It was quite by accident that my family discovered Bruges, a delightful village in Belgium that still retains the flavor of the 14th century. We were lost, hungry, and somewhat confused, bouncing along in our rented Volkswagen when suddenly we passed a restaurant that looked inviting; and after a most delightful meal, the owner suggested that we take time to visit the Venice of Belgium: Bruges.
Much to our delight, we discovered that the owner had been right about the charm and beauty; but the real surprise was the museum of 14th-century Flemish art. Here for the first time, we experienced art in its natural setting. These delightful impressions of biblical scenes were painted on oak and had retained their color through the centuries. The distinguishing characteristic of Flemish art, though, is that it is the first painting in Europe to tell an entire story on one canvas or piece of oak. Many biblical stories were presented with all of their movement and flow. The one which caught my imagination was the story of Jesus healing the demoniac of Gadera. This painting contained actually three pictures of Jesus, one when the demoniac meets him, another when the demoniac was healed, and the other when the citizens requested that he leave their area. In the background were the dead swine and confused disciples standing all around.
The artist was correct in understanding Mark's Gospel as a picture approach to presenting Jesus, for this earliest Gospel was written to give portraits of Jesus to Gentile Christians in Rome. It is a succession of scenes from the life of Jesus, most likely coming from Peter's preaching through Mark's pen and now to our ear. The story actually has its prelude in the preceding chapter as the disciple band crosses the lake to Gentile territory in search of rest from their labors only to be caught in a storm on the lake. Jesus stills the storm. Mark now turns to show us that Jesus can deal, not only with the natural evil of the storm, but with the evil that infects humans as well. Mark wishes to use these miracle stories as proofs of Jesus' messiahship.
You recall that when Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake he set foot in Gadera. He was met immediately by a raving, demon-possessed man who had been chained by the local community and left to generally inhabit the area of the tombs. When the man saw Jesus, he was immediately tormented by his presence and cried out, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" Then he turned and worshiped Jesus, and Jesus cast the demons out of him. These demons, after having identified themselves as being legion--many--were driven into a herd of swine grazing nearby, and they stampede over a cliff in the lake. The swine herders, realizing that they had failed in their responsibility and were accountable to the owners of these swine, ran to the nearby village to inform the people of what had happened. The villagers arrived and, after surveying the economic damage, asked Jesus to leave. The healed demoniac requests permission to go with Jesus and the disciples. But Jesus leaves him as a witness to the Gentile community.
With a wide brush, Mark gives us one great canvas with three distinct pictures of Jesus. Incidentally, if you want to miss the real import of the story, then get tangled up in the incident of the demons and the pigs; but if you want to see what Mark is trying to tell us, look at these pictures.
First of all, we see Jesus, the tormentor. Immediately, the story opens with Jesus being met by the demoniac who was chained in the tombs outside the city. The community had dealt with him by using physical restraint and isolation, and the condition of the man testifies to the failure of this method of care. In twenty centuries, we have not improved our ability to help disturbed people. We still constrain and isolate. Upon seeing Jesus, he cries out, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" Had others ridiculed him, used him as the butt of harsh jokes? Was he the object of cruel pranks perpetuated by local rednecks? Whatever the case, he was tormented by the sight of Jesus, a foreigner, and expected the same treatment from him.
We miss the point of the story when we dismiss the outcry of this man as the ravings of a demented man with whom we have nothing in common. Embrace the happy fiction that most human beings delight to bask in the presence of perfect goodness, if you wish. The only trouble is that you then find the resistance to Christianity down through the centuries quite unaccountable. The plain fact is that Christ is a kind of plague to the human race in the minds of some people. There is something in all of us that cries out at times, "Why won't you leave me alone?" We are tormented because his presence makes us fully aware of our misery and bondage, and partly because it threatens to take away from us those ills and obsessions that we cling to. This man is shaken and tormented by goodness, for he receives it as judgment upon himself. Goodness makes us feel unworthy.
This living dead man is no different than my friend who told me that he did not attend church because he felt unworthy...or the typical young person who feels ceremoniously unclean in church because he has broken one or all of the commandments. Let's not forget the college student who thought that his doubting made him unacceptable to God, to the church, or to the minister...or the tired business person who knows that he or she lives from Monday to Saturday by one set of rules and is tormented on Sunday by the judgment of Christ and the burden of his own demons.
