A Sermon by Rev. David A Moffat
Today we are considering the story of the man possessed by the legion of demons. But before we do, it will be instructive to examine the significance of the land on the east side of the sea of Galilee, where this man lived. To do so, we must go back into Old Testament history, to Numbers chapter 32.
In that chapter, the people of the tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses with a request to settle the land east of the Jordan river instead of crossing over with the other tribes into the Holy Land. Now Moses remembered an earlier event when the children of Israel were not prepared to cross into the promised land, almost forty years earlier, and he panicked. At that time, he had sent twelve spies into the land of Canaan. Those spies returned to the Israelites’ camp with news of a fertile land which was easily capable of supporting the people, but most of the spies also reported fearsome stories about the inhabitants of the land, and they were able to put the people off the idea of entering the land the Lord had promised them. As a result, the people had been compelled to wander in the desert for almost four decades more. Now, Moses finds himself in a similar situation: poised ready to enter the promised land, and the people don’t want to go! No wonder he’s nervous!
Nevertheless, a compromise is reached: those settling on the eastern side will establish cities and strongholds for the women and children and farms for their cattle, and send their warriors over the Jordan to accompany and aid the rest of the nation. What is really fascinating is the involvement of the half tribe of Manasseh. They had no part in the original negotiation, yet they are granted land on both the eastern and western side of the Jordan. There is no good reason why this would be done in the literal story. This points us to a spiritual interpretation – as does Moses’ nervousness about not entering the promised land.
The whole saga of the children of Israel leaving Egypt for the promised land represents our spiritual journey, from bondage in selfish principles to a life of true spiritual freedom in cooperation with the Lord, who is the source of all life. To leave bondage but not enter into that full, spiritual life, is in fact the affirmation of the things which bind us, and so it was imperative that the children of Israel not only leave Egypt but actually take possession of the land of Canaan, which represents spiritual life. That Gad and Reuben remained on the East side of the Jordan reflects the reality that we have a natural life too, and that the spiritual life does not demand that we give up natural life, but live it in accordance with what is spiritual. This is where Manasseh comes in. In being given land on both sides of the Jordan, it represents the common ground between what is spiritual and what is natural: Swedenborg describes Manasseh as representing, “good in the natural man from a spiritual origin … it is good that constitutes the church, and this good flows in immediately out of the spiritual man into the natural, and without this influx the church is not with man” (Apocalypse Explained paragraph 440, section 7). “Manasseh” is the quality which makes our external observance of religion real.
Now, let’s fast forward to Jesus’ time. The picture is very different now. The nation of Israel is a shadow of its former self. It is greatly diminished, even on the Western side of the Jordan, but it has lost all control over the territory east of Galillee and Jordan. The eastern shore has become gentile. It is now a region known as Decapolis, a Greek word meaning “ten cities”. This is reflected in our story by the presence of a large number of swine, or pigs. Jews regard pigs as unclean animals and will not eat them, so they have no reason to farm them, as was clearly happening on the eastern side of the sea of Galillee when Jesus arrived there. This is descriptive of a religion that has lost touch with natural life. It no longer enters into the everyday lives of those who are in touch with it. It has lost its relevance: it has become “pie in the sky”, and any external observance is empty and meaningless. The reason for this lies in the fact that it is ruled by an external power itself. Rome’s rule over Palestine represents the rule of worldly concerns in place of the Lord, but that’s another story.
Now, let’s turn to the possessed man. We find his condition described in verses 3-5 of Mark chapter 5: “his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.”
There are three aspects to this man. Firstly, he “dwelt among the tombs.” In his day it was not unusual for the poor and dispossessed to do this. If you recall images of Christ’s tomb, you will see how this might be possible. Tombs were commonly natural or manmade caves, which would be large enough to provide sleeping quarters for the living as well as space to lay the dead. Anyone who needed accommodation could break into such caves and find shelter. This actually provides us with a remarkable allegory for natural life. On a number of occasions I have referred to the work of Gurdjiev and Ouspensky, and it is relevant again here, where they speak of natural life as being a state of sleep. The spiritual life is a state of true wakefulness, as it is a state of true life, but as we live on this earth, we often find ourselves among people who exist in a kind of zombie-like state, while awake they are asleep to the deeper realities of life, and while alive they are spiritually dead. So, this man typifies the natural life – living among the dead – in an extreme form.
