(This passage is the Gospel assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C Proper 7: Luke 8.26-39. In other words, this past Sunday. My point isn’t to stay ahead of the lectionary, obviously. This is too good a story with too many insights to let go without blogging on it, though.)
If you’re not familiar with the story, please read it at the above link.
[Reading this story as a] factually literal account of what happened…is not only boring, it impoverishes the text.
In this Gospel story, Jesus steps off a boat only to see a crazy man, “demon-possessed” in first-century language, naked and thrashing about in a tomb, cutting and bruising himself. He had shackles on his hands and feet, but had broken the chains. Still, he remained where he had been shackled. “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” the man screams as he sees Jesus approaching. Yikes! The demons inside him knew who Jesus was!
Jesus, being Jesus, engages him in dialogue.
“What is your name?” The crazy, not the man, replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
Jesus commands the demons to leave the man alone, to never bother him again. Now, demons, just like the rest of us, apparently are not interested in being sent to hell. They beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of swine—which tells you how many of them there were!—instead, which Jesus does. Then they drown the pigs. Oops. Off to hell with them, now, we assume. The story doesn’t find that detail important, though, so doesn’t really say.
Sadly, to some, this story is nothing more than a newspaper account—a factually literal account of what happened. In my opinion, that sort of reading is not only boring, it impoverishes the text. To be clear—there’s nothing wrong with believing this all literally happened, or not believing it all literally happened, either. The point is that biblical texts have so much more to offer than a surface reading. This story isn’t just there to wow us with some cool miracle Jesus did, even if by being wowed by it we come to believe Jesus is the Son of God as he claimed—not that such an insight isn’t already quite valuable!
People who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.
On a recent thread (NB: the link may break if the thread disappears) over at Ship of Fools, we were discussing this text, and I think the original question posed is a great entry into the text: Why did Jesus destroy the livelihood of the pigs’ owner(s) and/or tender(s)? In a story about healing and liberation, in which Jesus clearly values the demon-possessed man more than a herd of swine, doesn’t Jesus care about the person(s) who will suffer as a result of losing their swine? Pointing out that pigs are unclean under Jewish dietary laws doesn’t help much; this is the same Jesus we believe eventually gave Peter that vision of the sheet full of unclean animals and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Meaning primarily, of course, the Gentiles who eat that stuff, but also the stuff they eat.)
It may be that we can accept that Jesus was, sometimes, and toward some people (and animals), a bit heartless. But this troublesome question might also suggest that we not take the pigs bit so literally. One common reading of this story actually has the pigs symbolizing the occupying Romans—after all, the demon(s) self-identified as “Legion.” I do find this reading helpful. In fact, it provides a further insight (as I realized while posting on Ship of Fools): that people who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.
Note that the man possessed by demons actually broke his own chains. Yet he continued living in the tombs, cutting and bruising himself. Most of us read this story as the healing of a mental illness rather than the casting out of literal evil spirits, but the demonic is still a powerful symbol. Luke, in good poetic fashion, seems to take the opportunity to let the demonic oppression of this one man symbolize not only his own mental and physical suffering and captivity, but that of the people living in occupied Israel. And while Jesus drives out the occupying forces, letting them drown themselves (as God did with Pharaoh’s army in the prototypical liberation story), the most important liberation is the healing of the formerly-possessed man. He is seen, at the end of the story, “clothed and in his right mind.” He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus gives him something more important to do: stay home, and declare what God has done for him. He now occupies his home land. But his neighbors are terrified of Jesus precisely because Jesus has returned this man to his right mind. What will they think of the now-sane man? Will they receive him? The story doesn’t say.
Are we supposed to take all this
greed and fear and hatred seriously?
It’s like watching dust settle.
It never changes. It’s too consistent.
Mercy is not consistent.
It’s like the wind—it goes where it will.
Mercy is comic,
and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously.
—T Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth“
One alternate way of reading a passage, at least on the occasions when the passage is read in church, is to listen to its juxtaposition with the other selections from the lectionary for that day. For the Sunday in Year C on which this Gospel is assigned, the Revised Common Lectionary allows a choice for the Hebrew Scripture reading. One of those choices—the one I heard in church this past Sunday—is Isaiah 65.1-9. In that passage, God declares judgment on those who “sit in tombs” and “eat swine’s flesh,” among other things. I doubt St. Luke intentionally alluded to that passage when composing this story, but when placed together, something interesting happens. Instead of judgment, Jesus brings the demoniac liberation and healing, restoration to his family and community. Yet no one had sent for Jesus. In Christ, God was, as Isaiah puts it,
“…ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
to a nation that did not call on my name.”
Jesus overcomes the demonic oppressors just because he sees a suffering man and pities him. Mercy goes where it will.
When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?
This past Sunday evening, Jude Harmon, a minor canon at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, preached precisely on that compassion of Christ, pointing out two other instances that, unlike the first, are unexpected. First, Jesus has compassion on the demons, who ask to not just be sent back “into the abyss” (v. 31). Jesus honors their request. Of all the characters in the story to receive Jesus’ compassion! But at the end of the story, Jesus also has compassion on the townspeople, who are terrified by the whole event. They beg him to leave, and he honors their request too.
What were the townspeople so afraid of? It’s an interesting question. Liberation can be scary: it leads to the unknown. Clearly Jesus was a strong force who could effect that kind of miracle—what might he do next? Jude invited the congregation to see themselves—ourselves—at this point in the story. When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
In our discussion over at Ship of Fools, a member who goes by the screen name “leo” had another interesting insight about the drowning of the pigs. In his reading, not only does their drowning recall the Exodus, but it also symbolizes the now-bearers of the evil spirits being plunged into the waters of chaos at creation (to be re-created)—perhaps even into the waters of baptism! Recall that for the early Church, and still in the Catholic, Orthodox, and (sometimes) Anglican traditions, baptism was and is an exorcism. In the Catholic Church, there are prayers over catechumens during Lent that refer to this ancient understanding. In the Episcopal Church, it mostly turns up in our baptismal liturgy:
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”
Reading this story in light of baptism, then, actually makes sense—not that it’s the “correct” or only reading, but that the symbolism really is there. The man formerly possessed by demons is clothed as the newly-baptized are. Baptism, then, puts us in our “right mind”—what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ.”
Personally, I want all these readings to be true. I want the story to tell of a literal physical and mental healing, of the liberation of a people, and of the spiritual liberation given in baptism (despite what political, mental, or physical captivities we might still suffer). While I still have questions about this passage—for example, why do the demons get a name, but ultimately the man doesn’t?—I find a lot of hope in the story. And why not? It’s the nature of a good story that it have many layers of meaning, many truths to keep telling. And this one is nothing if not a good story.
Especially if we re-write the pig bit.
(Image swiped from this blog post.)