I’ll call him John, “The Gerasene Demoniac”. Nobody should be stuck with a label made up of a clinical description or a popular pejorative. True, what we know about John is that he hailed from Gerasa in a precinct of 10 Syrian-Greek cities and was said to be infested with thousands of demons.
Succinctly, when Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee during a major storm, they came ashore at a cemetery in which John resided among the tombs, behaving violently due to demonic spirits. Jesus was confronted by John, and the demons inside him reacted defensively. Jesus ordered the demons to depart, but they pleaded not to be sent back to hell, so Jesus allowed them to swarm into a herd of swine. The swine stampeded over a cliff into the sea, much to the despair of the swine herders. They rushed into town to report their loss. The town’s leaders were frightened when John appeared, rational and fully clothed. They were terrified by how much power Jesus had to cure such a maniac and they implored Jesus to leave. John wanted to go, too, but Jesus told him to stay home where he could resume his restored life and tell people his story “of what the Lord had done for you.” Instead, John visited every town in the region with his story. The region became one of the first Christian strongholds and refuges.
How should we interpret this story? Is it a miracle story, a metaphor, a history anecdote, or a description of ministry?
First, we should try our best to see what it meant to the author and readers. The first readers were first and second generation Christians in the city of Antioch. Mark was interested in having those people know that Jesus’ ministry sometimes crossed borders in order to include Gentiles like them. In the case of John, it is hard to find any reason for Jesus to have gone across the lake except for John. (Matthew implies that Jesus was escaping the mob that was following him, but a sizeable portion of the crowd came from the area to which Jesus went that night.) While he was there Jesus didn’t undertake anything else but to restore the poor fellow. Then Jesus charged him to stay among his own people and tell about what “the Lord had done” for him to show him mercy. The people in John’s 10-city region were ethnic Syrian-Greek people, as were those in Antioch. By the time the Gospel of Mark was compiled Paul had been converted and sent out as a missionary from Antioch. Greek-culture converts were beginning to form Christian assemblies (church congregations) and the first cultural crisis in church history was firing up. It was all about whether the culture of the Christian followers of Jesus was to be Jewish or indigenous. That was settled before long when the Jews pretty much all over the Roman Empire disinherited the Christians and the Christians tried to make it clear they were no part of the revolutionaries whom the Romans were trying to subdue in Jerusalem and Israel with the sacking of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the final battle in 125. Mark was telling his Antioch Christian kinfolks “Jesus began this when he crossed the stormy lake to get to John.”
Mark’s story of John was also a metaphor. John was deeply troubled, enslaved by a legion of demons, which Jewish folklore said was enough to kill any man. Such a man was beyond saving. John was surviving among the dead, waiting his turn. He was outcast, and in every identifiable way no longer a functional human being. But when Jesus commanded John’s captors to be gone from him, they went. Not without an argument, but they departed into a herd of swine, which became demented in place of fierce John. From an orthodox Jewish point of view John’s whole people and culture were outside the borders of salvation or concern. John was just the most extreme example. Yet, it was John, the impossible case, whom Jesus fully restored to humanity and gave a job to take up the rest of his life. Mark recalls that John told the story of his encounter with Jesus all over the territory. The story and the fact it was told first-hand were remembered far and wide for decades. The story of Jesus saving John was the first story of Jesus ever told in the 10 cities by one of their own people. “That’s how it works,” Mark was saying. “Nobody is so far gone they cannot be saved and then work to bring news about Jesus to their people.”
After we have identified the point of the story for the first audience we can ask what the story has meant throughout the ages. It was during the Middle Ages that the story inspired the imaginations of the mystics. They sought hidden meanings from the fact that there were 10 cities, that there were swine to be forfeited in place of John, that John was denied the right to join Jesus and his disciples on their way to the turning point of human history, and that the confrontation with Jesus restored him to society where he could wear clothes and converse like a normal human being. Jesus’ performance became a model for generations of exorcists and a golden text for dealing with witchcraft.
However, the validity of the interpretation of this or any story from Holy Scripture is what it says to readers in their context. The issue for us is how the story addresses the central event of our times. Not every story in the Holy Bible may do this, but the story of John does.
The central issue of our age is cultural entitlement. We are confronted on all sides with cultural battles. In the USA the lines tend to be mainly racial. In the Middle East they are sectarian. In Thailand they are ethnic.
John’s story is about how Jesus went about setting in motion cultural transformation. What Jesus did is address the critical issue of a community’s most desperate member. That person then became the agent to accomplish the next step. Time after time this is how Jesus worked. Often the critical need that got things started was for health and healing. Words came afterward. Twenty years later, when Paul was commissioned to take the story to new ethnic-Greek communities farther north, the 10 cities had thriving Christian groups. Those cities became places of sanctuary for refugees from the Roman wars in Palestine.
What was clear to Christians in Antioch from the writings of Mark as recounted by Luke and Matthew is sadly obscure to most Christian strategists now.
Just this week Pramote and I saw a group of Caucasians walking down the main road through our sub-district. They looked like tourists on foot, but they were handing out pieces of paper. Pramote concluded that they were “looking for merit”, which I would call “house to house evangelism.” Compared to Jesus’ way of doing things, these foreigners were wasting time. They had put words before everything, the cart before the horse. They were in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing to be effective. A short distance away, on a back lane was the man they should have been looking for. He is an addict, arrested several times, a major disturber of village well-being. He is so destructive and violent that even his mother has abandoned him and moved away to safety. He is the main reason the village is now listed as the #1 village for illegal drugs in the sub-district. Everyone is waiting for the police to raid his house and arrest him again. This time, surely, he will have some “tragic accident” in police custody and everyone will be relieved.
There on that back street is this village’s demented John. If those Christians could cure him of the demons that torment him it would plant seeds that would prosper. And the goal would be cultural transformation as that restored man’s story spreads. The goal of personal evangelism is accumulation of believers with addicts being among the least attractive. The goal of cultural transformation is peace and abundant life for a whole people. But cultural transformation takes decades and generations, and it is easily lost if the transformed culture succumbs to the lure of empire and becomes a tool for domination.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.