For centuries, Mark’s Gospel shared the fate of Cinderella in the well-known German folktale. As Cinderella languished in the kitchen until rescued by her prince, Mark suffered almost total eclipse by its three longer fellows (Matthew, Luke and John). A century and a half ago, in scholarly circles at least, the second Gospel underwent notable rehabilitation. Mark, it was widely agreed, was the earliest written Gospel, the source for much of Matthew and Luke. Further revision brought acknowledgement of the theological richness of its author and, more recently, appreciation of the narrative as a literary composition of no little sophistication and skill.
Still, for all the scholarly attention that it has attracted, Mark’s Gospel has taken rather long to establish itself in wider Christian usage. There is very little in Mark that is not repeated in Matthew and Luke. Furthermore, much of the detail that is unique is obscure and puzzling (the parable of the seed growing secretly [4:26-29], for example, or the flight of the naked young man [14:51-52]). Mark also lacks content that has become part of the distinctive essence of the Christian faith: the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the parables of the good Samaritan and the lost son and Matthew’s evocation of the great judgment.
Nevertheless, in this year’s cycle of Sunday Mass readings, Mark is the main Gospel text. And indeed, Mark has a distinctive voice and a message particularly attuned to address the darkness of unbelief and despair that characterizes so much of human living today.
The “Stronger One”
Mark is perhaps the most frightening and most challenging of the four Gospels. Even a casual glance takes the reader straight into a world inhabited by demons and malign forces with which Jesus is constantly in conflict. Threats to his life begin very early (3:6); opposition and misunderstanding from within his closest circle dog him all along, right up to the unrelieved starkness of his death. Though his resurrection is not in doubt, the Markan narrative (at least in its most likely original form—that is, without the appendix making up verses 9 to 20 of Chapter 16) never offers us the comfort of a vision of the risen Lord. We are simply left with an empty tomb, a promise of an appearance in Galilee, and three women too paralyzed with fear to spread the good news (16:1-8).
In the midst of his opponents, Jesus is presented as the “Stronger One” (1:7), who has come to set human beings free from the grip of the “Strong Man,” Satan (3:27). This struggle against the demonic is essentially about control. People in the ancient and biblical world spoke of demonic possession when they felt themselves held captive from within by forces and compulsions over which they had no control—transpersonal forces that robbed them of freedom of choice, stunted their human growth and pointed their lives in directions they would rather not go.
This sense that the world, including Israel, had fallen under demonic control was pervasive in the context in which Mark was written. Indeed, along with many strands of Judaism of the time, the early followers of Jesus and presumably Jesus himself read the great announcements of liberation contained in the latter half of Isaiah (Isa 40–66), not primarily as references to freedom from exile in Babylon—their original sense—but in relation to freedom from this captivity to the demonic in all its multiple manifestations.
Significantly, the very first public action of Jesus in this Gospel, following his call of the first four companions, is an exorcism performed while teaching in a synagogue at Capernaum (1:21-28). In Mark, there is a remarkable continuity between Jesus’ teaching and his activity as exorcist. In both he acts with striking authority to create in human lives the freedom associated with the kingdom. Human minds and hearts—including those of the disciples (cf. 8:33)—stand equally in need of cleansing from demonic control.
The Gerasene Demoniac
Jesus’ encounter with a deeply troubled human being “in the land of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1-20) is paradigmatic of his dealings with the demonic. The scene opens right after Jesus has calmed the storm on the lake (4:35-41). In an instant he had rebuked the fury of the wind and the waves and created a great calm, leading the disciples to gasp in fear and awe: “Who then is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?” The contrast between the fury of the sea and the ensuing calm is striking and foreshadows the scene that will unfold when Jesus disembarks.
In contrast to Matthew and Luke, Mark lingers on a description of the man who confronts Jesus: “He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain...and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones” (5:3-5). It is hard to imagine a more convincing description of dehumanization. The very image of social alienation and self-destruction, the man is utterly out of control. The only relief for the local inhabitants is that he lives on the fringe of society, among the tombs, the abode of death.
As in most exorcisms, there ensues a tussle over naming. Jesus extracts from the demoniac the name Legion—a designation with interesting resonances in terms of the Roman occupation of Israel. The expulsion of the demons into the herd of pigs and their subsequent fatal plunge into the sea underline once more the sheer destructiveness of the demonic force infesting the man.
The fate of the pigs leads the inhabitants to come out to see what has happened. The Gospel invites us to share their amazement at the transformation before their eyes: “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion” (vv. 14-16). Once again Jesus has brought about “a great calm,” this time the reclaiming of a deeply troubled human being for life in society.
His humanity regained, the man wants to become one of Jesus’ close companions (v. 18). Instead he is sent back to his own home to tell his friends how much the Lord had done for him. In this way he becomes a point of insertion into the story for the readers of the Gospel, who themselves live too late to become literal followers of Jesus but who, reclaimed by his power for the kingdom, can be witnesses to that power in their own communities and contexts.
In this story, then, we have a perfect enactment of the image Jesus uses earlier in the narrative (3:27). The “house” of the world has been infested by the Strong Man, Satan. Jesus, the Stronger One, comes to bind up Satan and plunder his goods, reclaiming the house of the world for true humanity and freedom.
The Demonic Today
Which of us cannot in some respect see ourselves in this gravely troubled person? Are there not many ways in which we compulsively and destructively rend and tear at ourselves, putting ourselves at odds with human community, resisting the naming of our problem through various forms of denial? In a real sense, the multiple forms of addiction that burden us as individuals and as societies can be seen as contemporary manifestations of the demonic—vast transpersonal forces that control us and make us their slaves.
Of course, to take the Gospel material as an invitation to see the demonic or the Devil everywhere is dangerous. A healthy spirituality will acknowledge the reality of spiritual forces opposed to God and to life, but will also call for discernment and skill.
Even so, the encounters with the demonic in Mark’s Gospel offer material both challenging and relevant to our human life today. They invite us to look at our own society and consider what are the supra-individual, societal and global forces exercising a dehumanizing control over our own personal lives and those of society.
It is interesting that the Gerasenes, when they saw the transformation brought about in their fellow citizen, had a curious reaction. They began to ask Jesus to leave their neighborhood (5:17). They could cope more easily, it seems, with having a wildly disturbed person on the edge of society than with having in their midst someone who could bring about so startling a change in human lives. Jesus, in brief, scared them. They could only beg him to leave.
The historical neglect of Mark’s Gospel may likewise be due to the fact that the church has at times found the text disturbing and scary. It certainly offers blunt testimony to the cost of liberation—the cost to Jesus and the cost to us.