So what were pigs doing next to the sea of Galilee? There wasn’t much demand for Pork in 1st century Palestine. And why did Jesus let the poor pigs die? And what happened to the pig farmers once their livelihood was gone? And why is the man called ‘Legion’? This is a Gospel story which raises more questions than it answers.
Over the years there have been many attempts at interpretation: the pigs were there to feed the Roman soldiers; the word pig is a mistranslation of an aramaic word for animal; or perhaps Jesus just didn’t like pigs and didn’t approve of jewish farmers keeping them. Perhaps the man is called Legion simply because he had many demons – like he said.
Or perhaps it’s a rather clever allegory: the possessed man is not one man but represents the whole people of Israel, – like the country of Israel, he is bound and occupied by the Roman army – which is what the name ‘Legion’ really means – the Roman legion. Jesus is the freedom fighting Messiah who sets Israel free and send the pigs – and the pigs represent the Gentile Roman soldiers – hurtling down the cliff to their death – in other words, he drives them out. Perhaps its not even a story about Jesus at all, perhaps it was just a folklore story told by freedom fighters, and later adapted to Jesus.
Or perhaps it really did happen just as it says: and that irrational first century folk thought mental illness was demon possession but we can understand it differently. The man has a form of schizophrenia and shows classic behaviour such as self-harm, socially inappropriate behaviour, loudness and nudity, he is conscious of voices inside him, – Jesus performs a psychological miracle – the man screams loudly, convulses a bit, the pigs are surprised by all the noise and commotion in the crowd, and off they go in a panic hurtling down the cliff into the sea.
Or, then again … perhaps it really is about demons – about demon possession, about misfortunate pigs and about a big splash.
That question ‘but did it really happen’ or ‘what actually happened in real life’ or ‘is it true’ is not really a question scholars ask any more – at least not quite like that. No news reporter ever tells a news story exactly as it actually happened, and the Gospel writers were no different. They all have a take on it. So nowadays, we tend to ask ourselves different questions, questions like ‘what is this story saying to me’ or ‘how is this story about demons and pain and healing true for me’.
One of the ways of doing that is trying to imagine yourself in the picture: you sit back in your pew, close your eyes, and begin to imagine the hillside, think of the green grass, think of the rocky cliff down to the Sea of Galilee – think of the caves, the grazing pigs on the hillside, and then think of the man screaming and shouting in this lovely scene on a sunny day – think of the crowd gathering round, some of them are pointing at him, some are laughing, some are making fun – perhaps they are a little afraid. Then imagine Jesus walking up to the man and speaking calmly with him; imagine the man throwing himself at Jesus’s feet and then rising free and well again. Imagine the crowds looking on, the pig farmers, the neighbourhood….. And as you do all this imagining, you begin to put yourself in the picture. What would it be like if I were standing there in the crowd, you think. What if I saw Jesus perform a miracle like this? What would I think? Would I believe it? Would be I sceptical? How would it affect me? Then you might start imaging what it would be like if you were someone else in the story. What if I were the pig farmer? – how would I feel if my pigs were all destroyed by Jesus – how would I feel if I were the collateral damage for someone else’s freedom? – what important possession, or thought, or status, or right, do I have to give up in order to set someone else free? – that sort of question.
Or you might just put yourself straight into the position of the possessed man. What are the things that bind me and make me do strange and irrational things? What baggage do I carry around with me every day that I want to be set free from? What addictions, what history, what sins, what sickness? – am I prepared to kneel down before Jesus and ask to be healed – or do I say ‘go away and leave me in peace as I am’ – would I rather be left alone living the kind of life I know, even if it is not very nice? Do I believe that Jesus can heal me? – and am I prepared to leave my old familiar life in the tombs and go out into a new unknown life of freedom …..? Is the church or society or the world prepared to leave behind its old familiar life and go out into a new freedom ….
