Mercy for the Outcast: The Story God Wants Told

Mere moments on Twitter are enough to alert us that our culture is plagued with demons.  We live in a culture that responds to polarized politics and social values with contempt and hateful accusations that serve only to drive us further from one another, rather than seeking common ground.  Even voices claiming to speak for our good God are raised in accusation and derision.  Amongst so many voices and so much anger, through all the noise, how do we hear a God who whispers?  Why doesn’t God speak more loudly, to be heard above the hate, or better still – to silence it forever?

There is divine precedent for keeping things hidden.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus repeatedly instructs his followers, those whom he heals, and even the demons he exorcizes to conceal his identity.  Commentators call this motif the “Messianic Secret,” positing many theories about why Jesus wants to stay hidden.  It may be to prevent people from following Jesus for the wrong reasons or to subvert existing Messianic expectations.  In the midst of a Gospel full of Jesus’s commands to keep quiet, there is one man whom Jesus commissions to preach.  It isn’t Peter or another one of the Apostles.  He isn’t even a Jew.  The man Jesus enlists to tell his story is a foreigner known as the Gerasene demoniac.

In Mark 5, we meet Jesus and the disciples just after he has calmed the storm.  Across the sea, they find themselves in the region of the Gerasenes.  There, Jesus speaks with a tormented man, a man filled with demons.  He has no one and is utterly forgotten, living among the tombs. Following their conversation, Jesus casts the demons out of the man into a herd of pigs.  Driven mad by this legion of demons, the pigs throw themselves into the sea.  Seeing the demoniac healed at the cost of 2,000 pigs, the Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave the region.  Whatever healing Jesus might offer them, it is not worth the cost of their livelihood.

Now free, the man intends to follow Jesus back across the sea.  Instead, Jesus asks him to stay, giving him the incredible command: “Go home to your own people and tell them what the Lord, in his mercy, has done for you,” (Mk 5:19).  In a Gospel known for Jesus’ requests to hide his identity, Jesus commissions this man to preach.  Among so many stories of healing, we have to ask ourselves: why is this the story God wants told?

The other stories in this chapter are stories in which faith heals.  The bleeding woman reaches out to touch Jesus and is healed.  “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells her (Mark 5:34).  He continues on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, telling the crowd, “Do not be afraid; just have faith,” (Mark 5:36).  When the little girl rises, Jesus gives strict orders that no one should know.  The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is unlike these stories. The demoniac is not healed by faith, but by God’s mercy.  The Greek is eleison, the same mercy we ask of Jesus in the Mass. The outcast lives as one among the dead, with no one to speak for him or bring him to Jesus.  He is trapped inside of himself, across the sea, the outcast of the foreigners.

This is the story God wants told.  Not the story of the great faith of his followers, but the story of his mercy, of mercy so great that it crosses the sea to rescue us from ourselves.  God’s heart is one moved by the outcast, the one who lives among the dead.  As we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours, “You will not leave my soul among the dead, not let your beloved know decay,” (Psalm 16:10).  God’s heart is with the outcast of the foreigners, and this is what moves Jesus to be with him.

Mark vividly describes the violence this man committed against himself and the ways in which he resisted the attempts of the community to help him.  They, in turn, abandon him for dead.  Even once he is made whole again, his community does not see him as worth the cost; the pigs are worth more than his life restored.  When we count the cost of love, we are the Gerasenes, lamenting the loss of their herd – no doubt a devastating economic blow.  They push Jesus away for fear of what it will cost them.  They cling so tightly to security that they cannot receive Jesus’ healing and mercy.

And yet, this is the community to whom Jesus sends this man.  He wants to leave them behind, but Jesus asks him to stay, as if to say, These people that reject you, they are your community.  It is to them you must speak about the great mercy of God.  This man’s healing is not for him alone, but for his community, the ones who have cast him out.

We are not to regard our faith primarily as a path towards our own edification or liberation.  This liberation is offered in service of a greater call.  We cannot turn our backs on the outcast, nor on those who cast them out.  When we do either, we demonize where there are no demons, only ones like us—ones in need of healing.  Our pain is not only ours to harbor; we must offer it to Jesus who asks us not to sit in it or lash out in anger, but to channel it into love.  We are to tell others what God in his mercy has done for us, to share it even with those who have turned their backs on us and thought us unworthy.

If we hope to imitate Jesus, we need to listen to the story he wants told.  Mercy crosses oceans to rescue the outcast of the foreigners.  Mercy asks the outcast to evangelize the hateful.  There is no one so “other” that we are not called to love them.

God, in his mercy, saves. He rescues. He crosses the sea and braves the storm. This is where God’s heart is—with the foreigners. This is who God chooses as custodian of his message.  This is why we are invited to the margins—because this is where God’s heart is.  And this is who God asks to speak to us, because the face of mercy is the face of those whom we have demonized.  Mercy is for the wounded and for those who wound.  Each of them is in each of us.  Mercy lifts the veil to show us the truth: in God there can be no other.  There is only us.

How do we hear God in the midst of all the anger and noise of our culture?  The only way we can, as St. Teresa of Avila tells us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  God has spoken, and his voice is mercy.  He asks us to speak it, too.

Samantha Stephenson is a wife and mother, lover of books and coffee, and editor of spiritualityoftheordinary.com