Home » Sermons » New Testament » Mark » “What is your name?”


“What is your name?”


Mark 5:9


I: — “What’s your name?” Jesus asked a man on one occasion. Our Lord didn’t mean what the bureaucrat means when she’s filling out forms and asks us, “Name, address, telephone number?” If we said, “My name is Bill Smith,” it would tell her no more about us than if we had said, “My name is Sam Jones.” Names today tell us nothing at all about the person whom the name names. ” Victor Shepherd “: “Victor” is Latin for conqueror. I’m no conqueror; “Shepherd” is English for sheep-herder. I’m a city boy.

When Jesus came upon a deranged man, however, and asked, “What’s your name?”, he was asking the man to tell him something about himself, everything about himself, who he most profoundly was. You see, in the ancient world “name” meant four things: personal presence, character, power, and deserved reputation.

“What’s your name?” Jesus asks me today. He won’t be satisfied with “My name is Victor.” He already knows that. Instead he’s asking [1], “Victor, are you personally present? Are you really available to the people you meet? Are you really accessible? Or have you learned to “fake it”, smiling as if you were personally present when all the while your head and your heart are anywhere but with the people in front of you?” [2] He’s asking even more: “What’s your character? Are you honest or corrupt? patient or irascible? kind or vindictive? forgiving or vengeful?” [3] He’s also asking about power: “Are you influential or ineffective? Do you foster reconciliation or alienation? Do you spread joy or misery? In your company do people find faith easier to exercise or harder?”   [4] And then in the fourth place he’s asking me about the reputation I deserve just because I have acted in public as everyone knows I’ve acted.


II: — Centuries ago Jesus came upon a fellow who lived in the cemetery and mutilated himself, no one else being able to subdue him. “What’s your name?” our Lord asked him. “I don’t know!” the fellow replied, “How do you expect me to tell you my name when my name is ‘legion’, there being so many of us? What’s my name? Which one would you like to hear? What’s my character? Which of my many ‘selves’ are you talking about?” The man plainly doesn’t know who he is. He can’t tell you anything about an identity underneath his frenzy. A legion, we should note, was a Roman military unit consisting of 6000 men. The man feels he’s all of them at once.

How did he come to be many? He was overcome, overwhelmed by chaotic forces without that now were forces within.

In Mark’s gospel the story of the Gerasene demoniac follows the incident of Christ’s stilling the stormy sea for the sake of frightened disciples. In Hebrew cosmogony large bodies of water, turbulent, unpredictable, treacherous; these are everywhere a symbol of chaos.

In Genesis chapt.1 creation arises when God parts the primeval watery mass (the watery mass being the first step of creation, the raw material of creation), thus permitting land to appear, the fitting habitation for “6th Day” creatures: humankind and our second cousins, the animals. As long as God’s providential hand holds back the primeval chaos, animate existence, human existence, can thrive. If God, however, relaxes his intervention ever so slightly, chaos creeps back in. If God withdraws the hands that part the waters, chaos inundates the creation, rendering it de-creation — as happened in the story of the Flood, when God’s judgement appointed the world precisely to what the world had been telling God for generations that it wanted: his effectual absence.

“You’d rather be without me?” God had said, “Then never say I’m a spoilsport who won’t give people what they want. I always give people what they want. You want me inoperative? I’ll grant you that.” The result, of course, was that chaos surged over the creation until such time as God, in his wisdom and mercy, gave humankind a fresh beginning.

In the wake of our sin; in the wake of our pursuit of deities who aren’t the sole sovereign maker of heaven and earth; in our ardour for spirits who are less than holy; in our zeal for twists and turns that are anything but the turn, return, of repentance; in our seeking comfort and consolation everywhere but in the Comforter; in all of this we are effectually summoning chaos upon ourselves. Why, then, are we surprised when it comes upon us? Since chaos is that from which creation emerged, chaos is that to which creation most readily reverts. Chaos always laps at creation.

Scripture testifies to God’s patience and providence in moving back chaos, fending it off, just when it’s on the verge of overwhelming creation and undoing it. We see this everywhere in Israel ‘s history. Think of its entry into the promised land; its restoration from the exile; the provision of two figures who loom largest in both testaments: Moses and Jesus. In both men God’s hands hold off the chaos that threatens any society which exalts infanticide, whether in their era or in ours.