As you can see, this story is very very rich and there are lots of ways of looking at it. But there’s one way of looking at it that so far I have missed out. What if we are the pigs? So imagine yourself now in the herd of pigs – there you are minding our own business, just being a pig. Grazing – or whatever pigs do, making the odd ‘oink ‘ noise, watching the world pass by. Then suddenly demons come and attack you, and rush into you and you get all worked up into a frenzy and go and throw yourself over the cliff – what does that feel like? Angry, powerless, vulnerable ….
You see, I think that the problem with dismissing the story because we’re rational modern people and because we don’t believe in demons or demon possession any more is that we can end up thinking that what we think and feel and believe is all about us and what we decide – and we can very easily forget that there are many external influences which affect our lives, make us think differently, make us feel different, and some of them can very easily be thought of as demons.
In the Orthodox Church icons of the story you see a rather bony almost naked man being restrained by two others and out of his mouth are rushing lots of little demons – all very traditional with horns and pitchforks and long tails. Out they go, into the heard of swine – sometimes they are eaten by the pigs, sometimes they get on the back of the pigs and just ride them like horses down the hill.
These demons are like cartoon character speech bubbles – they’re portrayed a bit like demon words which come out of the mouth to infect, pervert, twist, corrupt.
Little words about violence or hatred, for example, or xenophobia, or mysogeny, or homophobia, which can easily come out of the mouth or the page like little demons and, climb onto our backs, and infect how we think. Islamic religious leaders in Pakistan saying with all their authority and learning that it’s all right for a man to beat his wife ‘just a little’ – these are demon words which can lead ordinary men to do evil things. Politicians saying that it’s perfectly reasonable to ban all muslims, or that Mexico is sending rapists and murderers across the border – demon words, easily said, which infect and build up a fearful picture. Christians teachers who use the Bible to preach hatred towards LGBTQ people, – or perhaps who just use more common language like ‘sin’ or ‘intrinsically disordered’ or ‘that gay love is OK but it’s just not as perfect as straight love’ – subtle demon words that give a justification for hatred. Or arguments that gun control is really a violation of basic human rights – demon words leading to the abyss….
So, I think if we put ourselves into the position of the pigs in the story – then we can begin to see that we human beings are not all that strong to resist after all. Words of hatred and violence and prejudice – especially if they sound reasonable, or convincing – can very easily climb onto any one of us, good people, ordinary people, – they can invade us and they can make us believe them. Sometimes it might be a whole population that goes mad. Sometimes it’s just one person – goes into a market and blow themselves up, or go into a night club and shoot people dead – possessed by demons.
So what are we to do? How do we stop these demon words perverting our souls, leading us into destruction. Where can we find healing? Where is the Good News? Where is Jesus today, when we need him?
Well, back in the story Jesus reminds us that it really is all about words: ‘Go and tell the people how much God has done for you….’ Just as the man used to have demons flooding out of his mouth, now he is told to go and have good words : Go and tell people what God has done for you.
One of the Christian acts of faith, is that we try to live in this wicked and evil world as if it we are in it but not of it – and what I mean by that is that we are called to live in this real and fallen world as if we already live in a good and beautiful redeemed world. We are called to see the best in people, to see the best in creation, to see a world redeemed and saved by God, a world loved by God, even when all the evidence points otherwise. We are called to have angel words coming out of our mouths and not demon words.
We live as if we already live in the Kingdom of Heaven we long for, and hope for, and believe in – and sometimes that takes a great deal of effort. It is not just wishful thinking – it is a daily choice,- hard work, an act of the will – a daily taking up of our cross – a christian way of life we choose to follow. And so our faith then is not what we believe to be true, but is choosing to believe what is Good, trusting – sometimes against all odds – that God is good all the time and choosing to live like that. Learning to say and believe in all circumstances, whatever happens: this is a time for more love, not a time for more hate.
The people of the Gerasenes went away filled with great fear. The healed man went off speaking good news. I know who chose the better way.