yells, “Why are you sticking your nose in my business, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Don’t torture me, I tell you!” (5:9). And he kept begging too.
And here, the story—the true story, of course—gets even more fascinating. In 2005, I did a very pastoral thing: I clipped an article from a newspaper. What newspaper? I don’t know anymore, but I know it was 2005, because I wrote that. Why did I clip the story? Like many pastors, I liked to store away things that might serve as good sermon illustrations. The story goes like this. The headline reads, “450 sheep jump to their deaths in Turkey.” Tell me that wouldn’t grab your attention! Even greater (should I not laugh every time I read this?), it begins, “First one sheep jumped to its death.” That is the lead sentence—the whole sentence. Talk about a commentary on sheep as a species, and to think God compares us to these creatures again and again and again! My favorite line reads, “In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile.” Next they interviewed one of the shepherds. Can you imagine? What must have it been like to watch this happen, to look at that “billowy, white pile”? How would you even begin to describe it? We find something similar along our path today.
Nearby was a herd of pigs—because it was a Gentile region, and for the Jews before Christ, remember, no bacon. This wasn’t just a tiny herd of pigs. There were about two thousand. That’s a lot of pigs if you were wondering. Now, if you’ve been around pigs, you know they are neither quiet nor unassuming creatures. During my vicar year (an internship year in some Lutheran church bodies), my wife and I, along with our oldest daughter, then a toddler, lived on a pig farm. It took some getting used to, let me tell you. First, of course, there was the smell, but even more unsettling was the noise. During the night, the pigs would scream, as if someone was getting murdered. I’m from Detroit, so I was used to it, but it took a while for my wife to learn to sleep through it. (I joke; I am from Detroit, and I love it, and it is on a big rebound, and you should totally visit!) Imagine the commotion of this herd, then. Imagine the way it must have struck the senses. And then what happened? The herd took off, mad with demons, and the devil worked all that he can really work in the end—that is, destruction and death. The pigs plunged headfirst into the sea and were drowned—about two thousand of them. And here my imagination gets the better of me. Did they float? Did local boys jump from pig to pig? How big was the heap of them? What went through the herdsmen’s minds? How would they explain it to the boss? Just think about it. Mark fills in none of the blanks, though.
Next thing we know, we are standing with the townspeople, drawn to the scene by the report of the herdsmen. And, oh yeah, that crazy demoniac is there too, but he’s not crazy; he’s “in his right mind, and he’s not a demoniac, and he’s wearing . . . clothes” (5:15). What would you expect to come next? They marveled and hailed Jesus as the Messiah. They brought out all their sick and afflicted? They fell to the ground in fear? Nope. None of that. Rather, they begged Jesus to get out of there, to leave the whole region. And Jesus listened. Sometimes God gives us what we want—may He spare us! There are few things more dangerous than to be left to our fallen will. Jesus listened and headed for the boat, and the only sane man in Gerasenes, the naked guy they couldn’t chain up who spent his nights cutting himself and crying out loud, wanted to follow, for Jesus had saved him, had given him back his body, mind, soul. But Jesus said “No.” Jesus told him to stay. The people needed a preacher. Life is hell without one. Jesus told him, “Go to your home to your own and spread the message of what the Lord [Jesus—that is, God] has done for you, how he has mercied you” (5:19). The man didn’t have to go everywhere Jesus went to follow him, to be a disciple. This is vocation. The man could stay where God had set him. But life did change. He was a follower of Jesus, even as he remained where he was. He had been preached to and shown mercy. He had been made clean—something he could never have been on his own. God had come from outside of him and made him whole inside and out. He was now the sane man in a land of crazies, people who sent away the Savior. And so he lived, salt and light, set free and firmly planted.
This is a selection from, A Path Strewn With Sinners, by Wade Johnston (1517 Publishing), p. 33-36.