The Symbolic Body (Mark 5: 1-20)by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on May 13, 2021
Jesus and his disciples have sailed from Capernaum in Galilee to the southeastern corner of the Sea of Galilee, a largely Gentile area. They are met by a man from the tombs who is possessed by an unclean spirit. His life is one of chains and shackles, and railing against those chains and shackles, howling on the mountains and bruising himself among the gravestones. It might be the single most dramatic scene in the Gospel outside of the crucifixion itself. It’s also symbolically rich. It’s no accident that the demon’s name is Legion.
In Mark’s day, there’s really only one thing that word meant: a unit of Rome’s military. A Legion was about 5,400 soldiers, subdivided into cohorts and centuries. When Jesus feeds the 5,000, and has them sit down in fifties and hundreds, we’re seeing Jesus as the leader of a group of people who are like a Roman legion, in both numbers and organization (6:40, 44). Mark is painting Jesus as the field commander of God’s life-giving empire, one which does not live or conquer by the sword as Rome does. The anti-imperial symbolism is all over these chapters of Mark. For example, the Roman Emperor Vespasian was known as “the master of land and sea,” while Mark shows Jesus as the one whom the wind and the sea actually obey (4:41).
It’s no accident that Mark goes out of his way to set this Legion story in the land of the Gerasenes. Gerasa is actually about 35 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee. (Matthew’s setting of the story in Gadara makes more geographical sense.). So the idea that Jesus’ boat docks in Gerasa and is immediately met by this demoniac doesn’t make sense geographically. Neither does it make geographical sense for the herd of pigs to go screaming down a hill into the sea…unless it’s a 35-mile long hill! So, what’s the deal?
We have to remember that Mark’s primary goal isn’t to relate to us a series of facts; Mark’s goal is to bring us into the Jesus movement. He’s an evangelist first, not a historian or a biographer. We might say that Mark is more concerned with Jesus’ significance than with geographical accuracy in regards to Jesus’ life and work. Thus, that Gerasa is 35 miles from the coast doesn’t concern him. Mark has other reasons for setting the Legion story there.
At Vespasian’s orders, the town of Gerasa was destroyed by the Roman army in 68 CE, not long before Mark is composing his narrative. One thousand young men were killed, their families taken captive, the town plundered and its surrounding villages burned. The memory of all this is still fresh in the minds of Mark’s audience. Gerasa is Roman-occupied territory. In this story, God reclaims it through his unique agent: Jesus.
Jesus’ boat lands in this Gentile territory with all the urgency of the allied powers on D-Day, and immediately there is resistance. “Immediately a man from the tombs…met him” (5:1). There’s a storming of the beach. Jesus is in charge from the beginning: he demands the demon’s name (5:9), and the demon begs not to be sent out of the country (5:10). A new empire has arrived and is banishing the old one of Rome. (The name Gerasa actually has as its root a word that means “to banish.”) The demon acknowledges that Jesus is victorious and is effectively his commanding officer now; whatever Jesus says, goes. Even the “herd” of swine has a military overtone (5:11). The word for “herd” here is a bit odd for pigs, and is elsewhere used to describe a batch of new military recruits. Plus, the mascot of the Roman legion that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and occupied the city afterwards was a boar, a kind of pig.
Jesus drowns this Legion-demon in the sea, just as God destroyed the armies of Pharaoh in the sea. The pigs themselves would have been the livestock of Gentiles, not Jews, and given that Gerasa was by this point a Roman-occupied town, these pigs would’ve belonged to folks collaborating with the occupying legion. The legion’s soldiers themselves may have eaten regularly of these pigs. This exorcism, then, has spiritual, relational, political, and economic dimensions to it. Once again, we see the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel acting on four levels: individual (the demoniac is restored), local community (a town whose economy is disrupted and whose leaders are wary of Jesus), political (God’s kingdom proclaimed by Jesus vs. Rome’s legions), and cosmic (God vs. Satan’s demons).
All of this is reflected in Jesus’ encounter with this demoniac. This man’s chained body is bruised with oppression. He is cut off from his family and community. He is gnashing his teeth amongst the tombs of his dead loved ones. He his howling with anger from the mountaintops, raging with the helplessness of being a subsistence farmer in a land conquered by Rome. His anger and helplessness has nowhere to go. It turns back on him. He hurts himself with stones.
In the body of this one man possessed and dominated by the demon called Legion, we see a symbol of an entire region possessed and dominated by Rome’s legions. Like him, these communities are cut off from each other and the usual bonds of kinship and neighborliness whenever Rome attacks. Like him, these communities lack self-determination and are rarely afforded a chance at real dignity. Like him, these communities tear themselves apart through anger which has nowhere to go to effect tangible change. They’re shackled with helplessness.
This man’s is a symbolic body. Jesus’ casting out Legion restores him to his right mind, returns his physical body to a state of being clothed in dignity, and restores his whole person to relationship with his friends and family. This is what God’s kingdom does.
Mark’s audience is an oppressed people, and they hear this story of Jesus’ encounter with this demoniac as one not only about an individual man, but as one portraying what God’s empire, God’s kingdom, is really like—and how it is different than, and disruptive of, life in Rome’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, there is kinship and dignity and peace. To live there, the isolation and domination and strife of Rome must break. Jesus breaks precisely these things in casting the demon into the swine and having them plunge into the sea. When we repent, as John the Baptist tells us to do at the Gospel’s beginning, our own piggiest demons are drowned in the waters of baptism.
All this through Jesus’ encounter with one man’s symbolic body. This is not just about an individual. It rarely is. When Mark spotlights an individual body like this demoniac’s, we are seeing a whole community’s struggle brought into the open.
Whose are the symbolic bodies in our own day? When we watch the news, or when we drive down the street, or when we observe folks at work and at school, where do we see the competing kingdoms of domination and dignity vying for control in an individual’s physical person? Who are the persons in our own day forced to be Legion’s territory, and what broader struggles are revealed there? What would it look like for Jesus to restore them to rightness of mind, dignity of person, and the peace of kinship and community?
And how do we help?