“The Value of Common Sense”
Text: Mark 5: 1-13
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
I remember hearing a story about two doctors that decided they wanted to go fishing in the remote areas of Alaska. They planned their trip carefully and they had to charter a special bush pilot with a sea plane to take them to this remote area where the pilot would land on a lake, drop them off and pick them up again 3 days later. On the way to the lake the pilot encountered some engine trouble which was causing the engine to overheat and eventually it would fail, causing the plane to crash. There wasn’t a lake close enough to land in, so the pilot broke the news to the two doctors. The problem was there were three of them and the pilot only had two parachutes on board.
Upon hearing the dire situation, one of the doctors immediately went into a verbal rant about how great of a doctor he was. As a matter of fact, he considered himself to be a genius and the research that he was conducting would benefit humanity for decades to come. There wasn’t any possibility that he should be allowed to die, he simply was too important and too intelligent. It would be a waste. When he finished his rant, he picked up one of the parachutes, put it on his back and jumped out of the failing plane.
“Well,” said the remaining doctor to the pilot, “what do you think of that?” The pilot answered; “I think we are going to miss lunch, but we will both be OK.”
“What are you talking about?” the doctor asked. The pilot calmly replied, “Our lunch was in my backpack, and our genius just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.”
When I was in seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver one of the classes that I took was titled: “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics”. I thought that I should earn a passing grade in the class because I knew what the title meant! I wasn’t a genius or even all that smart compared to some of the people around the seminary, but I had learned the language and that made all the difference. All kidding aside, it was a wonderful class and stimulated my own thinking around scriptural interpretation a hundred fold. The professor who taught the class is a wonderful scholar and theologian – he was wooed away from Iliff several years after I graduated and now teaches at Claremont Theological Seminary in California and is the author of several books on this very topic.
What topic is that? I hear you asking….it is a valid question if you have never been to seminary, so allow me to interpret the title of the class and what it means. An exegetical analysis of a scripture is a breaking down of the text and looking at each part individually and seeing what you can ‘pull out’ of the text by looking at the individual parts. The root of the word has a literal translation of ‘leading out’ and is where other words like exit and exodus derive their meanings as well. The other part of the class title is the Synoptic portion, which are the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are called the synoptic because they are all very similar in nature and share a lot of the same stories. The Gospel of John is not included in the synoptic because it is such a different text from the other three.
So a translation of the class title might be something like this: “A Close Examination, Comparison, and Interpretation of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke” but I’m sure that “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics” intimidated a few people which is always an important consideration when compiling a class catalog. (just kidding)
As I said earlier, all kidding aside, it was a wonderful class. What is important for you to understand is that you don’t need to be a genius to look at a text exegetically; common sense will go a long ways. One of the things I learned in the class has stuck with me through the years and that is the process by which you can break a text down and begin to deconstruct the text and look for areas that are consistent or not consistent with a basic theological assumption. For example, if we look at the text I read a few minutes ago with this in mind we may notice a few things.
We can begin with a basic theological assumption; this is where it becomes critically important for you to have worked out a sound theological platform for your own belief system. Some assumptions can be challenging, but if we create a broad, somewhat universal theological assumption you can begin to see this process work. Hopefully we can work the process with this text without demolishing too many preconceived naiveté’s about the Bible in general.
So with those things in mind, allow me to pose a standard theological assumption; when the presence of God is manifest in the person of Jesus, the result is good news for all. In other words, when Jesus does something, or says something, no harm will result. This is also a basic theological assumption of John Wesley I might add, who in his foundational documents wrote for us to “first do no harm.”
Most people would not find too much fault with this assumption, after all, that is what the word ‘gospel’ actually means, is ‘good news’ and the life of Jesus is all about spreading the good news to humanity. The only real issue might be the word ‘all’ in the assumption – and there are certain sects of Christianity that resist the inclusiveness required to recognize all humanity as children of God. But, this is my assumption and I have no such hang-up, so the assumption stands as written.
So our assumption is that when God works in our lives or the lives of characters in the scriptures, the result of that working will always be good news. So we can find a profound problem with this assumption in this story. I am speaking of course of the swine herders that owned the herd of pigs that was destroyed in this story. When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, a good sized hog would bring $100 – $200 each; by now that figure is probably much higher. By today’s accounting, a herd of 2,000 swine probably would represent somewhere between 500,000 dollars up to a full million, depending on the market, etc. This is the life’s work for these swine herders and represents a huge financial loss that Jesus rather whimsically just tosses into the sea. This is not good news, it is bad news. So we have a problem with the text; either the story is incorrect in some way or our assumption is incorrect in some way. This is how the process works, and you sort out things you believe to be accurate and things that you believe to be not so accurate within the texts you are examining.
So what do you do when you find a problem with a text? Throw the whole thing out?
This is a fair question and is the root of so much of the controversies and divisiveness surrounding interpretation of the Bible. Of course we don’t want to throw the entire text out; but we also don’t want to take the story as a literal event either. We must find a way to interpret the story as allegory and metaphor staying true to both the text and the assumption. This is what good exegetical analysis is all about. When we find something in a text that is obviously inconsistent with what we believe to be true about God, or about Jesus, that is usually a clue that our exegetical work must focus on the metaphors that can be found in the text.
There are a lot of places we can look for metaphor in this story; we can look at the setting, the crowds, the oppression and treatment of the demoniac and a host of others. But today I really want to focus on the demon-possessed man as a metaphor for the mentally ill and how the people of the village had ostracized and alienated him from society. Our fist metaphorical leap is to identify the man as mentally ill, rather than demon possessed. A second metaphor could be drawn out of the text when Jesus asks the man his name. In this case, the man’s answer to Jesus about his name also makes sense, because there is not just one person who is mentally ill, but rather there are many. So many in fact, that we cannot name them all, they are legion, they number in the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions, worldwide. Our third metaphor then comes as we can see Jesus drowning the oppression of the mentally ill with love and compassion. There are clues here as to how we should be caring for those who suffer with mental illness, if we are willing to look.
That is the key; we have to be willing to look. By keeping the story literal and as an actual event that took place over 2,000 years ago….it stays there, in history, 2,000 years ago. Through exegetical analysis and truly examining the scriptures and looking for the richness that is there, we can bring the lessons forward into the 21st century to guide our thoughts and opinions of the current day. But we must be willing to look and we must be willing to understand and we must be willing to always find the good news.
Go in peace, and go with God. Amen.