One of the good things about using a lectionary is that it causes us to look at parts of the Bible to which we might not otherwise pay much attention. At times it has the opposite effect: it leads us to overlook certain passages.
If you’re not familiar with the concept: a lectionary is essentially a list of designated readings, setting out which passages of the Bible will be considered each week. Many churches use one to determine the Bible passages for the weekly Sunday service, on which the sermon is often based.
If you’re part of a church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, then a few weeks ago you will have read (or heard) Mark 4,35-41, in which Jesus is asleep in a boat before calming a storm. The next week, you would have been on to to Mark 5,21-43, which starts with Jesus’ return journey on the boat. The lectionary missed out Mark 5,1-20, which tells us what Jesus did while he was on the other side of the lake. What he did there was to cast a legion of demons out of a deeply disturbed man into a herd of pigs.
The man’s suffering sounds unbearable. He was living alone in caves and harming himself. I cannot imagine what he went through. Everyone avoided him – except Jesus.
This man’s suffering was not just an individual matter. “My name is Legion,” say the demons possessing him. “For we are many”.
“Legion” had a clear meaning to Mark’s original readers. It was a unit of the Roman army. It did not simply mean a large number. The Roman army possessed the land of the Jews and a Legion possessed this man. It is widely recognised that rates of mental ill-health increase at times of political and economic turmoil. Here we have a man who is suffering terribly. The form his suffering takes, and how it is seen, is greatly affected by the context in which he lives.
Jesus’ response is personal and political. He casts the Legion into a herd of pigs (who were possibly there to feed the Roman occupiers). The pigs rush over a cliff into the sea –triggering an association with the Egyptian army cast into the sea as the Israelite slaves fled Egypt. This political act has very personal consequences. Soon the man is no longer self-harming. He is “clothed and in his right mind”.
The personal and political cannot be separated. Nowhere is the link more obvious than when it comes to mental health. For those of us with mental health problems, the chances of help and recovery are closely tied up with funding levels and economic priorities. Only today, shocking new evidence has revealed the appalling lack of available mental health support for children in the UK.
When the UK government announced the first lockdown, they appeared to have no plan for mental health. Some people found their anxiety or other mental health problems exacerbated by Covid. Others found their support networks cut off, or became extremely lonely during lockdown.
The personal is political and the political is spiritual. Jesus meets this distressed man not only with a personal cure or a piece of political theatre but with healing that comes from God. Today, Jesus continues to confront us with the mindbendingly transformative power of the Gospel. As we continue to inflict pain on ourselves and each other, may God help us to trust that there is no area of life – whether we label it personal or political – that the Gospel cannot reach.
The above article is adapted slightly from an article that I wrote for the newsletter of the church to which I belong, New Road Baptist Church in Oxford, on 2 July 2021.