Sermon: November 25, 2018 – Exegetical Exercise

Exegetical Exercise

Text: Mark 5: 1-20

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.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

I mentioned last week in my Thanksgiving sermon a professor I encountered at Iliff School of Theology. I mentioned that I still use some of the techniques he taught in his classes to this day. I thought it might be interesting for you to see some of those techniques in action.

One of the classes I took when I was in seminary at Iliff that this professor taught 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!  But 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 – as I mentioned last week he was wooed away from Iliff  before I graduated and now teaches at Claremont Theological Seminary in Southern 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 the freshman 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.  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.

One of the techniques is to begin your study of a text with a basic theological assumption; you can then place this assumption in the context of the scripture you are studying and see if there are any inconsistencies, if there are, then this offers you a place to begin.  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.

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.

Given the assumption that when God works in our lives or the lives of characters in the scriptures, the result will always be good news, 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 $1500 – $2,000 each; by now that figure is probably much higher.  By today’s accounting, a herd of 2,000 swine probably would represent somewhere between 5 and 7 million dollars!  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.  Did you notice in the text of the story that some of the people were begging Jesus to leave? I wonder if this thing with the pigs might have anything to do with that attitude…but I digress.  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. This is also why clarity around the assumption is absolutely critical; you must always use an assumption that you believe to be true in all circumstances.

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.

One interpretation which I read about in one of the commentaries I checked with about this text suggested that the name “Legion” given to the many demons is a reference to the Roman occupation of the territory.  A legion of Roman soldiers would be a large number, somewhere between 2 and 5 thousand men and historically it is verifiable that Rome did occupy this part of the country at this time and had done so for quite some time.

Taken as metaphor for a Roman occupation, we can then remain consistent with our original assumption and many other theological assumptions, as we see Jesus overpowering and drowning out the oppression and tyrannical rule of a Roman occupation and Roman Empire.  There are clues here as to how America should be present in the world with regard to American Empire, if we are willing to look.

We can also look to the demon-possessed man as a metaphor for the mentally ill and how they are ostracized and alienated from society.  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 thousands or perhaps millions, worldwide.  Once again, metaphorically, we can see Jesus drowning the oppression of the mentally ill with love and compassion.  When the man is healed and wants to travel with Jesus, he says no and suggests the man stay in his home town and re-enter society as a productive member of that society.  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.

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