30 January
Mk 5:1-20

The disciples came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

“My name is Legion.”  Another translation has ‘Mob’.  ‘Mob’ suits a madman: it conveys the sense of being invaded by chaotic forces (legions are all discipline).  Which madmen does it suit especially?  All of us!  A good way to read the Scriptures is to put oneself in the shoes of everyone in the story. 

It is certainly a dramatic story.  In his book, Why I am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell brought up this story to support his claim that Jesus was not a perfect man.  The philosopher was focusing on the pigs and the fate they met at the hands of Jesus.  But there are other characters in the story too: in particular, a deeply troubled human being.  St Jerome thought there must have been two thousand demons, since there were two thousand pigs.  One pig one demon.  The text doesn't say that.  Never mind: no-one could be so interested in demons – or in pigs, for that matter – as to keep an exact tally of them.  No one, that is, except Tertullian (3rd century), who wrote: “Even the bristles of the pigs were counted by God, just as were the hairs of the heads of the just.”  That would have consoled Bertrand Russell.  He was certainly partial to pigs: he was no vegetarian, and probably never came face to face with a pig that wasn’t cooked.  Ninety-nine years of bacon and sausages would account for quite a large herd of pigs, possibly even two thousand; and all of them suffered more gruesome deaths than their distant relatives in the story.  

Mark’s focus is not the pigs but the sorely tormented human being.  It is a story full of symbolic meanings.  Every element is significant.  The story is full of unclean things.  Demons, of course, were unclean.  Jews could not touch a dead body or a tomb without becoming ritually unclean (this is why sepulchres were whitened; because of their greater visibility, people were less likely to bump into them accidentally); but this man even lived in the tombs.  Pigs were regarded as unclean animals, and would never be found in Jewish territory.  In addition, Jews had a great fear of water; they were no sailors; for them the sea was the abode of Leviathan, the monster of the deep.  So the possessed man was surrounded and invaded by vile forces. 

By the end of the story the demons have left the man and taken up residence in the pigs, the most appropriate place for them; and the pigs have plunged into the water to join Leviathan.  Meanwhile, the man is “clothed and in his right mind,” and is told by Jesus to go home to his family and friends.  Everything has returned to its proper place....  If it were a film it would end with a shot of Bertrand Russell seated at home in Richmond Park enjoying his breakfast. 


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This page gives a very brief commentary by Donagh O’Shea on the gospel reading for each day of the month. 


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