The second part of his condition underlines this: he could not be bound. What do his chains represent? They are indicative of the external bonds of decency, self control, and lawful behaviour. The fact that they are external is emphasised by his “shackles”. The word is actually “fetters”, in other words, they are bound to the feet, which represent the natural life. But this man breaks these. His behaviour is driven by unbridled selfishness and worldliness. In truth, he is no different from the “respectable city dwellers” except insofar as his natural desires have broken the bonds of natural decency. Any why should it not? It has not real reason to remain bound. It recognises no rule of law above whatever serves its own ends. With no higher power and no recognition of spiritual goodness, whenever it is unleashed it becomes wild. Swedenborg tells us that this is what happens in the spiritual world to people who have lived wholly selfish, natural lives. Once the external bonds of respectability and natural expectations are removed, the inner selfishness breaks out and takes control of the life of the individual. Again let me reiterate, that this man is no different internally from the people in the cities who have rejected him and driven him out into the countryside. They may well see themselves as good people, religious people, but at heart there lies a passion which focusses exclusively upon self and worldly possessions, and given the chance, would do anything to achieve their ends. We live in a world where we are confronted almost daily with shocking images of every kind. We declare ourselves outraged at such behaviour – but given free reign, what am I capable of? What would I do if no one were watching or if I thought I could get away with it? If we are unwilling to face such questions, we may be internally possessed by the same unclean spirits as this man.
The third aspect of his condition reflects the result of this man’s life. Mountains and tombs speak to me of the highs and lows of life – a common experience for all of us, whether we live a spiritual life or not. For the spiritual person, the highs are brought about by a closeness to the Lord, and a humble acceptance of his care and concern for us. But for the selfish person, the highs derive from our own inflated self importance, the lows by our apparent loss of that importance. Day and night similarly reflects this experience, but in the understanding: it is day when we know what we want to further prop up our selfish desires, and we can see our way to getting it, night, when that understanding eludes us. What marks this person out from the spiritual one is not so much that they have highs and lows, but the result of them – self harm. No matter what the circumstances this man finds himself in, he is continually working against the power of the Lord, and is unwittingly self-destructing. If you spend some time observing people around you, it is all too easy to see. Selfish behaviour is basically self defeating.
So, Jesus enters the scene, and this man’s life is transformed: he is found, “sitting and clothed and in his right mind.” (verse 15) To conclude, I would like to focus on the two different reactions to Jesus’ work in this man’s life: the reaction of the people or the region, and that of the man himself.
The people of the region don’t like it. This seems odd, because Jesus has essentially removed a problem. But it reflects the fact that we tend to compartmentalise our lives – religion is for Sunday mornings, it shouldn’t stray into the rest of the week or interrupt what we want to do. So when it does, we get upset regardless of how positive and useful it may actually be. We may well like the fact that this uncomfortable man, who reminded us of our own shortcomings, has been silenced, but we really don’t want to change. What is more, Jesus complies. He leaves them in freedom. I am reminded about an email I received many months ago now, which asked what was going wrong with our society that teenagers were taking guns into schools, killing their teachers and classmates. It concluded that “we’ve asked God to leave our schools, and being the gentleman that He is, He left.” Too often we’re happy living a mediocre existence, as long as its not actually depraved or deprived. But it takes the recognition of our actual, spiritual depravity to make us change, and the Lord won’t force that upon us, we have to do it for ourselves.
But the demon-possessed man who is now in his right mind (the only one on that side of the Jordan, I would suggest!), wants to go with Jesus. It is utterly amazing to me that Jesus refuses! He leaves the unbelievers alone because they ask him to, yet he will not grant the request of the only man who truly recognises Him. Why? It’s all about balance. Having lived a wholly natural life, the man can now see the value of the spiritual, and wants to live a wholly spiritual life instead. But Jesus will not allow it. We can’t lock ourselves away in ivory towers, however safe, or appealing that may look. We cannot live a spiritual life unless it is grounded in our present, natural reality. The man now has his connection with the spiritual, his relationship with the Lord, his “Manasseh” to sustain him through life, and he must use it by continuing to live to the best of his ability in this world. We all have this experience. – we enjoy a week at church camp, but we must return to live in the real world again, even though we don’t want to. We enjoy the peak experience and we would like to hold onto it, but it slips through our fingers so easily if we try. What is more, there is still work to be done. Our spiritual awakening marks the beginning of a journey to the life of heaven, it does not secure it. There are many areas of our lives which remain unconverted, and it is these imperfections that the man is now sent to address:
“Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.”
And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marvelled. (Mark 5:19,20)