Commentary on Mark 5:1-20
The story in Mark 5:1–20 is bookended by two simple actions: Jesus steps out of the boat (verse 2), and then Jesus gets back in (verse 18). What fills the middle, however, is nothing ordinary.
We see Jesus crossing over to a Gentile territory—Gerasa, a city to the “other side” or “opposite” of Galilee (verse 1). True to the setting, a man with an unclean spirit appears from among the tombs, an unclean place (verse 2). This man does not simply happen to be there that day: this place of death and decay is his habitat (verse 3). He breathes and moves around in a foul place.
The story becomes grimmer as we catch a biographical glimpse into the demoniac. He lives among the corpses because no one can bind him, let alone set him free from the evil that claims him (verse 3). No shackles or chains can restrain him when he acts out. “No one had the strength to subdue him” (verse 4). Society consequently ostracized him, cut him off even from his family and friends. He is like an untamable beast left to roam the outskirts of the city. Oppressed and miserable, he is “always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (verse 5, English Standard Version). The death that surrounds him is also within, a daily reminder of his hopelessly fixed state.
As divine providence would have it, meeting Jesus in that unlikely place changes this man’s life. Interestingly, it is the “Legion”—an army of many demons that possesses this man—that first senses the propitious reversal awaiting its host. This is evident in the demons’ fearful recognition of Jesus’ unparalleled authority as the “Son of the Most High God” (verse 7) and their plea not to torment them (verse 7) or cast them out of that region (verse 10). (Luke’s parallel account adds that the demons “begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss” before their time.) The irony is hard to miss: the evil that enslaves and tortures the demoniac is petrified to be bound and tormented by Jesus.
We are not told why the evil spirits are then allowed to enter a herd of swine some distance away on the hillside. The only thing Mark makes explicit is that Jesus “[gives] them permission” to do so, at their request (verse 13). Rather than explain why the pigs drowned as a result of being possessed by demons, the text is interested in showing us who holds power and who submits to it. From the demons’ absolute terror and begging to Jesus’ simple command that makes them helpless and capitulate, this section is awash with language of power—and it plainly points to the superiority of Jesus.
In the preceding section, Jesus had calmed a raging windstorm (4:35–41). We saw then that Jesus, the man who wearily sleeps in the stern, is God who commands creation. In this passage, we come face to face with Jesus, the Son of the Most High God who has authority over forces of evil that oppose God’s good reign. Even though Jesus is outnumbered, he is not fazed. He subdues the enemy and puts them to utter shame. Jesus has the power that no one else has to deliver the demoniac who was suffering a death by a thousand cuts (quite literally). It is only Jesus who can restore the health, dignity, agency, peace, and place in the world of the man who had lost everything.
By the end of the story, the demoniac has become a new man. When the townspeople come to check out what’s been going on, they see the erstwhile demoniac sitting near Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind (verse 15).
If the story ended here, it would be a neat conclusion to a happy story. Mark, however, does not withhold the truth about how the townspeople responded to Jesus that day, despite what had taken place. They did not flock to him with their burdens and problems. They did not submit to his power. They did not receive him into their midst. No, they expelled him from their city as they had the demoniac (verse 17). Their frightened plea to Jesus to leave their city is reminiscent of the terrified demons begging Jesus to leave them alone.
The story, however, does not end in gloom and fear. Mark spotlights a disciple who, unlike the rest, begs to be with Jesus (verse 18). Who is this disciple? The demoniac who found unexpected grace and new life in an unlikely place of death. Hope lingers in the final two verses as the new disciple is commissioned by Jesus to go back home and tell others “how much the Lord has done for [him], and what mercy [the Lord] has shown [him]” (verse 19). The man obeys and does precisely that—even incorporating into his own faith the confession that Jesus is “the Lord” who has done these things for him. And “everyone [is] amazed” (verse 20).
“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Day to day, we may not see an agonized demoniac wrenching chains, but we are well acquainted with the evil of genocides, terrorist attacks, and human trafficking. That evil also manifests in our personal lives as lying, vitriol, jealousy, and love of power and money rather than love of God and our neighbors. The darkness in and around us is overpowering. We try to control it, suppress it, and keep it out, but inevitably we fail. The old hymn rings true: “For still our ancient foe does seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”1
The story of the healed demoniac is a gift to the church. It reminds us that Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, has both the power to bind the strong man and to break the chains of captives. No impurity or impossibility is a hindrance to Jesus’ compassion and power to deliver us. “Christ Jesus, it is he … and he must win the battle.”2
- Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529), Trans. Frederick H. Hodge (1852).
- Luther, “A Mighty Fortress.”
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Jesus healer of mind and body, we sometimes suffer at the hands of physical, mental, and spiritual ailments. Quiet our minds, still our hearts, and empower our bodies so that we may be whole and healed. Amen.
Be not afraid ELW 388, GG 243
Listen, God is calling ELW 513, GG 456, TFF 130
Send me, Lord ELW 809, GG 746, NCH 360, UMH 497, TFF 244/245
Fix me Jesus, Hall Johnson