One Meaning ... or Many?

The story of Jesus and the demoniac, Legion and the soggy pigs, is a thrilling text to preach. Like all Scriptures, the text is multivalent, meaning that there are multiple interpretations and meanings of the story, not just one.

Unfortunately, so many preachers and theologians in the recent past have approached the Bible as if it has only true meaning, only one correct interpretation. In my experience, this is not the case. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad interpretations, or that some aren’t better than others.

But the mystery and beauty of the Bible is that it signifies the living Word of God for us. It is not the static, once-and-for-all Word of God, but the fluid, Holy Spirit-breathed and inspired, Word of God. Every verse, chapter, and book in the Bible is rich with possibilities and meanings that may change or shift over time.

The truth is that the story of the demoniac spoke one truth to the first readers of the Gospel of Mark in earlier centuries, a different truth to Christians in the Middle Ages, and something completely different and new for those of us who live in the early 21st century. This shouldn’t surprise or confound us; instead, we should recognize that this is the miracle of Scripture. This is why the followers of Jesus continue to read it, use it, pray with it. It is the ongoing Word that God speaks.

Not only does Scripture speak through different time periods, but it speaks with different voices at the same time. Sometimes while preparing to preach on a particular text, I imagine that I am looking at a diamond, and turning it around and around in my hands, catching different perspectives and glimpsing new hints of glory.

As I have already mentioned, last Sunday’s text was especially like that. I focused on the political meaning of the story, but one could just as well have spent time digging into the character of the demoniac. Why was he possessed? How did that come to happen?

I could very likely have also preached on the subject of demons, since that is one we tend to avoid in a rational, technological society. Does anyone believe in demons anymore?

What about the townspeople, who are quick to run Jesus off? What are they so afraid of, and why do they want Jesus to leave? I am very intrigued by these questions, ever since I discovered the writings of Rene Girard, a French literary critic, philosopher, and theologian. Girard is best known for his work on the idea of the scapegoat in human culture. In a book called “The Scapegoat,” Girard carefully explores this story in Mark and shows that the demoniac is a classic scapegoat figure; he is cast out of the community, feared and loathed by everyone, as a substitute for something else which threatens the community. As Girard says, “Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.”

But when the man is made “well,” and becomes sane and healthy, the community is resistant to him. This is because, as Girard argues, the scapegoat is “necessary”; he must suffer acts of collective violence against him in order for the community to find peace and harmony again.

Girard goes on to say that the distinctiveness and the genius of the Gospel is that Jesus, a classic scapegoat, manages to avoid remaining only the victim, but instead subverts the whole system, and becomes its victor instead, by showing that the scapegoat system, which is founded on violence, is ineffective and powerless.

There are more questions to bring to this text. One could ask why Jesus refused to let the man travel with him, or why the disciples aren’t mentioned once in the entire story. Perhaps you have your own questions.

This is why I look forward to Sunday mornings so much. It’s a chance to ask some more good questions together, and to slip deeper into the cave of holy treasure.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve started a new project. Every week, I plan to record a new episode of something I’m calling “2 Minute Sermon,” in which I will take the previous Sunday’s sermon and boil it down to the most important bits, which I will then visually present in just two minutes. This is not an excuse to miss church! But it is just another way to proclaim the good news. Here’s the first episode about Legion and the pigs; share it around!