Priest on the Periphery

In my last post, I talked about the common priesthood. The fact that even those without a formal priestly calling share, to a certain degree, in the priestly path. This week I want to look at a fascinating character in the Gospel of Mark who fits this description. A man in whom Jesus acts powerfully, bringing about a remarkable healing, and then sending him out to live the common priesthood. 

A Man in Darkness

Let’s turn to Mark Chapter 5:1-20. 

Here’s the cliff notes version. Jesus journeys with his disciples into pagan territory, the land known as the Decapolis, to the east of Capernaum. In this territory, the message of the Jewish God was not known. The people here were not, as Jesus would call them elsewhere, members of the lost tribes of Israel. These were pagans. They had no idea what that tribes of Israel were. Their ancestors were never a part of those tribes. They had no expectation of a Messiah to come.

The disciples must have been surprised Jesus took them to these shores. But there they went.

And right away, a strange thing happens. They get out of the boat, set foot upon the shore and – immediately – they are met by one of the locals. A wild man who lived among the tombs. This man was possessed by fierce, dark spirits. He was known as dangerous; people often tried to restrain him with chains, but he would snap the chains loose. He roamed the tombs and hillsides night and day, shrieking, raging. He was infamous in that area.

At once, upon seeing Jesus, this dark-spirited man, this man unfamiliar with the gospel message, streaks toward Jesus like metal to a mighty magnet. He senses a power in Jesus, an authority. He runs to him, falls down, face to the ground, and cries out in a loud voice, with an eerie familiarity:

“Do not torment me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” 

Son of the Most High God? What a thing to call the unassuming son of a carpenter. To this point in the story, the disciples had never heard anyone call Jesus this name before. It must have been striking. It was obvious that the man was possessed by some kind of demon – what did the demon know about Jesus that others, even the disciples at this point, did not know? 

Jesus asked the man his name. Legion is my name, the man replied, for we are many. The spirits possessing the man pleaded with Jesus not to drive them away. Strangely, they ask that Jesus send them into a nearby herd of swine. So we observe that these spirits are capable of possessing both man and beast. Jesus permits it and the spirits leave the man, entering the pigs. There follows a frenzy of snorting and snuffing and pounding of hooves. Two thousand pigs wild with a kind of folly and rage, possessed by dark spirits, destructive in power.

Next, in what would have been a great shock, these pigs rush headlong, violently, off a nearby cliff and drown in the sea below. The swineherds are shocked by this; they run into the village to report it; people come from the surrounding areas to behold this spectacle. When they arrive, they see what they did not expect to see: the man, formerly possessed by demonic spirits, is now calm, clothed (probably in a fresh garment given him by the disciples) and in his right mind. The whole situation was frightening to them. They turn to Jesus and beg him to leave their territory. So he does. 

A Fervent Prayer Denied

And now we reach the scene I want to focus in on: what happens to the man after he is healed?

First, let’s give the man a name. It’s hard to speak about a character without a name and his actual name is not given in this text. So let’s call him Marcellus. It’s a Roman name because this man lived in a Roman, pagan territory. Marcellus sounds about right.

Anyway, Jesus is leaving the Decapolis. The villagers have urged him to go away. He heads back to the shore with his disciples. Marcellus follows him and begs him that he might go with him. We read: 

“The demoniac begged him that he might be with him.” (Lk. 5:17) 

This might seem a simple request, somewhat obvious. But look deeper. Mark has put a characteristic signature in this line, a phrasing that is unique and that we are meant to catch. Marcellus asks that he might be with Jesus. This phrase should strike us. It is precisely the phrase Mark uses to describe the relationship between the 12 apostles and Jesus – and he has only used this phrase in these two places. Look to the passage of the calling and selection of the 12, these men who would become the first priests of the New Covenant:

“Jesus selected 12, whom he named apostles, to be with him and to be sent out to preach.” Mk 3:14.

