I encouraged a thick reading of the encounter of Jesus with a man named Legion in earlier blogs. I do not intend to provide a summary here other than to repeat two observations. First, this passage is the most detailed healing story in the synoptic gospels. Second, the theme of exorcisms in the gospels reveal the vast “worldview” separation between our time and social locations of the first century Mediterranean world. Ideas of evil spirits may seem to many people as foreign as the notion of dwarfs and leprechauns.
We may choose to ignore the narrative of Legion because of its strangeness. However, I advocate that a deep reading of the story with a tutored imagination is a means to enter into some of the painful issues of our time. I will be preaching on Legion at our church in April. My plan is to work with the story of Legion in the following way.
Faith gives us an apprehension that the unseen is as important as what we see, handle, taste, and feel. We hear the waves at the seaside, work with soil in our gardens, and see the stars at night. We sense that behind the majesty of creation there is an unseen Creator who gives us life.
In a very different way, we see the painful wounds of the world. There are actions of violence and unspeakable cruelty. For many of us, there is an apprehension of unseen forces of evil that operate by presenting lies as truth, tempting us to trust in brute power over love and grace, and offering false illusions of security devoid of justice and mercy.
The apostle Paul wrote that the human struggle is not simply against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6.12). This saying helps us understand hidden dimensions of evil behind the murder of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the war in Syria, child soldiers in South Sudan, the sexual violence that has made the Democratic Republic of Congo the worst place to be born a woman, and the abuse and disappearance of indigenous women in Canada.
There are always human factors behind the violence and systemic injustices that leave people broken and wounded. But people of faith look behind what we can see (the statistics and the human actors) and recognize unseen forces of evil. We believe that the redemption of the world cannot be addressed simply by more education, increased investment in peacekeepers, and stirring up greater good will. We need God’s healing presence along with human efforts to build communities of justice and peace.
I propose that we look at the story of Legion from three perspectives.
- The perspective of the communities of the Decapolis.
- The perspective of the man named Legion.
- The perspective of God.
The perspective of the community.
The people of the Decapolis were traumatized by violence. The oral history passed down by families contained stories of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, Alexander Janneus and the Hasmonean Empire, the Nabateans from Arabia, and finally the Romans under Pompey’s troops. Roman rule was so complete that coins and inscriptions celebrated Pompey’s conquest as year 1 in local history. What had come before was of no account.
We enter the story when Jesus descends from a boat and sets his feet on the soil of the Decapolis region. We learn that the local people are afraid of Legion. I wonder if their fear prompted them to give him that name. A Roman legion was a legion was a frightening force of 5 to 6 thousand armed foot soldiers and additional troops on horseback.
Local people view Legion as a dangerous threat. They have attempt to control him with chains, fetters, and isolation in the tombs dug into the side of the mountain. These efforts to manage Legion are only temporarily successful. He breaks free and roams the mountains shouting uncontrollably.
Here is the strange thing. While most people fear Legion, there are also sympathizers in the community. We can surmise that certain individuals bring him food and have helped free him from the fetters and chains. Is there a family that still loves him as a son or a brother? Are there individuals that hope to exploit his uncontrollable strength? We wish we knew more of the story behind the story.
There is something further in the narrative that initially might strike us as perverse. After Jesus heals Legion, the local people find him restored, in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus in the posture of a student. Now they are afraid of Jesus. They ask him to leave the area. It seems that the people of the Decapolis were more comfortable with violence and evil that they could partially control than with Jesus who calmed the storm on the sea and the storms in a man’s heart.
The description of the people of the Decapolis forces us to ask ourselves if we really want peace, justice, mercy and God’s redemptive work in our communities. Are we more content simply trying to manage the status quo? As a Canadian, the US debate about gun laws suggests that our American cousins have chosen the latter option.