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Paying Attention

The second, longest, and most complex of this Gospel’s narrated exorcisms, Mark 5:1-20 is a tale of terror. Jesus encounters a demoniac who horrifies his neighbors by howling among tombs commandeered by diabolical powers that provoke him to appalling self-abuse. The man is impossible to restrain.

To the original hearers of the account, the story screams religious impurity because of its contact with corpses. The original hears probably heard the echo of Isaiah (65:4) describing the rebellious, stubborn nation of Israel as people who inhabit tombs and eat swine’s flesh. And then there is the demonic possession. Which in itself is bad, but again, the original listeners, when they hear the name “Legion” (Mark 5:9), pile on their revulsion at the memory of their suffering and trauma at the hands of imperial soldiers.  The man is menaced and menacing. Who could come near? What cure is possible?

Disobedient Israel has a history of insisting that the LORD keep his distance from them. But here the man with the unclean spirit runs to Jesus and kneels before him. He submits to Jesus and hold him at bay confusing healing with torment. He refers to himself in both the first-person singular and plural. Jesus receives this tormented figure, impure, menacing person. About this point a modern therapist, American Psychiatric Association’s DSM in hand would point to dissociative and obsessive-compulsive disorders, varieties of self-mutilation, and a range of other issues as operative, dismissing the demonic.

But we are too familiar with evil, unchecked in the world. Croatia, Rwanda, Darfur and a hundred other places in just the last 25 years when the extermination of entire ethnic population was the goal. The first step in capitulation to diabolism was our refusal to see it. The first step in resisting eveil is our embrace of the Lord who masters it. To ask for the coming of our heavenly Father’s kingdom is to repel the reign of the Evil One. For what else do we pray when begging for deliverance from evil?

Shouldn’t we expect the townsfolk and villagers to celebrate Jesus’ treatment of the untreatable? They are eyewitnesses. They have seen Jesus’s works, the proof as plain as day. Yet they neither repent nor revel but beg Jesus to get out of town. He complies.

The one who was cured begs to remain with Jesus – a primary qualification for discipleship. Jesus answers no but sends him on mission to testify how much the Lord has done for him. The man obeys not only at home, but throughout the Decapolis.

Alleluia, alleluia. A great prophet has arisen in our midst and God has visited his people.” Who is paying attention?

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