Mark 5: The God of Tension
The last chapter ended revealing Jesus as the One who tames storms, the One who speaks to the wind and commands obedience. In this chapter this same Jesus is revealed as the One who continues to tame the untamable but does so on His own terms, in His own timing, through His own means.
Lord of the Greeks
Jesus encounters another unclean spirit, this time in the region of the Garasenes or Gadarenes (5:1) near a Hellenized area of Palestine called “Decapolis” (5:20). The assumption then is that we are dealing with gentiles or at least gentile sympathizers in this episode. The name “legion” is also a Roman term associated with their primary military unit (5:9). This unit usually consisted of between five and six thousand soldiers. Jesus is doing battle with Rome, with Hellenization but perhaps not as some people hoped. Finally, there near the beach, where Jesus has landed is a herd of swine, an unclean animal for faithful Jews and a sacred animal to Hellenistic culture. The demons entering the pigs (there were about two thousand) and then rushing down to drown in the sea is highly fitting given the association of the sea with the unclean gentile nations (5:13). Also notice the Exodus motif here: the enemy armies (“legion”) drowning in the sea. One would think that the local crazy man, sitting and clothed in his right mind, would be a cause for thankfulness. But the reality is otherwise (5:15-17). One commentator points out the parallels between this story and the previous one (4:35-41). Both the storm and the demon-possessed man are untamable. Both are wild and dangerous, and both by a spoken word are reduced to calm. The results are the same as well: fear. Having read the beginning of Mark, we know that Jesus’ ministry is one of grace and healing, but these people from Decapolis don’t have the same information. The loss of an enormous herd of pigs is also probably a significant economic blow to the community. They think that Jesus is a threat to their culture, their society, their way of life. And in one sense, he is. The calming of their storm presents an unknown, a tension, a mystery they are not willing to face.
The following interpolation or “sandwich” story relates two healings with a number of similarities. Both are daughters (5:23, 34). The woman with the flow of blood is ceremonially unclean and therefore ceremonially like a corpse (Lev. 15:25-27, 11:39-40). The girl lies at the point of death and then dies. Both are in some sense dead. Both afflictions are kinds of barrenness as well. The girl has just come into womanhood and the ability to bear children; the woman, having a flow of blood, is obviously afflicted in her reproductive system. Neither can bear children because of their “death”. Both are also associated with the number twelve. The woman has had the affliction for 12 years and the girl was 12 years old. The parallels make it obvious that Mark would have us see the episodes as almost a single event. The method of story telling also emphasizes this. The number twelve points to the house of Israel, and as has been indicated previously, Israel is afflicted, unclean, barren and dead. Israel has suffered many things at the hands of many physicians; she has spent all that she has and is still no better (5:26). Israel needs the healing and resurrection of Jesus.
The entire chapter is concerned with “uncleanness” of various sorts. The man from the tombs (place of death) had an unclean spirit, the spirit “Legion” is cast into the unclean swine, a woman with a flow of blood is ceremonially unclean, and the daughter of Jairus is an unclean corpse (grave). Part of the lesson is to point out the similarities between the “faithful” (Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue, v. 22) and the “compromisers” (Decapolis is a compromised region). They all need cleansing. Both are unclean; both are afflicted by death in various forms. And Jesus touches them both. But we also need to remember the trajectory of Mark. We first ran into uncleanness in the synagogue and now it’s everywhere. But the whole point of ceremonial cleanliness laws was to make distinctions. God wanted Israel to know that she was to be a holy, priestly nation; and even within that priestly nation, Israelites were to recognize when they themselves were “unclean” and could not come before God. The concept of “uncleanness” was a divine institution to create tension, to create awareness of obstacles and challenges.
Conclusion: Tension and the Gospel
One of the things that Christians need to come to grips with is the fact that our God loves tension. He loves to tell stories where the odds are against the hero. He prefers not to explain everything even when he could. Why doesn’t Jesus allow the demons to say who He is? Why does He not explain to the people of Decapolis who he is? Why does he send the newly healed town crazy as his ambassador only five minutes after his healing? Why does he take so long to get to Jairus’ house? Why doesn’t he just say the word and send Jairus on his way? Why does he stall with the woman with the flow of blood? Why does he confront her and draw attention to her in the middle of throng of people? Isn’t this insensitive? Isn’t that a “private” sort of thing? Why does Jesus say that the girl is only “sleeping”? Why does he say confusing things like that? Why does he warn Jairus not to tell anyone? Why does God erect seemingly arbitrary cleanliness ceremonial laws, etc?
Our God is a God who loves tensions, a God who loves suspense and mystery. And we need to love it too. Without loving sin or evil, we nevertheless need to come to love what God does with these things. God starts reformations with martyrs. He sanctifies his children with cancer and tumors. He sends famines and barrenness to us because he likes what they do to us. He likes how he can see His glory in us BETTER afterwards. He loves to keep us in the dark to see if we will trust him. He loves to send the under qualified, the novice, the weak to do jobs that many others are far more qualified to do. He prefers to send Davids to face giants and John the Baptists to face the Herods. He prefers to use the inarticulate expressions of toddlers to proclaim his truth. He loves the catacombs because he knows that’s the only way to get to cathedrals. He loves pain because he knows that’s the way of peace and comfort. He loves the cross because He overcomes it and turns it into resurrection. He loves death because He destroys it and turns it into life.
And so Jesus continues to say the same thing to us today that he said to Jairus some 2000 years ago: “Do not be afraid; only believe.”
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!