Jesus exposes this man and this is the root of his torment. For to be exposed for what we are--limited, chained, driven people--is torment. But as the Gaderenes had exposed him to hatred and ridicule, Jesus exposes him to love, and that was hard for him to receive.
We lie in fear of having our masks ripped off, our veneers peeled away; and most of our lives are built around keeping the defenses in good order. We can deal with change and tombs, but exposure and love are too much for us, more than we can comprehend.
The demoniac needed the liberated word and it came. It is most vivid when Jesus is pictured in the middle of the canvas as the liberator. When we see Jesus, the liberator, we realize that Christ enters into the struggle with this man for his sanity. He identifies with him in his pain; the cure is not easily obtained. Mark's Greek, poor but adequate, shows us the struggle of Jesus to set him free. Jesus identifies the demons and speaks the liberating word. "This man is free." Free from his demons, free from his tortured self. Free to be his true self.
Years ago while an undergraduate, I was attending a seminar conducted by a forgotten scholar who visited our campus. In the midst of the discussion, one of the fledgling ministers seated in the group looked at the distinguished scholar and asked him a most impertinent question. "Sir, are you saved?" Immediately, the scholar turned to the young man and said, "Saved from what?" There was a deep silence, then he looked at all of us and said, "What are we saved from?" With this, the seminar was dismissed and we went back to our dormitory rooms somewhat confused at the evasive answer given by the visiting scholar. Throughout the night, I was troubled by the question, "Saved from what? Saved from what?" And deep into the night it began to unfold. Finally, it came into focus. Jesus saves us from ourselves. Liberation that does not take this into account misses the target.
The liberating word of Christ neither drives us back into ourselves, chaining us in the tombs with provincialism and archaic mindsets, nor does it fetter us with Mickey Mouse morality. Rather, liberation strips these chains from our ankles and wrists, drives the demons out, and makes us free to understand what Augustine meant when he said, "Love God and do as you please."
I'm having some difficulty describing liberation, for most of us do not have ears with which to hear or eyes with which to see. To hear the liberating word is a shattering experience, for it's something totally new. It would be like a deaf person hearing a symphony for the first time, or a blind man having the bandages removed from his eyes. I have stood in that sacred place when the liberating word has been spoken. The grace-given word is when one hears for the first time that he or she is worthy of being loved.
"Just as I am without one plea, but that thou blood was shed for me, O Lamb of God, I come."
If Mark has anything to say, it is that Christ enters into the struggle with us, and in the third picture we see Jesus, the disturber.
Jesus is often pictured as the Lamb of God suitable for little children and old ladies. This is pleasing, but there is one portrait of Jesus that disturbs us. When the swine herders, who are acting as custodians for the community's wealth, informed the people that they were now bankrupt, these good people--shopkeepers and carpenters and family people--rushed out to see what had happened. Immediately upon assessing the damage, they were disturbed. They saw the dead swine, not the healed man. They valued pigs more than people. And we love things and use people. This has not changed.
The people of Gadera would have received Jesus gladly if he had come and simply legitimatized their own existence. Also, they would have accepted him if he had consented to become the private chaplain to the values of their society--their religion, race, and morality--rather than the incarnation of the Word of God. This action called their values into question.
This struggle is not new to Jesus, for the tempter tried to make him captive immediately after his baptism. "Bow down to me, and I'll give you all these things." The Holy Roman Empire tried to make Christ their captive, and the struggle went on for centuries until he stepped free. Calvin, in the name of freedom, tried to imprison him in his system in Geneva, but he would not be locked in one provincial city or system. We have tried to make Christ the captive of the American way of life, of our own Southern provincialism, or our political party. He will not be accountable to us. He will not be a captive of our institutions.
But we forget that Jesus disturbed with love and grace. He did not hate the citizens of Gadera; he loved them and sought to heal them, for they, too, needed to be liberated from their own demons. The tragedy was that they chose pigs over Jesus.
My own walk with Christ has convinced me of the pain of hearing his word. He calls all my values into question daily. He is a constant disturbing presence. I personally rage at his goodness and wish that he would leave me alone, but Mark tells us that his disturbing presence is his loving hand moving us to freedom.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
Let us pray.
Eternal God, give us the courage to accept your grace and the changes that it makes in our lives, for we pray in the strong name of Christ our Lord. Amen.