Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Loneliest Man in the Bible


Healing_of_the_demon-possessed[1]Let me tell you about the loneliest man in the Bible.

There's a lot we don't know about him. We don't know where things went wrong for him, whether he had once been wealthy and fallen on hard times that became too much for him. We don't know if he had parents whose hearts broke when they thought of him, or brothers and sisters who were ashamed to acknowledge their relationship to him. We don't know if he once had had a wife whose heart skipped when she saw him, or children who loved to climb on his chest and rub his beard with their hands. We don't know if he was once a pillar of the community, the center of a coterie of friends, the toast of the bar, or the champion at dice. We don't even know this fellow's name.

What we do know is how far he had fallen.

By the time the Bible brings us to this man's story, he is completely alone. At one point, people used to bind him with fetters, but he fought them so fiercely that he always broke the chains and got away. God only knows how he must have looked, bleeding where the iron had dug into his wrists and ankles, swinging broken chains whenever he raised his hand because he felt threatened. Eventually they left him alone. One imagines the good, clean people drove him out of town first, probably by throwing stones at him until he ran away, but in the end, they left him alone.

Alone is how he passed his days, and alone is how he passed his nights. There was no one to laugh with, no one to hold him when he cried, and given how people act when they're alone, it's safe to say that he probably did a lot of both. Aside from the jackals and the rats, his giggles and his shrieks were probably his only company. The gospel of Mark tells us that he lived amid the rows of the dead, and day and night would cry out in the desolation of the tombs and around the mountains where he wandered.

I've known people who say there is no hell, but they're wrong. This man lived there. He knew its every inch, its every uneven stone. He knew its unbearable heat and its unbearable cold. He knew its unbearable godforsakenness.

When Jesus asked him his name, he was probably the first person in years to attempt a conversation with this man. When he clothed him, he was the first to care about restoring this man's dignity.

Is there any place more desolate than the one where this man lived? Living among the dead is bleak and haunting enough, but when this man speaks to Jesus, he refers to the area where he lives as chora, a Greek word that means "the space lying between two places or limits" or "an empty expanse." This is a man with no place that wants him, no country that he can call his own. He's perfectly miserable, and he's terrified that Jesus will upset that status quo and send him from this chora, to some place where he'll be with other people.

We usually think of this man as possessed by a demon, or perhaps even by a thousand demons because of the memorable response he has when Jesus asks him his name: "I am Legion, for we are many." In the gospel of Mark at least, the writer specifically does not use the word demon. There is such a term in Greek; it's pneuma ponĂªron (evil spirit) or even daimonion. The writer of Mark's gospel instead uses the term pneuma akatharton, "unclean spirit." The word akatharton usually is used in conjunction with ritual uncleanness, the sort that makes you unfit for the company of other people, and unfit to enter the presence of God. Unclean spirits in Judaism were believed to inhabit desolate regions -- like the tombs -- and sometimes were equated with pagan gods

Legion's story is one of the most familiar passages in Mark's gospel. The unclean spirits afflicting this man beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of swine nearby, and he does. The pigs -- about 2,000 of them -- rush down the hill and drown in the lake, presumably bringing financial ruin to the owners of the herd, and when people hear what has happened, they beg Jesus to leave the territory immediately.

The region this all happened in is just outside the Decapolis, in what is modern-day Jordan. The Decapolis was on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, and had been settled after the death of Alexander the Great, and during the time of the Seleucid dynasty that succeeded Alexander. This, incidentally, was the same Seleucid dynasty that conquered Judea and tried to Hellenize the Jewish people. Among other things, the Seleucids desecrated the Temple by sacrificing swine in the Holy of Holies. The eventual Jewish victory over their oppressors is celebrated every year during Hanukkah.

So here we have Jesus, fresh on the heels of the parables in Mark 4 that illustrate how his heavenly kingdom will grow, bringing restoration and deliverance to the most tragic figure imaginable. His mere presence is enough to overthrow the Greek gods, represented in Legion, and to purify an area polluted with the unclean animals that once had defiled the Temple.

When the encounter ends, Jesus commissions the former madman to become the Billy Graham of the Decapolis, traveling throughout the region and telling people what Jesus had done for him. Rome employed the services of heralds like this all the time, when it would send them into newly conquered lands to declare the evangelion of Caesar, that the country was now Roman territory, that the people would now enjoy the benefits of Rome's peace, protection and wealth. The gospel notes that when Jesus returned, the people awaited his arrival eagerly.

The entire experience is something of a Bizarro Hanukkah, affirming both the sovereignty of Jesus and the peaceable nature of his kingdom.

Of the people in the story, which one should we identify with? Are we Jesus, bringing deliverance to the lost and lonely with no sense of belonging; are we trembling madman tormented and afraid of being well; or are we the people of the Decapolis?

I think we want to be the first and believe we used to be the second; but I think that too often we belong in that third group: basically decent, satisfied with who we are and our place in the world, just waiting until that moment when a former madman will come by and upend our world.
Copyright © 2014 David Learn. Used with permission.