What is scarier than a mad man, strong enough to break the chains used to bind him, running around in a cemetery naked, and terrorizing all passerby?
According to the story as recorded in Mark 5 (and Luke 8), it is a former madman, dressed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Why? When a mad man is healed, we should all be happy, right? Some say that the main concern of the townspeople was the financial loss represented by the loss of the pigs. That may have been a factor, but the way the story is told has me thinking there is something else going on here. If the main concern was loss of livelihood I would expect they would have come in anger upon hearing of the loss. However, both Mark and Luke say that the people who were told of the events that transpired on the hillside came to see what was happening and, when they saw the man dressed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, then they were afraid. Why? Why are they more scared when they see this man dressed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet, than when he is running around on a lunatic fringe, naked and unstoppable?
And why, when Jesus’ words after his miracles are almost exclusively a strongly worded charge to tell no one, does he now insist that this former madman is not to accompany him as he desires, but rather, he is to stay in his home town when Jesus leaves, and tell everyone?
My suspicion is that the reason for the people’s fear is a recognition what has happened here is something which they do not understand, and cannot control. They had become accustomed to the lunatic raising cane, and they had an agreeable arrangement that they stayed out of his way, and he stayed among the tombs and disturb only the dead. It was an agreeable arrangement that made life work for all of them. Now along comes Jesus, he renders their careful arrangements moot, and they cannot understand how he did it, but they realize that this kind of remedial action could wreak havoc with their own lives, as it already has with the lives of their pigs. They do not know or understand Jesus and his actions, but they recognize a power that lies way beyond their ken and control. That is terrifying.
So they ask Jesus to leave; they beg Jesus to leave. “Please, just leave us to the lives we know. We are not interested in change, most certainly not interested in change we do not understand and cannot control. Please go away. Just leave us alone.”
So Jesus leaves. Why does he just leave? The man who was just healed wants to go along. Who would not? He has just been saved from a bondage he had never imagined he could overcome, a bondage which he never could have overcome on his own. With just a few words Jesus has freed him from his demons. Of course he wants to maintain connection with this source of healing.
But Jesus tells him to go home. “Go home and tell everyone what the Lord has done for you.” Why does this man get to talk about what God has done for him? On almost every other occasion when Jesus healed someone they are told to keep quiet about it. Why does this man get to tell everyone?
Jesus knew our appetite for easy answers. If there is a simple solution for our problems we will take it and avoid the hard work of achieving an honest understanding our problems in light of truth. We would rather pray about our problems and Voila! It is gone!! The problem is that easy answers are usually escape routes from our own culpability and responsibility. Easy answers are usually structures that allow or even enable us to live with our sinfulness, rather than addressing the root problem of our sinfulness. If people catch wind that Jesus can supply their wishes they will lose interest in having their needs answered, and Jesus wants to provide far more robust solutions for our challenges than merely granting genie-in-a-bottle responses to our fantasy wish lists.
Hence, in those areas where Jesus spends most of his time the siren call of easy answers suggested by the stories of healing will distract people from the whole hearted search for full-bodied answers. However, he is leaving the Decapolis, and the demoniac’s stories will not suggest the same easy answers because he will not be just a wish away. The former demoniac’s story (or testimony) of a life turned around through the mercy of Jesus will be able to function as a catalyst for soul-searching and possibility thinking regarding what could happen in the lives of the townspeople. The former demoniac’s encounter with Jesus can be the introduction of an encounter with Jesus that turns the town upside down, or rather, right side up even though they are currently unaware they are living life in reverse.
The demoniac’s encounter with Jesus becomes the door for the townspeople’s encounter with Jesus that introduces them to themselves. Just at the demoniac was living in a state of radical disconnection with the self he was made to be, and was restored to himself in his encounter with Jesus, so may his neighbours find themselves in their own encounter with their Maker.
For the moment, however, that prospect is too frightening. Finding the former demoniac, dressed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, is just too scary. “Please, Jesus, just leave us. We are fine with the way we are.”
Allan Hirsch tells us that the only place for the church to find its mission is in Jesus Christ. Institutions and structures are not a substitute for a radical meeting with Jesus the Christ. The only way for the church to be the church she was intended to be is when her sole purpose is to be Jesus to the neighbour. Authenticity is found in Jesus. Institutions and structures must serve the church, not the other way around. When institutions and structures become the definition of the church, then the church is not herself. When institutions and structures become the definition of the church, then the church is in bondage.
However, after living with these chains long enough we become comfortable with them. We learn to define ourselves by our maladies and the prospect of change becomes disconcerting and threatening. Our maladies become our normalcy, and the prospect of finding ourselves dressed and in our right minds, sitting at the feet of Jesus is just too scary.
Presumably we are not so scared of an authentic encounter with Jesus that we will ask him to leave. Hopefully, too, we will not pretend to be only single-mindedly welcoming of an encounter with the living God. A measure of trepidation only indicates that we recognize the potentially devastating consequences of such an encounter for some of our prized religious constructions that have heretofore provided cherished shelter from some deeply disturbing introspection and analysis of how well we reflect the image of our Creator in our selves and our church.
Nonetheless, assuming we do wish to invite Jesus to send healing into our own lives and our community, how do we do this? How do we distinguish institutions and structures that serve Christlikeness from those that interfere? Can we hope to have structures and institutions that reflect God’s wishes for our community any better than we ourselves reflect the same? If not (and I believe not), how do we allow an authentic encounter with Jesus to bring the healing to us that we believe God wants to bring to our community? Will we just be scary? Or will we be so scary that our neighbours will recognize a potential encounter with God? And how scary would that be?