And now we have a man from the village of Gerasa who lives — like all of us — alongside a chaos that threatens individuals and communities and nations at all times, a chaos that from time-to-time invades us and molests us. At this point God’s intervention alone can fend it off and thereby give us room to be what God has always intended us to be: sons and daughters whose earthly, earthy life nature won’t menace but rather will support.

In his derangement the Gerasene fellow is a micro instance of that chaos exemplified in the stormy sea as macro instance. The man is simply overwhelmed at the evil he knows only too well to haunt the world even as the townspeople remain naïve, shallow and unperceptive.

Evil is legion, isn’t it. There are at least 6,000 manifestations of it, expressions of it, embodiments of it. Evil is multi-faceted: both blatant and subtle, both frontal and tangential, both brutal and seductive. Evil appears in the blackest colours but in the brightest too. Evil appears both as hideous and as benign. There is no end to the faces it wears and the disguises it assumes and the approaches wherewith it stalks us and steals upon us.

As often as I read the story of the deranged man who named himself after the image and likeness of a military unit I think, soberly, of countless men whose name has become legion through serving in military units. In times of war military personnel have always suffered, or died, or gone insane. For most of history, however, a soldier’s chances of dying were much greater than his chances of derangement. At the time of the US Civil War, however, all this changed, thanks to two major military inventions: the machine gun and the timed artillery fuse. The machine gun meant soldiers couldn’t flee; the timed artillery fuse, causing the shell to explode 100’ in the air instead of on contact with the ground, meant that soldiers couldn’t hide. They died in vastly greater proportions than they had ever perished before. Because they were much more likely now to die, they also went mad in record numbers. For the first time in the history of warfare a soldier’s chances of total psychiatric breakdown were three times as great as his chances of dying. In view of the fact that the US Civil War killed 650,000 very young men, there were two million 19- and 20-year olds who were total psychiatric casualties for the rest of their earthly life.

The same ratio of insanity to death has operated in every conflict since the US Civil War; in the Russo-Japanese war, the Great War, World War II, the Korean War, and more recently, Israel ‘s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. (This is a dimension of evil we ignore when we speak of war.)

No doubt you are wondering what all of this has to do with us who are in Knox Church tonight. We, after all, are not deranged. The Gerasene fellow can’t be like us because he manifestly is.

The truth is, Christ’s question, “What’s your name?”, now addressed to us, would find us having to give the same answer as he. “I don’t know who I am, which one I am, the reputation I am, just because there are so many of us.” We are many indeed. Plainly chaos laps at us; and if we truly are “many”, then chaos has more than merely lapped at us.

Then how did we come to be “many?”

Think of the daily pressure to be something to one person and something else to another person and something else again to a third person. Think of how it seems we have to ease our way through tight spots in life by bending the truth here and telling just a little lie there and misrepresenting ourselves somewhere else, all in the interests of getting us or those dear to us past the landmines and quicksands that will otherwise take us down. The truth is, of course, we are daily putting on one false face after another, always telling ourselves that underneath our exchangeable false faces there does remain our real face, our true face, our genuine identity. If no one else is aware of who we are at this point, at least we know who we are.

But it’s never this simple. As we shuffle the false faces, falsity overtakes us little by little. We tell ourselves we haven’t reduced ourselves to phoniness; we tell ourselves that when this sticky situation is past we can revert to our real face, our true self, our proper identity. But of course life is so very fraught with sticky situations — every day brings a host of them, doesn’t it? — that we simply become more and more adept at interchanging false faces until we no longer are aware that any one of them is false; no longer aware that we have become false; no longer aware that we are phoniness incarnate.

While I don’t have a drinking problem or a drug problem, I have to tell you that I am an addict. You see, I’m a sinner, and all sin is addictive. (If sin weren’t addictive we’d have long given it up, wouldn’t we?) Since I too am an addict, I’m sobered every time I read the literature displayed by those among us who know they’re addicts. One such item is the acrostic, “DENIAL”, with the word spelled vertically. DENIAL: “Don’t Even (k)Now I Am Lying.”

