The First Workings of the Lord: Mark 5:1-20

But my troubles continued, and I was often under great temptations; and I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me. . . .  And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” — George Fox

In the Mark 5 story of the Gadarene demoniac, we are given an intimate look at the soul that has accepted the first workings of the Lord and is thus prepared to hear the voice of Christ. This story is from “the other side”2 (1), the inward side of life, where one is alone and apart from the give and take, the gratuities and obligations that make up social life. No one wielding social imperatives can bind this solitary man of the tombs, for he has “plucked asunder” all their chains and broken to pieces all their fetters. He will not be tamed (4); nor yield; nor conform to their ways, manners, and customs. Though the man harbors the unclean spirit of the unredeemed and suffers the deathlike despondency of its influence, he tenaciously holds and will not deny the hard truth of his inward condition: he is alienated from God, a truth conveyed in his poignant words: “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?” (7) It is his willing capacity to see himself as he is that is the “first workings” of the Lord, and which mark the man as prepared to receive Christ Jesus.

This honest soul is beleaguered by a contrary force that has claimed preeminence. The man’s divided self is evident when he addresses Jesus (italics mine): “I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not” (7). The man calls upon the power of God to limit Christ, the power of God: so muddled is he that the poor man contradicts himself! Firm in his allegiance to truth, yet in the grip of demons, the man is torn and, in his misery, tears himself (5). Legion – his name/self – is victim to forces that appear numerous and controlling; he is fragmented and broken into many parts, yet heroically holds himself present to and aware of the misery of his alienated state.

Because the man has not shirked or hidden the truth of his condition from himself, he is able to likewise see the Truth when it appears outwardly, “afar off.” Truth as it is in Jesus, he recognizes and runs to worship (6). The man’s openness to receiving Truth and Life – when he appears – is proportionate to his having consciously endured their prior absence. Though suffering, the man remained faithful to the truth.

In Scripture stories, polarities – such as good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death – are often contrasted, one from the other, through the use of particular motifs. In this story of the demon-possessed man, the motif used to distinguish these opposites is number: Is a word singular or plural? That is to say, “one” signifies what is good: integrated and alive; and “many” signifies what is evil: disintegrated as in death.3

The protagonist is a solitary man who lives apart from the many in society, and Jesus interacts with him one-to-one. In his first address to the man, Jesus asks his name, using the singular pronoun “thy”: “What is thy name?” The man answers: “My name is Legion: for we are many” (9). The man’s answer begins with the singular pronoun (“my,” not “our”) but immediately shifts to a plural pronoun, verb, and adjective: “we are many.” This short interchange shows the dispersal into the many of what should be a single, integrated whole: the man’s self. The interplay between singular and plural continues through the next sentence (italics mine): “And he [the man] besought him [Jesus] much that he would not send them [the demons] away out of the country” (10). Again, the singular pronoun (he) is quickly lost to the plural (them) when the demons’ will prevails. The poor man cannot speak one coherent sentence without the demons interfering and taking control.

The motif of contrasting the one with the many continues when the devils request entry into the herd of swine. “Herd” signifies the many in which each member has forfeited his own autonomous discernment in order to fit into and be accepted by the many. The herd is comprised of those who have connected to others as the means to fend off innate, universal loneliness. This existential loneliness, however, can be truly overcome only when the self comes into unity with the spirit of Christ. To elevate group acceptance over one’s fidelity to truth is to snap the cord of one’s humanity, which is characterized by an alert and open devotion to truth. Those of the herd dismiss the very thing needed for salvation: a soul given to watching for Truth, and instead watch for opportunities and threats to their standing and connections within the social sphere. Thus they come to worship the fetters and chains, which, by rights, should be plucked asunder. Unlike the single, distraught man, the herd puts up no resistance to the devils’ corruption, and, as a result, they quickly descend to their death4 (13), which is to say: spiritual death awaits those who forfeit truth for social connection.     

We are told that people from “the city, and in the country” (which is to say, the many)

went out to see what it was that was done. And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind [his own integrated self]: and they were afraid. And they [that fed the swine] that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine. And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts (14-17).

Why should the many be afraid when they see the one has come to himself and is “in his right mind?” The many have chosen a different path: they have foregone the protagonist’s solitary trial and have opted instead for the easy, downhill slide of the herd. Seeing the once-possessed man now restored to himself, they are brought face-to-face, each with his own sin: the failure of him- or herself as a human being to be no more than a herd animal, osmotically embodying the communal ethos. Within the group’s simulacrum of reality, there is a semblance of a connected life, but it can never reach to the unbounded life and soaring freedom that the blessed, perfected soul enjoys when in unity with the light of Christ: where we know our true self and the life that the Creator would work within us.   

And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts (17).

[H]e that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him (18).

Here is yet another comparison between the one and the many. The many “pray him [Jesus] to depart out of their coasts,” and the one – no longer possessed with the devil – “prayed him [Jesus] that he might be with him.” The same dynamic continues through every time and place: those who rely upon the connection with the many would have the Truth depart and trouble them no longer; and those who pray in the privacy of their hearts to be with the Truth are they who, having known the worst the adversary can mount against them, have, nevertheless, endured unto the end (13:13), and known the victory.

Jesus’s third and final statement in this story brings together the one and the many but in a new, wholesome configuration. This time the one is not overrun by the hostile, demonic many but instead is to be a single witness, testifying to the many who wish him well. “Go home to thy friends, [says Jesus] and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee” (19).

And the light is in the world where all are sinners, but none have the life but who receive it, and are led out of the world by it; to such sheep Christ is keeper, who follow him out of uncleanness . .  . but the swine he keeps not, the shepherd they will not follow, there the devil must enter and hath power, and into the sea must they run headlong.5 — James Nayler

1 The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1985), 9-10, 11.  

2 The King James Version has been used throughout this essay.

3 Note that Jesus’s first statement in this story (“Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit” [8]) uses the singular pronoun to address the devil: “thou,” not “you.” Though the devil will later confuse and debilitate the man by presenting himself as many demons, not one demon, Jesus is able to correctly identify from the start that he is one, signifying the demons’ will and character are put in service to one, single end, which is to defy the God of Truth. Though the demons are many and diverse, their purpose is single.

4 The herd ran “violently down a steep place” (13) to their death. By having the herd run downhill rather than arduously struggle uphill, the writer conveys the herd’s preference for the ease of following the demons’ directive, which will be always to descend to a lower or worse condition. By contrast, we read of the protagonist that “always, night and day, he was in the mountains” (5), suggesting a determination in him at all times (“night and day”) to ascend to a higher place, in spite of the demons’ unrelenting assault.  

5 Works of James Nayler (Farmington, Maine: Quaker Heritage Press, 2004), 2:210. Gratitude goes to Esther Greenleaf Murer and John Edminster for their work on the Quaker Bible Index, which is where I located a portion of this reference.

Mosaic of the Gadarene Demoniac from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

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2 Responses to The First Workings of the Lord: Mark 5:1-20

  1. This is a magnificent commentary, prayerfully developed with great skill. There is a blessed coherence tying together many threads. I can immediately see how relevant it is to my life. I will sit with it now and let myself continue to be taught.

    Liked by 1 person

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