A few years ago it was popular to urge church leaders to “think outside the box” in their long-range plans for ministry. The evangelist Mark pushes us more radically than that. In the first gospel he urges churches to break out beyond conceivable boundaries and barriers and encounter people whose customs and beliefs are foreign, even hostile.
A good case in point is found in the unique details of Mark’s version of the bizarre story of the demoniac with multiple personalities who is healed by Jesus when the pigs are driven into the lake (5:1-20). When Jesus commands the disciples to go to “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee in 4:35, rather than disembarking on the opposite bank after a terrible storm, they end up deep in the interior of the Decapolis, in Geresa (Jeresa in modern Jordan), around 34 miles southeast of the lake. For obvious reasons, Matthew and some Lukan texts relocate the story because later writers doubted that demon-infested swine were capable of such an Olympic broad jump!
Does Mark tell the story this way because he is ignorant of the local geography? More likely, he is focusing on the narrative’s Roman (Gentile) aspect, represented by the tortured man who has a Legion (around 6,000 men) of split personalities competing inside of him. Geresa was known as a retirement center for Roman soldiers and had a cemetery filled with monuments and tombs of veterans, as I observed when I visited that city a few years ago. For Romans pork was not a prohibited commodity and it is no wonder that the local citizens rather rudely ask Jesus to go back home when the large herd was decimated. Their loss is a huge economic blow in a community where pigs are not only a staple part of the diet but are used regularly in funeral sacrifices (porca praecidanea and suovetaurilia).
Is there a model of ministry hidden in these strange narrative details? Mark is indicating, it seems to me, that Jesus is pushing his disciples to get out of the mind set of keeping ministry only on the Jewish side of the lake and consider what his ministry would mean in a very different context.
So what would happen if our churches decided to cross to the other side of ministry? Would it mean caring deeply for the people in the houses or apartments across the street from the church, leaving our expensive plants to work a distant side of the city, engaging more closely with those who might be hostile to us, or encountering neighbors whose faith and culture is very different than ours? Does it mean that ministry is more important than pigs, property, or theological propositions?
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired PC(USA) pastor in Johnstown, New York, and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College. Dr. Johnson’s books include ”The Presbyterian Deacon: An Essential Guide” and ”Selected to Serve: A Guide for Church Officers” both published by Geneva Press. He is currently doing biblical research in the Gospel of Mark.