Our name can also become “legion” through moral compromise. When we are tempted to make moral shortcuts our conscience pricks us at first and we hesitate; pricked now, we have to rationalize the compromise to pacify our conscience; conscience pacified now, we have the inner tranquility, inner permission even, to go ahead with our treachery — just this once, of course, because of extraordinary circumstances — after which we shall revert to our integrity. It seems not to occur to us that integrity which can be set aside opportunistically is no integrity at all. Very quickly the compromise becomes second nature. A pastor now for 33 years, I have had people tell me the first time they committed fraud or adultery or something else they were in torment; the second time they had only a momentary twinge; the third time was as easy as falling off a wet log. When someone identifies them in terms of their sin and they protest, “That isn’t who or what I really am,” the obvious retort is, “Oh? Why isn’t it?”

Again, our name becomes “legion” through mindless conformity to social convention. Social convention seems to have nothing to do with chaos and the evil that chaos engenders. Social conventions, after all, are necessary. Social conventions facilitate the movement of people throughout the society the way traffic lights facilitate the movement of traffic through intersections. Our society agrees to stop at red lights. But of course there is no intrinsic connection between red light and stopping. In the same way we “collide” less frequently socially if we all agree to abide by social conventions even though there is no intrinsic connection between arbitrary convention and the behaviour associated with it. The peril in our doing so, of course, is that the social convention comes to tell us who we are.

People address me as “reverend.” It’s a social convention. “Reverend” means I’m revere-able, and I’m revere-able (supposedly) inasmuch as I’m extraordinarily holy. People also call me “Doctor”, Latin for “teacher.” I’m extraordinarily learned. You know, I like the sound of it: ” Reverend Dr .” It sets me apart, doesn’t it? It sets me apart from the common herd that is neither holy nor learned. ” Reverend Dr. “: it tells me who I am; it makes me who I am.

It makes me who I am, that is, until Jesus Christ looms before me and asks, “What’s your name?” And when I start to say, ” Reverend Dr. ” he butts in, “Do you think I’m fooled by arbitrary social conventions? Do you think the label that you relish disguises for a minute what oozes out of your every pore?”

The sad truth is most people take as their name whatever the silent majority represents. As the silent majority shifts from this to that, picks up this and drops that, believes this now when it used to believe that then; this is what most people are. What’s their name? Their name is the myriad, ill thought-out ideation that forms the mental furniture and the clogged cardiac system of the silent majority. Their name is legion.

Of course there are always those who think they’re smarter than most and can recognize all this. Therefore they are going to react to it: they are going to be whatever the silent majority isn’t. Alas, they don’t see that their “name” is still determined by the silent majority: reacting to the silent majority, they have become that noisy minority which the silent majority has made them in any case, unbeknownst to them. Their name too is “legion.”


III: — The man in our gospel incident was violent. No one could subdue him. After a while no one tried. Anyone who doesn’t know who she is; anyone whose identity is fragile; anyone who is forever scrambling to find an identity lest the one she doesn’t really have is taken away from her in any case; any such person will behave violently.

When I was younger I used to think that people who lashed out were uncommonly nasty. Having observed people for decades, however, I see that I was wrong. Those who lash out violently and cause havoc aren’t uncommonly nasty; they are commonly insecure. Their fragile, arbitrary, undefendable identity is threatened with extinction. They have to shore it up lest anyone “see through” them and discover that they are hollow inside.

When I was younger I was perplexed as to why people exploded if someone merely disagreed with them. And if they managed to stay cool when someone disagreed with them, they didn’t stay cool when someone refuted them. I was perplexed that what passed for a discussion on a topic became a battle in which someone, being led to see that the point he had advanced wasn’t actually sound, suddenly clung to the point regardless, enlarged it, raised his voice, reddened his face, and attempted to browbeat others into admitting he was right. The reason, of course, that it’s so difficult to admit we are wrong is that our identity is tied up with a position we’ve adopted (regardless of the issue), and to admit we are wrong is to forfeit an identity that is so fragile in any case that

it is readily pushed over and caused to fragment. Still, anyone threatened with loss of face and looming fragmentation will likely become violent. Anyone threatened with extinction is going to turn ugly. We shouldn’t be surprised.


