Face to Face (A reflection on Mark 5.1-20)

The Gospel reading this morning is the story of Jesus healing a man so beset by demons that he can no longer speak with his own voice. The man has lost his identity and refers to himself as “Legion,” after the multitude of voices in his head. For years, it seems, the man has been terrorizing the region. Attempts at restraining him have failed and so he’s scrounging a life amidst the tombs in the mountains, a physical threat to both himself and his community. That is until he meets Jesus.

One would think that the townspeople would react to such a healing with relief and gratitude. But, instead, they react with fear, and plead with Jesus to leave their region and leave them alone.

This story flips the script of the story earlier in Mark, where another man suffering from a demon asks Jesus if he is planning on destroying him. Both involve a fear of change, the kind of homeostatic gravity that pulls us back towards the status quo and away from healthy change and healing. In the case of the first man, it was a fear of being changed; in the case of the man in today’s story, it is his community’s fear of the change in him.  What’s going on here?

We are all deeply influenced by the people around us. If our friends all exercise, we are more likely to value exercise; if our friends smoke, we are more likely to smoke, and so on. Communities love the status quo just as much as (or perhaps even than) individuals do. A change in one person in the community has ripple effects everyone. When that change is a significant change for the positive, it topples the balance of expectation and presents a challenge to the community. Having a man like Legion around likely had some side benefits. As much as they feared him, he was probably also a convenient target: a comfortable scapegoat for things that went wrong, and an easy object for their scorn when they were feeling bad about themselves. (Well at least we aren’t like him.) Legion’s healing upends all this. With their excuse gone, now they have to deal with the real issues in their community. And if he can be made whole, that means they can too.

My mom has often reflected that when one person in a couple “does the work” — that is, takes ownership of their baggage and taking responsibility for their life and mental, physical, and spiritual health — it often means the end of the marriage. Like any community, a marriage is based on a negotiated status quo, no matter how unhealthy or codependent it may be. When one person begins to heal, the status quo is upended. The other person can either resist the change, and try to pull their partner back into comfortable old normal, or they can change too. But since we rarely change until we’re ready to do so, more often than not, they simply get left behind.

Having someone in our life healed and changed so completely represents a crisis for us, in the Greek sense of ‘a moment of truth.’ Their healing challenges us with the prospect of our own healing. If the Legions in our own life can get their act together, it means that we can too. And that’s a truth so frightening for most of us that we simply reject it.

I’ve experienced both ends of this equation. Many years ago, I went on a date with a guy who had overcome a lot in his life — far more than I had — and ‘had his act together’. His story and who he was as a man presented such a challenge to me that I felt like I was drowning for most of our conversation. And, while I saw what was happening within me and tried hard not to take it out on him, if I’m honest, I was threatened by him and I hated him a little because of it. His wholeness put a spotlight on the lies I was clinging to that were holding me back, not because he was lording it over me, but simply by being there. In the years since, as I’ve undergone more and more of my own journey of healing, I’ve experienced the flip side of this, and it often feels like many of my dates are responding less to me than to some projection of the things they hate about themselves, their fears or anxieties. If I were to take their reactions to heart, it would seem that I’m simultaneously too silly, too serious, too fastidious, too messy, too optimistic, too pessimistic, too naive, too cynical, too idealistic, and too pragmatic. Of course, I’m really none of these things. I’m just me: broken and challenged, just like them, but committed to ‘doing the work’ and allowing God to do God’s work in me.

The point of all this is just this: As much as Christ challenges us to be healed, so too do transformations in those around us. The question before us is how we’re going to respond to those challenges when we come face to face with them. Are we going to take a deep breath and say, “Lord, I want to be healed too”? Or are we, like the townspeople in the story, going to push away and say, “Lord, Leave this place”? It’s an ongoing challenge for me, and I wish I had an easy answer for how we can consistently choose the bold and faithful choice. All I know is that healing is what God does; freeing is what God does. There is nothing hidden that won’t be laid bare. And so if I’m going to follow God, I need the willingness and humility to say yes to that, and to accept the grace I need when I come face to face with my need for change.

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