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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 Volkswagon when suddenly we passed a restaurant that looked inviting. 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 a 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 Gadara.
This painting contained actually three pictures of Jesus: one, when the demoniac meets Him; another, when the demoniac was healed; the third, when the citizens requested that he leave their area. In the background were the dead swine, and standing around Jesus, you could see the confused disciples.
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 the Gentile Christians in Rome. This gospel offers us a succession of scenes from the life of Jesus, most likely coming from Peter’s preaching as recorded by Mark 5:1-20’s pen. 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 (the storm) but with the evil that infects man as well. Mark wishes to use these miracle stories as proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. Such proof was effective among the Gentiles.
You recall that when Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake and set foot in Gadara, 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 have I to do with you?” He then turned and worshipped Jesus, and Jesus cast the demons out of him.
These demons, after identifying themselves as Legion, meaning “many,” are driven into a herd of swine grazing nearby and this stampedes them over a cliff into the lake. The swine-herds, realizing that they had failed in their responsibility and were accountable to the owners of these swine, run to the nearby village, inform the people of what has happened. The villagers come and, after surveying the economic damage, ask Jesus to leave. The healed demoniac requests permission to go with Jesus and the disciples, but Jesus leaves him as a witness in the Gentile community.
With a wide brush, Mark gives us one great canvas with three distinct pictures of Jesus. If you want to miss the real import of the story, then get tangled up with 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.
I. Jesus the Tormentor
The story opens with Jesus being met by the demoniac, a man believed to be possessed of demons, and chained in the tombs outside the city. The language of the text implies that the chains and fetters have been worn thin by constant abuse and that this man’s rage had made him a man to be feared and avoided.
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 have I to do with thee? Don’t torture me.” Had others ridiculed him — used him as the butt of harsh jokes? Was he the object of cruel pranks perpetrated by the local “red necks?” Whatever the case, he was tormented by the sight of Jesus, a foreigner, and wanted to receive no pain — physical or emotional — from Him.
Another way to miss the point of the story is to dismiss the outcry of this man as the ravings of a demented man with whom you 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. There is something in all of us that cries out at times: “What a relief it would be if I could just go ahead and live without having that Figure rise before my vision! Why can’t He leave me alone?” We are tormented partly 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 as our very selves. The outcasts of our society feel our judgment on them when in love they receive custodial care and feel it as torture.
Operating here is the Jewish belief that health and prosperity accompany those whom God loves. This man is shaken and tormented by Goodness, for he receives it as judgment upon himself. By this kind of treatment God and society have said that he is 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, the church, or the minister.
– Or the tired businessman who knows that he 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 demons.
The cures of his culture had resulted in chains and tombs — restriction, isolation. He was more restricted and isolated because of it and rather than offer help, they drove him further into his dilemma.
Jesus exposes this man, and this is the root of the torment; for to be exposed for what we are — limited, chained, driven men – is torment. But as the Gadarenes had exposes him to hatred and ridicule, Jesus exposes him to love.
This is what drove him to his knees. He had never experienced exposure and love. Exposure and hatred is common to us all. It drives us to imprison ourselves behind our silly and transparent defenses, but exposure and love is torment and health.
We live in fear of having our masks ripped off — our veneers peeled back — and most of our lives are built around keeping the defenses in good order. We can deal with the chains and tombs, but exposure and love are too much for us — more than we can comprehend.
There are families who are tormented, chained, and live on “Tomb Street” because they refuse to open to the other. Parents lock out the child until he is driven to desperate measures to gain admission to the other’s life. Husband and wife lock each other out rather than to risk love. The demoniac and the torment of his exposure waited for the liberating word. It came. It is made most vivid when Jesus is pictured in the middle of the canvas as the Liberator.
II. Jesus the Liberator
When Christ enters into the struggle with this man for his sanity, he identifies with him in his pain. The cure is not easily obtained. Jesus identifies the demons and speaks the liberating word. This man is free — free of his demons, free of himself, free to be himself.
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 this 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 the torment of that question raged in my mind. “Saved from what?” Deep into the night it began to unfold. As a young minister, I had preached about being saved from sin or evil. Somehow these answers did not satisfy. And then it came into focus. Jesus saves us from ourselves. Liberation that does not take this into account is immature.
The liberating word from Christ neither drives us back into ourselves, chaining us in the tombs with provincialism and archaic mind-sets, nor does it fetter us with “Mickey Mouse” morality, hoping to protect us from the light of truth. 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 so that he could see.
I have stood in that sacred place when the liberating word has been spoken. The liberating word is when one hears for the first time that in the midst of his exposure and the torment of this embarrassment, he is worthy of being loved.
“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, O Lamb of God, I come.”
Recently, I was on a college campus participating in a Religious Emphasis Week. In the first discussion late at night in the dormitory, the students voiced their superficial desire to be free. Then when they surveyed the awesome possibilities of freedom, they were caught between running back to the safety of mother’s womb or experiencing the torment of exposure for the joys of liberation.
If Mark has anything to say, it is that Christ enters into the struggle with us. Note that it is not instantaneous — to liberate us from the tyranny of our own bondage, He must drive out the demons and rip off the shackles. This is struggle and we must face it.
III. Jesus the Disturber
Jesus is often pictured as the Lamb of God, suitable for little children and old ladies. A noted advertising executive has made him the hero of the Madison Avenue world. These and other accommodations of the portrait of Jesus to our own needs are always being paraded before us, but there is one portrait of Jesus that we do not like.
When the swine-herds who were acting as custodians of the community’s wealth informed the people that they were now bankrupt, these good men — shopkeepers, carpenters and family people — rushed out to see what had happened, for this catastrophe was a severe disaster for the people. Upon assessing the damage, they were disturbed. It is interesting that their attitudes were brought into play here, for they saw the dead swine and not the healed man. They were aware of the presence of Christ, not the power of His liberating Word. They valued pigs more than people. And this is what the “youth cult” has taught us. For all of its hypocrisy and limitations, our young people have called our traditional values into questions and have exposed us — warts and all. With a loud cry they have sensed that we love things and use people.
I have heard farmers talk about “hands” working in the field — not about people — and I have heard businessmen talk about units of labor and not people. Our reverence for the gadget, the chrome chariot, the building, and our total disregard for human beings as individuals and as a society causes me to see us grieving over the swine that have been driven into the water, and ignoring the demoniac who has been made free at last.
The people of Gadara would have received Jesus gladly if he had come and simply legitimatized their own existence. If he had consented to become the incarnation of the higher values of their society — religion and morality — rather than the incarnation of the Word of God, which shakes our world like an earthquake and was beginning to shake the foundations of this little village, they would have honored Him. 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. We have tried to make Christ the Captive of the American way of life or of our own Southern provincialism, but He will not be accountable to us.
The struggle to manipulate the Christ into becoming our captive or pet lamb so that His powers may serve us conceals the disturbing character of His nature. He will not be a captive of our institutions.
The judgment upon the church today is as severe as it was upon Judaism of the first century. As individuals, churches and society, our confrontation with Jesus strips us of our illusions about the Tightness of our confidence in what we have established.
But we forget that Jesus disturbed with love. He did not hate the citizens of Gadara; He loved them and sought to heal them, for they too needed to be liberated from the demon of their own contentment. The tragedy was that they thought their little society was large enough to contain Christ.
My own walk with Christ convinces me of the pain at hearing His Word. He calls my values into question daily. He is a constant disturbing presence. I 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.

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