IV: — In our gospel story Jesus heals the man whose name is “legion.” The townspeople find him “sitting there, clothed, and in his right mind”, the English text tells us. In the Greek text there are three pithy, parallel past participles: “seated, clothed, right-minded.” The three parallel past participles — “seated, clothed, right-minded” — underline the fact that something definitive has occurred to the man, something conclusive, something that is as undeniable as it is unmistakable.

SEATED   In Hebrew symbolism to be seated is to be in authority, to rule. Whenever a rabbi made an authoritative pronouncement he sat to speak. When Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount he sits to teach. Our Lord wants us to know that in the Sermon on the Mount he isn’t offering an opinion; he’s speaking authoritatively, sealing upon us the meaning of life in the kingdom of God .

Following his ascension the risen Jesus is said to be “seated at the right hand of the Father.” He is seated inasmuch as his resurrection has rendered him victor; his ascension has rendered him ruler; as victorious ruler he is sovereign over the cosmos.

The man whose name had been “legion” is now found seated. He is no longer the helpless victim of whatever forces howl down upon him. He is no longer a function of everyone he’s met and everything he’s seen. For the first time in his life he is sovereign of himself. He is now the subject of his own existence. As subject of his own existence he is a self; a self; one, unitary self. Now he is simply himself, his own self, the subject of his own life. Hereafter he speaks and acts with the authority of someone who knows who he is and what he’s about.

CLOTHED   In Hebrew symbolism to be clothed is to belong. When the prodigal son returns from the far country and comes home his father clothes him in a robe. The robe means that he belongs; he belongs to this household; he belongs in this home; he belongs with this family. He belongs.

In our Lord’s parable of the wedding garment the guests are streaming into the reception when one fellow tries to crash the party. He isn’t wearing a wedding garment. (In Israel of old, we must note, not merely the wedding party but the wedding guests too wore distinctive clothing.) The party-crasher is denied admission to the wedding reception. Lacking the proper clothing, he doesn’t belong, and everyone knows it.

When the apostle Paul speaks of the new life that Jesus Christ is for us, and speaks as well of the features of this life (readiness to forgive enemies, patience, kindness, humility, etc.), he makes his point by telling us that we are to “put on” Christ with his gifts. “Put on” is a metaphor taken from the realm of clothing. We are to clothe ourselves in Christ and his gifts. Our clothing ourselves in this way tells everyone that we belong to him.

The man whose name had been “legion” is now clothed. He belongs to Jesus Christ; he belongs to Christ’s people; he belongs to the wider community (whose ground and goal Christ is); he belongs to himself.

RIGHT-MINDED   In Hebrew thought to be possessed of a right mind, a sound mind, is to be sane, to be sure, but also, even more profoundly, to have one’s thinking formed and informed by the truth and reality of God.

Most people are sane now. Most people, however, aren’t “right-minded” in that they don’t think in conformity with the kingdom of God . If they are asked what is real, what is good, what they should trust, what they should pursue, what is central in life and what is peripheral; if they are asked these questions they can answer them all in a few words: “whatever promotes my plans for myself; whatever advances my self-interest; whatever makes my life easier and makes me self-satisfied.”

Most people are sane; most people, however, are not right-minded, not righteous-minded in terms of right-relationship with Jesus Christ and right pursuit in conformity with this relationship. The thinking of most people isn’t governed by any of this; it’s governed by rationalization, rationalization that aids and abets their selfism.

The man whose name had been “legion” is restored both to sanity and to a manner of thinking that is now governed by one grand preoccupation: the reality of God, the truth of God, the kingdom of God ; God’s plan and purpose for him here; his pursuit of this. What governs his thinking now isn’t thinly-disguised scheming connected with self-promotion; what governs his thinking now is a vision of the kingdom of God and a vocation to render this kingdom visible.


V: — What happened, ultimately, in the Gerasene village on that never-to-be-forgotten day? What happened isn’t what we expect. We expect a celebration. A man, after all, has been living in the cemetery, amidst the dead. His existence — violent, self-destructive, fearful — has been a living death. Now he is healed. Surely the event should be publicly hailed a triumph. Instead the townspeople recoil from the man. (Plainly he’s a greater threat healed then he ever was deranged.) They look askance at Jesus, the one at whose hands the man has been restored. They want him gone. They beg him to depart, the text tells us. They implore him. They plead with him. “Just leave us alone. We like the way things were before you showed up.”