To be with him. This is a phrase charged with contemplative meaning. In Mark it bears the same meaning and weight as the verb “to dwell with” that John uses repeatedly in his Gospel. Both verbs “to be with” and “to dwell” convey the first fundamental call of an apostle and a priest: to be with Jesus, to be close to Him, to hear Him. This proximity of being, this intimacy of the heart, this being able to see Jesus often, to hear him, to be marked by him – this is what Marcellus requests. He asks if he can be one of those who have the role of being close to Jesus.

The gospel writer, Mark, has noted this request. He has recorded it. He puts it here as though to say: here is a pagan man healed and delivered from dark spirits. And he asks to be one of Jesus’s close disciples. Essentially, to put it in different language, Marcellus asks to be one of those chosen to be Jesus’ formal priests.

Jesus says No. 

What? How can that be?

Yes: Jesus says no. He says, return to your family and your people. Proclaim to them all the Lord has done for you and how he has shown you mercy. (Mk.5:19). 

This might seem harsh. Stern. Unkind. Unfeeling. 

A Different Kind of Calling. A Different Mission

But look closer. Marcellus has asked for – and Mark has reported – the only kind of apostolic call he could imagine. The one that mirrored the other 12: to be with Jesus, to travel with him, to hear his teachings up close, to minister as was given them to do. But Jesus gives Marcellus another kind of apostolic call. He apostles him – apostolo, in Greek, means to send – to fulfill another mission. He makes him a different kind of apostle, a different kind of priest. Marcellus too is apostl-ed. He is sent. Even if he is not to remain among the community of formal priests gathered around Jesus. 

In further support of this idea, consider this: in his summons to Marcellus, Jesus and Mark use two words that are usually reserved for apostles, those with a formal ministry or mission. 

ἀπαγγέλλω, ap-angelo. Go to your home and your people and apangelo them, announce to them . . . Apangelo is a close cousin to ev-angelo and means to bring tidings, to proclaim, to make known openly, to declare. Jesus is sending Marcellus on an active mission, to make the Gospel known in pagan lands. To bring the good news to those who have not heard it. If this is not quite a priestly calling like that of the 12, it is nonetheless an evangelical mission of parallel weight and dignity. At least, it is Jesus’ priestly call for Marcellus. It is that to which Jesus apostles him. 

Marcellus is not called to be in the interior of Jesus’ community; he is sent to the periphery, to announce his mercy to those whom Jesus will later visit. To bring the message of Jesus to those who have not yet heard of Him.

If this is not clear enough, consider the next verse. Here we learn how Marcellus responds to his apostolic calling. 

“And he went and began to proclaim in the Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him and all were amazed.” Mark 5:20

He went and began to proclaim. 

You have to understand the weight of the word used here for proclaim. κηρύσσω, kerusso. Kerusso means: to be a herald, to proclaim after the manner of a herald, with formality, gravity and authority. In the New Testament, kerruso is always used of the public proclamation of the Gospel by John the Baptist, Jesus, the apostles and other Christian teachers. Here is Marcellus whose action in pagan territories is described with a word that conveys apostolic authority. Priestly authority. He is not a formal priest but a priest on the periphery whose words and actions carry evangelical weight. His is a common priesthood on the periphery of the Kingdom of Israel. Bringing the Gospel to those places and people who have never heard it.

Questions to Ponder 

And isn’t that where most of us live a large part of our lives: on the periphery of the Kingdom of God? Do we not touch the shores, from day to day, of the American Decapolis? In this sense, is not Marcellus a kind of Jesus-era Jonah? Sent by God to bring the word of God into earshot of a people, like the people of Nineveh, who did not know Him? 

Nineveh. The Decapolis. Secular life in America. Are there not parallels for us to consider?

Can we be counted among those that bring the Gospel before the eyes and ears of those who are not familiar with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?

If so, we will be stepping into one form of the common priesthood; we will be discovering what it means to be a priest on the periphery.

A Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, Marcellus wanted to be with you, to be counted among your inner circle of priests and preachers. But you had a different mission in mind for him. You wanted him to be a priest on the periphery of your Kingdom. To bring your word and your message to those who do not know your love. Amen. Where you send me I will go. Have mercy on me. Help me to see as you see. 

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