Journey to the Cross II: “How to Cope with Evil”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 7, 2021
Reading: Mark 5:1-20
A very close friend of mine, with whom I shared a place in Austen, Massachusetts when we were studying in Cambridge, had a terrifying experience one day. He went by subway into Boston itself in the evening, under the Charles River, and came out at Park Street. If you know Boston, you’d know where he was. As he was walking across the grass of the Boston Commons, he was accosted by a man who demanded money, and threatened violence. My friend, who for many years had worked with inmates on death row in the United States, and was an abolitionist, confronted the man in the most caring way. He sought to have a conversation with him, although inwardly, he was terrified. He asked the man’s name and he gave it, and he asked him where he’d been living, and the man described the place where he lived as under a boathouse, amongst the beams, on the Charles River. This is where this man lived.
My friend didn’t know what to do, or how to address the anger in this man, and his great need for money. Nevertheless, the conversation carried on until finally the man declared to him something that my friend did not want to hear. He said, “You know, I think, but I'm not sure, that in the past, I might have killed somebody.”
My friend left immediately. He went back to his room in the residence very shaken. He wanted to talk about his experience, what he believed was an encounter with evil. He didn’t believe that the man himself was evil, but clearly some deeds that this man might have done, were evil. The context in which he was living, was evil. But my friend made an interesting comment. He said, “But I do think that the image of God in this man, is distorted, but he is still made in the image of God.”
We sat back and read theology. We picked the book by Miskotte, When the Gods are Silent and we looked at Hannah Arendt’s, The Banality of Evil. For the next few days my friend tossed and turned in his sleep about that encounter. He didn’t feel that it had ended properly, and even though he had offered to pray for this man, he didn’t really feel that deep down in his heart his prayers were working.
Every time I read our passage today from Mark’s Gospel, it reminds me of what happened to my friend. But it goes even deeper. This passage, which is often avoided, because it is very difficult and complex in our era, is not even in most lectionaries. That’s why it’s avoided. It nevertheless speaks about Christ in a powerful way. It talks about the cross and is a foretaste of things to come. It talks about evil and what a powerful presence it can be. It talks about the power of transformation and a changed life. It talks about love and grace in the midst of great difficulty.
As I look at this text, and see its place in Mark’s Gospel, I realise that very early on in Jesus’ ministry, he encountered all kinds of strange things, things that he had to take on. We read in this story that he was on a boat and during a storm had drifted to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, where the Gerasenes lived, and area known as the Decapolis, a gentile area. This boat had come aground and immediately Jesus comes to the caves that would have been on the shoreline. Those caves were often tombs and out of one of those tombs comes a man. Now these tombs were often the places where they put the dead. It was not a place for the living. Yet, this man came from the tomb. This is not a burial site like Mount Pleasant, with beautiful flowers and mausoleums and headstones. This is a very dangerous and a dark place, a foreboding place. He’d been howling, and in chains, we’re told, he had been restrained. Often those who exhibited signs of madness were locked in the caves with the dead. That’s how desperate things were.
He sees Jesus of Nazareth, runs to him, bows down to him and says, “What are you doing with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He knew in his spirit, who Jesus was.
Jesus, by power of command, says that the evil must come out of this man, and it did. Then at this intimate moment, and it’s significant, Jesus asks him his name, and the man declares, his name is Legion. Of course, representing the many powerful forces of the Roman Empire, under which the whole area was constrained. Legion, which would have meant so much more within the context of First Century Palestine than we could ever imagine, but a sign of a multiplicity, of things going on in his mind and spirit.
Jesus then, not only having commanded the spirits to leave him, has those spirits want to transfer into another creature, into pigs. It’s not Jesus who does that, it’s the spirits who want to do that. They go into the pigs and the pigs go into the water and die. They cannot stand not being in this human anymore.