Whatever else the townspeople might be they aren’t stupid. They have seen that the great healer is the great disturber, seen that healing is a disturbance. They have seen that wholeness is disruptive; peace engenders conflict; sanity is hard to live with. They had life figured out when the man they had long known (and could therefore write off) shrieked and howled, gashed himself and raved. Let him rave! Raving is harmless; sanity, however, isn’t. Inarticulate shouts and cries mean nothing; sober, lucid, penetrating speech now means everything. Every community has its misfits. And everyone knows where and how the misfits fit.

Yes. Misfits fit, because we tell them where they had better fit. Fit people, however, won’t be told. Therefore fit people, paradoxically, are forever misfits. The Gerasene village has been turned upside down. Before, no one had to take the ranting man seriously; now, those who don’t take him seriously are fools. Before, however economically unproductive he might have been (certainly he couldn’t have been gainfully employed), at least he was socially useful: he was Class-A Entertainment. Now he isn’t entertainment. His wholeness — self-perceived, owned, enjoyed — is a rebuke to those who pretend they aren’t as warped inwardly as he had been outwardly.

It’s plain that the man can’t be “put in his place” as he was always “put in his place” before Jesus appeared. It’s plain that he now sees with kingdom vision amidst townspeople who are kingdom blind. It’s obvious he can’t be domesticated just as Jesus of Nazareth, the one who has given him back his life, can’t be domesticated. Those who are socially ascendant are always nervous around those who can’t be tamed and won’t come to heel.

The townspeople had made their peace with the world as it is and also with themselves as they are. Once Jesus has appeared, however, such peace is seen to be a pact with evil. Since Jesus has identified what distorted the man manifestly, Jesus won’t stop short of identifying what distorts the villagers secretly — or not so secretly. Then the Master will have to leave. And if he’s rather slow to leave, they will beg him to step along lest he linger and torment them as he seemed, only a short while ago, to torment the villager they’d all dismissed as insignificant.

Nothing has changed. Throughout history, when the church has been most preoccupied with Jesus the world has been unable to tolerate it. When, on the other hand, the church has tried to out-world the world, forfeiting its birthright and making itself look ridiculous, the world has welcomed it. Prior to the collapse of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of the USSR , a Russian Orthodox Church that lent itself to the treacherous purposes of the state was a church the state could tolerate. Those congregations, however, that met Sunday by Sunday to exalt Jesus Christ; communist leaders from Lenin through Stalin to the most recent could never leave these congregations unmolested. They knew that whenever Christians remain preoccupied with Jesus, such Christians will always be a rebuke to the state, to the society, to the culture, as surely as the healed man of Mark 5, together with the one who had healed him, was more than civic authorities could endure. Isn’t this what we saw last August, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit, when CBC TV interviewers kept trying to have young people badmouth him or badmouth the church or badmouth whatever when all that the young people wanted to do was exalt Jesus?


The Gerasene fellow wants to join up with Jesus and the twelve. Jesus, however, has a different expression of discipleship for different individuals. And so he says to the man, “You go home to your family and your friends; you go back to the people who know you best, the people quickest to detect inauthenticity and the fastest to spot a profession of faith unmatched by performance; you go back to those who will most readily hold you to your newfound integration and integrity; you tell them what the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you.”

The man does just this, with the result, we are told, that many others “marvelled.” The Greek text is an iterative imperfect: kept on marvelling, continued to marvel, and continued to marvel just because the healed man continued to be anything but a flash in the pan.


VI: — The questions Jesus asked in the days of his earthly ministry are the questions he continues to ask, the questions he always asks.

And therefore when he says to any one of us today, “What’s your name?”, the answer he’s looking for isn’t “Sam” or “Samantha.” He asks the question only because he already knows the answer. He already knows that our name is, or has been, “legion”, since there are so many of us. And of course he asks the question only in order that he might speak to us, touch us, and thereafter display us as citizens of his kingdom, possessed of his truth, preoccupied with his plan and purpose for us. In short, he asks us the question only because he ultimately wants to render us seated, clothed, right-minded; and thereafter to witness in word and deed to all and sundry that he has done this for us, and done it all for us just because he has had mercy on us.


                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd
July 2003   

(Knox Summer Fellowship, July 2003)