I travel the same route every day as I head into school. It takes me through one of the nicest parts of town where million-dollar houses line the cliffs overlooking Bellingham Bay. Manicured lawns and pristine exteriors beckon all passersby to admire their beauty. But this same route also traverses one of the poorest sections of town where the skeletal remains of warehouses and manufacturing plants sit like open tombs. Among these abandoned ruins, solitary figures hover. The shelter of our local rescue mission is here. It is often the place where these otherwise solitary figures gather. Often, I have to steer my bike around a person jaywalking. Ambling with a slow gate or running with hands thrown in the air screaming at some unseen foe, they are quite often figures for whom reality seems as blurred as the transition from sidewalk to street.
When I am stopped at the traffic light just beyond the day shelter, it is difficult for me to avert my gaze from the macabre spectacle in front of me. Yet, I often feel afraid and hope that the light changes quickly so that I can be on my way. As I pedal hurriedly, trying to avoid road debris and traffic, I seek to escape their haunting presence. But I cannot escape wondering about whether or not there are families who love them and still worry about them. What were the legion of forces that contributed to their plight? As I wonder, I cannot help but ask what glimmer of hope there might be for these who are dependent on the mercy of a handout or who suffer the indifference of others like me?
The National Institute for Mental Health suggests that twenty to twenty-five percent of those who are homeless suffer from severe mental illness, many turned out of institutions or prisons without access to any kind of ongoing care or treatment.(1) Mental illness wreaks havoc on a number of factors that normally sustain human community and well-being. It often strains relationships with others, disrupts the capability of self-care, and interrupts the routine of a daily job. Without housing, those who live on the streets and suffer from mental illness are more prone to problems in physical health due to neglect and substance abuse. Legion are the forces and impacts on individuals, communities and towns as rates of homelessness increase with no easy answers, quick fixes, or clear solutions.
“Legion” was the name of the host of demonic forces possessing and oppressing an unnamed man living near the region of the Galilee in first century Judaea. It was a region primarily occupied by Gentiles and not an area anyone would willingly travel to visit. If this man was alive today, he would certainly be diagnosed as mentally ill. Yet, the gospels record that Jesus intentionally traveled to this area. All three synoptic gospels record this encounter between Jesus of Nazareth and this troubled man.(2) In Mark’s account, the man meets Jesus as soon as his boat lands on shore. All three accounts record that the man lived among the tombs making his dwelling among the dead rather than the living. His presence was so disruptive, shackles and chains had been used to bind him, but to no avail as he would break them into pieces. Mark’s account records one of the most poignant details of this man’s story: “And constantly, night and day among the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out and gashing himself with stones.”
While there is a rich and insightful commentary tradition on this passage, one of the common features among scholars is the reality of Jesus intentionally crossing into Gentile territory—the gospel going forth into what would have seemed like the “abyss” of humanity. The pigs, the tombs, the naked man with open wounds, the name “Legion” itself, all point to the depths of impurity of this place. Yet, here is Jesus having just crossed over the Sea of Galilee, weathering and stilling a horrendous natural storm in order to come to this region to still an internal storm and stir up others. On the one hand, this man so dehumanized and degraded by oppressive forces that he doesn’t even give his own name, is found “sitting down, clothed, and in his right mind” listening to Jesus. When those in his community saw him “they became frightened” and they began to insist that Jesus leave their region. On the other hand, the economic cost of healing (someone lost an entire herd of pigs), and the strange transformation of the one they had known as a tomb-dweller, out-of-his-mind, naked and barely human was now returned to full health and presence of mind. This was too much to take in.
Here in the season of Pentecost where Christians around the world remember the sending out of those who followed Jesus into the “remotest parts of the earth,” I am forced to examine my own fear at having to take a route to school that I would gladly avoid if I could. Like the Gerasene townspeople, my fear pushes Jesus out, asks him to leave so that I do not have to feel any obligation to my homeless neighbors or the Jesus who makes his dwelling among them.
Yet, it is to these remote parts that Jesus goes forth. Into realms occupied by “legion”—forces of oppression and possession that bind the fullest measure of humanity—Jesus himself comes. His very presence brings light and soundness to all who are encountered by him. The choice is before me: to fear or to follow. I must ask myself: “What do I have to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) The following remarks about mental illness as a contributing factor in homelessness are adapted from the article, “Mental Illness and Homelessness: Facts and Figures,” http://www.hcs.harvard.edu, accessed May 6, 2018.
(2) See Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-29.