It’s a strange story, isn't it? But think of it in terms of the Jewish culture of the time, think of it in terms of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, and it makes much more sense. What makes sense is that this took place in a Gentile world where Jesus should not have been himself, for Jesus would become ritually unclean by being in the presence of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were often seen as being on the side, on the periphery, the rejected on the other side of the lake.
Secondly, we have an encounter with someone who had been living with the dead, who would have been ritually unclean. You're not supposed to be in the presence of corpses. It sounds terrible, but can you imagine what this man must have gone through, being put in chains amongst the dead? He would have been more than ritually unclean.
There is also, of course, the issue of the pigs. Now, to us, this sounds abhorrent in a day and age where so many of us are sensitive as to what happens to animals, but the pig represents something more, doesn’t it? The pig is the cloven hoof, the rejected animal within the Jewish community. The pig symbolises death to the law, and death to God. So, all of these things come together; the Gentiles, the uncleanness of death, the pigs, but also because they call people like the man in the tomb a lunatic, which literally means affected by the lunar impulses. They believe that human beings in those days were driven by the forces of the stars, and by the moon, again, a pagan understanding.
All around, none of this sounded right, none of this was pure. Death, the tombs, the pigs, the lunatics. The imagery is powerful, and I want you to get that imagery, because it’s what really tells us about Jesus and how he dealt with evil. There is something powerful in this for us too. One of the things that we see most of all is the enslavement due to torment.
Shelley, in Prometheus Rising says this: “All spirits are enslaved that serve evil.” Evil is not something that we should trivialise, it’s not something that we should play with like a toy. It is not something that we should make light of, because it enslaves us, it makes us live in isolation and fear. When one looks at the isolation of that man in the tomb, can you imagine for one moment those of us who, throughout the pandemic have been locked into our rooms and our apartments and our houses, can you imagine what it must have been like for him to be enslaved in a tomb with the dead? The torment and pain that would have come out of that!
You and I know how difficult it is to be tormented in your soul and for your imagination to soar, when you're on your own. Can you imagine when you're on your own amongst the dead and in chains? This is a symbol of the problems of isolation, and that sense of being enslaved.
In the incredible book, Faustus, Marlowe tells a story of a conversation between Mephistopheles and Faustus. Faustus asks Mephistopheles this: “Where are you damned?”
Mephistopheles said, “In hell.”
Faustus then asked, “How comes it then that thou art our of hell?”
Mephistopheles responds, “Why, this is hell, not am I out of it. Thinks thou that I who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joys of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?”
Sometimes, when we are in isolation, when we are enslaved, there is this feeling of almost being in hell here and now. That was very much the experience of the man who was in that tomb. He felt he was in hell right there, and so he reaches out to Jesus feeling that he is estranged from God, feeling separated from God. This is the awful side of what happened. This is the problem when you lock people up when you think that they're mad. This is what happens to people; they feel that somehow God no longer cares for them.
And while, since the Enlightenment, we have learned a lot more about how people respond emotionally to things, still, there is deep within us this sense that if things are enslaving us, and if we are in isolation, or have problems in our lives, or we’re confronted by the temptations of evil, God is somehow absent.
Carl Jung, who dealt a lot with the issues of people feeling evil, or great challenge, wrote this: “Instead of being at the mercy of wild beasts, earthquakes, landslides and inundations, the modern person is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche. This is the world power that vastly exceeds all other powers on earth. The age of Enlightenment, which stripped nature and human institution of gods, overlooked the god of terror, who dwells in the human soul.”
Evil can dwell in the soul. It does not make the person evil, but evil can dwell in the soul for a multiplicity of reasons. This is where we come to Jesus. Jesus saw this man, “Why would you have anything to do with me?” he cried out to Jesus. In other words, why would you, the Son of the Most High God, want to in any way have anything to do with me? I’ve been in a tomb, I'm in agony. Why would you want me near?
Lok at how Jesus approached him. He asked for his name. The first thing that Jesus did after having commanded the spirits to leave, was to ask his name and humanise him. When you ask someone their name, their identity, their persona comes out. A name is important. That is why we have names; it symbolises who we are.
