Commentary on Mark 5:1-20
As Jesus disembarks on the other side of the sea, the disciples fade from the story.
A ghastly figure takes center stage. He’s possessed, he howls, he dashes himself with stones. His strength is such that no human figure can bind or control him. From his first encounter with Jesus, there is no question who is in control. Jesus is the strong one with the upper hand; the demoniac cowers and asks that he be left alone.
When it becomes apparent that Jesus will expel the demons (their name is Legion, for there are many of them), they ask instead to be sent into a nearby herd of swine. Jesus permits this, and the herd of pigs rushes headlong into the lake and drowns.
A few years ago, I was teaching about this story in a small, rural Roman Catholic parish somewhere in the middle of Iowa. A man in overalls (all the men were wearing overalls) in the back row raised his hand and commented: “Everyone in this town is a hog farmer, and I don’t know if you know this, but pigs can swim.” Not being intimately familiar with swine, this came as new information to me.
This launched a discussion about the ways in which the story in Mark 5:1-20 is not plausible. From the point of view of people who are intimately familiar with pigs, aspects of the story and reactions of the characters seem illogical. These Iowan farmers noted that 2,000 dead pigs in the lake would have been disastrous, because it would have polluted the local water source. The Iowans were even more vehemently incensed at the reaction of the locals in the story. After a report spread quickly about what had happened, a crowd gathered around Jesus and the changed man. When the people saw the demoniac sitting, clothed, and in his right mind, they were terrified. The Iowan hog farmers rightly focused on this reaction. “They should be mad because their pigs are dead, not afraid because of a demon that disappeared,” one woman, who proudly identified herself as the wife of a hog farmer, commented.
These farmers in the middle of Iowa quickly identified the scandal of this passage. The Kingdom of God refuses to play by society’s rules. The demoniac had been dealt with. True, the people clearly would have preferred to bind him, but they nevertheless had found a way to marginalize him. He was among the tombs, sequestered, out of sight, out of mind. A howl might have drifted occasionally into town, but its distance only confirmed the demoniac’s ostracism. The hog farmers in Iowa intuitively came to the observation of Rene Girard, who said of the people in this story: “Clearly, the drowning of their pigs concerns them less than the drowning of their demons.”1
The point for Mark, obviously, is not to have told a story that represents accurately a community and its pigs. In his story about the Kingdom of God, it becomes increasingly clear that humanity — its society and institutions — impedes the in-breaking of God’s kingdom more than it expedites. The way the Kingdom of God breaks into the world in Mark’s story wrests control from humanity. Their way of “dealing” with the demoniac — ostracism and segregation — is not tenable in God’s Kingdom.
God’s kingdom in Mark’s gospel comes with power, power to do things that humans can not do on their own. It transforms and forces humans to perceive the truth that God’s kingdom best takes root in the marginalized, the outcasts, those seemingly most insignificant. This runs counter to human institutions — even most ecclesiastical ones — in which power, wealth, fame, and influence are given pride of place.
The story of the changed demoniac answers a question that lingered at the end of chapter 4: who is the good soil? The seed clearly has taken root in the demoniac, the least significant and least likely place imaginable (like a mustard seed). His change comes about through no human initiative whatsoever (like an untended planting). In the demoniac, the reader finally meets an example of the good soil.
The seed takes root in the absolute last place anyone would look or expect. And, this is not a temporary blooming, later to wither away. The man earnestly asks Jesus if he might be with him. The phrase with which he asks directly echoes the call of the disciples in chapter one. But, unlike the disciples, who need coddling, correction, and attention from Jesus, the former demoniac needs no help whatsoever. Instead, Jesus sends him immediately on a preaching mission, which is wildly successful. Everyone was amazed.
One of the themes that this narrative lectionary series hoped to explore is how God works through flawed people and institutions. This is an interesting and important sentiment, but I’m not sure it fits what Mark is doing in chapters 4-5. The Kingdom of God breaks into the world, not so much through flawed institutions and individuals, but in spite of them. Individuals and society’s structures set impediments to the Kingdom, which it ignores.
At the same time, the Kingdom values those who are flawed, not as a way of making the best of what we’ve got, or making lemonade out of lemons, but because that seems to be the essence of its disposition. The Kingdom of God is oriented toward those whom society deems flawed and keeps at arms length. When the thing we fear most is transformed and brought directly into our midst, our natural inclination is fear and a reliance upon violence to rid ourselves of the change that we can not explain.
1Rene Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), 174.