Jesus Asked: "What is your name?
(Knox Summer Fellowship, July 2003)
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.
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.
name?" Jesus asks me today. He
won't be satisfied with "My name is Victor."
He already knows that. Instead
he's asking , "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?" 
He's asking even more: "What's your character?
Are you honest or corrupt? patient or irascible? kind or vindictive?
forgiving or vengeful?" 
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?"
 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.
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
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
And now we have a man
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 na´ve, 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
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
No doubt you are
wondering what all of this has to do with us who are in
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
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: "
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, "
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.