On a lighter note, over the last few days, I've been having some fun because right after Easter, Marial and I are getting a new puppy, a Labrador, and we’re very excited about this. After eighteen months with no dog, it will be lovely to have a companion animal. We agonised over the name, and won’t reveal it, by the way, until after Easter. But we have chosen a name, and already this little dog is being called by that name by the breeder, so that they will know who they are. They will know who they are.
Jesus, in great love, gave this man a name. He asked for the name and the man responded, not with his actual name, but rather with the state that he was in, that’s how tormented he was. Nevertheless, Jesus, in great love and at great personal risk, went to this man and showed him compassion and transformation. He showed him love.
Jesus had to leave very quickly afterwards, because of all of this. People weren't happy with what he had done. Can you imagine for one moment what it would be like to return to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to go back to his home and tell people first of all, he’d been in the presence of a man who had been in tombs; second, he had touched a lunatic, that third, he’d been in a Gentile world, and fourth, he’d been in the presence of pigs. But Jesus was willing to bear all of that to save this man and redeem him. This is an incredible story of love, and the triumph of Christ over evil.
Wonsuk Ma, who was the principal at the Oxford Centre of Mission Studies, once wrote something about the way evil is driven out by the power of love. He said, “Sometimes we overemphasise it; we make too much of evil itself.” And he’s right. “But other times we underestimate it and we lose sight of the power of God and of Christ over evil.”
He is correct; it’s a balance, isn't it, and that balance is needed. What I really like about this story, and the thing that grabs me was that at the end, this was an evangelist response. And by evangelical, I mean the real meaning, “to share the good news”.
The herdsman of pigs was certainly going around telling everyone what happened. Can you imagine the gossip amongst the Gerasenes over that? Word must have got out, no wonder Jesus had to leave the scene. But word had gotten out, and sometimes evil does not only grasp a person, it can grasp a group of people, it can even grasp nations. I don’t know how you can possibly conceive of something like the Shoah, the holocaust, without a sense of something evil having grasped people. Or what happened in Rwanda, what happened to the Rohingyas, or even the Tartars in Crimea in years past, without a sense that groups – people – can be grasped by evil.
Evil though, is overcome by what? Paul says that evil is overcome by the good. What happened with the man who was in the tomb, evil was overcome by the presence and the power and the love of Jesus of Nazareth. And so, when the man, knowing that things would be very difficult and dangerous for him back in his own community, says to Jesus, “Can I now come with you?” Jesus says, “No, you’re to go back to your home and tell them what happened and tell them about the love and the grace of God.”
The man who was in the tomb was probably the first Gentile evangelist, the first to go back to his community and declare the good works of God. What an incredible transformation, all because Jesus was willing to risk himself for the sake of others. That’s how much Jesus loves us, that’s how much Jesus loves people who are tormented, who are in the grip of evil, who are broken. He restores them. His whole ministry did that. The woman who was bleeding, Zacchaeus, who was up in a tree. The blind man, Lazarus, who we’ll look at next week, who was dead. Every time Jesus encounters them, he changes them, renews them, and restores the image of God within them.
My friend in Boston had sleepless nights. He’d read books. The encounter with evil really bothered him. One day, against my advice by the way, he decided he would go back to the Boston Common and try to find him. He walked around and looked at all the benches, and the normal hangouts for people who often lived on the Charles River, but he was not there. He struck up a conversation with a couple of other similarly disturbed, concerned people who lived in that area. He said to them, “Do you know where this man is?” Remember, he knew his name.
They said, “No, he isn't here, but he met somebody last week who talked to him and said that he was going to pray for him, so he thought maybe it was time to check himself into the Massachusetts General Hospital and to see if he could get some help.”
The person, of course, who had talked to him and offered to pray for him, was my friend.
There’s something about a name, something about demonstrating love that shows that the power of Christ really does transform. It is in that spirit that you and I now continue to walk to the cross in the full assurance that the love of Christ triumphs over evil. Amen.