In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus invades enemy territory and defeats a powerful army to deliver people from bondage.
Jesus enters enemy territory in two ways. The land of the Gerasenes was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was part of the Greco-Roman region known as the Decapolis, or “ten towns.” It was Gentile territory, the land of foreign gods, a place of idolatry. Additionally, the encounter takes place among the tombs, an earthly realm of the dead, so to speak. Here, then, Jesus faced two of God’s enemies: hostile spiritual powers and death itself.
Unsurprisingly in such a place, Jesus finds a man possessed by unclean spirits. The man howled day and night and cut himself with stones. His fellow citizens tried to restrain him in chains – a horrible way to treat mental illness, by the way – but he always broke free. In Mark’s thinking, the man’s extraordinary strength is evidence of supernatural bondage. The man could break his earthly chains; he could not break his spiritual ones.
When Jesus asked the man’s name – always a good way to start a conversation – the demons replied, “We are ‘Legion’, for we are many.” A legion is a Roman military unit consisting of four to six thousand soldiers. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters see this as coded language referring to a confrontation with the political and military power of Rome. I don’t see anything of that sort in the story. I’ll take Mark at his word; he’s thinking of an army of demons, not an army of human soldiers.
In a recent online essay on the Gospel of Mark, Peter Leithart wrote,
[Israel’s] real enemy isn’t Rome, which barely figures into the gospel story. Israel’s real enemy is Satan. She suffers a more oppressive slavery than ever before – not to human rulers but to demons, who are bold enough to enter synagogues on the Sabbat. Israel doesn’t [need] a savior who can fight off a legion of Roman soldiers. She needs someone strong enough to cast a legion of demons into the sea, like Pharaoh and his hosts. That’s the exodus that Israel needs. It’s the exodus that Jesus has come to lead, an exodus from slavery to the prince of this world.
Just as God defeated Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, so Jesus defeats Satan’s army in the land of the Gerasenes. Instead of dead Egyptians washing up on the shore, we see dead pigs, an intentional insult to the minions of Satan.
There are echoes of exodus in Mark’s story, and echoes of David’s battle with Goliath. Again, God’s anointed one faces down an army, one man against thousands. Instead of a sling and a stone, Jesus needs only his voice; Jesus commands and the enemy falls. As the Philistine dead were strewn from Gaza to Ekron, so thousands of Satan’s dead fell in their own territory.
Jesus’ victory over the devil’s army results in the man being dressed and in his right mind, a different kind of setting things right with the world and a foretaste of the age to come. Jesus made him whole. The victorious Lord made life good again for one embattled soul. In delivering the man from his bondage, Jesus restored creation’s promise.
Mark’s Jesus is a warrior who conquers God’s enemies. He is the strong man who binds Satan and plunders his house. At the beginning of the gospel, he wins these victories with acts of visible, recognizable power. At the end of the gospel, however, Jesus’ tactic changes. The final battle requires a different strategy, one that involves a cross.