June 19, 2022, But What about the Pigs? Luke 8:26-39 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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That story I just read is surely one of the most dramatic episodes in the gospels. It’s the stuff of TV horror shows – chain-breaking demons and terrorized citizens and naked men hiding among the tombs in the graveyard. But oddly enough, I think one of the most frequent reactions I have heard to this story is that people are really bothered about the pigs. Why did Jesus let the exorcised demons go into those pigs, who never did anybody any harm as far as we know? Jesus must have known that they would go mad and make a suicidal rush down the hill and drown themselves in the lake. Why would he do that to those pigs? That really bothers people.
But today, I want to look at the story from another perspective. Today, I want us to be bothered about the man we call the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus has been traveling around Galilee, going from village to village, teaching and proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom. He sails across the Sea of Galilee through a terrible storm (which is a story for another day) and when he comes ashore he is met by a man. Agitated, terrified, naked, shouting at the top of his voice, he falls at Jesus’s feet. It’s interesting that this story begins and ends with this man at the feet of Jesus. That’s where the real action of the story happens.
Luke tells us a very little bit about this frightening creature’s history. He’s been in this condition, Luke says, for a long time. We have to wonder how long a time – more than mere months, I think. Years? Maybe even decades? The natural human response was to try to control him for the safety of the people of the village – to keep the “good” people of the village safe. They tried chaining him up, but he just broke the chains and ran off. They set a guard, but that didn’t do any good. Who wanted to be in charge of somebody who could break chains with his bare hands? At some point the man had even stopped wearing clothes, which was like removing the final mark separating man from mere beast. You can imagine how he must have become almost a shadowy, mythic figure, what we might call a bogey man; people must have warned their children never to go out there among the tombs. That had been the situation for a long time, until the day Jesus and his disciples came ashore.
I’ve read this story many, many times, but it wasn’t until I was reading and praying through it this week in preparation for the sermon that I noticed something Jesus doesn’t do. Faced with this demon-possessed creature, he does NOT say: “Your sins are forgiven.” In fact, there is nothing in the whole story that indicates that the man had done anything at all to bring on his long and terrible suffering. Jesus says nothing about any evil or fault on his part. After the man is healed, Jesus doesn’t even say, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus’s response is to address this man’s oppression and loneliness, and to set him free from it all, once and for all.
And more than that, after he casts out the demons, Jesus places complete confidence in him to send him out as a witness to the goodness and power of God. Only think how frightened and unsure of himself he must have been among the people who had seen him as nothing but a monster for such a long time. How would any of us feel to go back home again after all that time? That had to have been going through this man’s mind as he asked to be allowed to come along with Jesus. But Jesus knew that he had the courage to do it; he saw in that man the power to testify to the coming of the kingdom. Jesus clothed him, with physical clothing, but also with the respect and dignity and kindness that belong to every human being. And having been restored and set free, he sat at the feet of Jesus, a place of honor, as Mary of Bethany did.
And what about those pigs? It seems to me that the man needed something really vivid and tangible, an unforgettable visual demonstration that the demons that had tormented and controlled him all those years had really been destroyed, that they were really and truly gone, once and for all. It might also have been a strong reminder to the villagers that they were disregarding the law of God in keeping pigs for their livelihood. But far more important than that, I believe it was a reminder to them – and to us – that this man was worth more in God’s eyes than many pigs.
It is the human tendency – today, as much as in the first century – to view troubled people as problems to be controlled and neutralized. We have a frightening ability to de-humanize the people we are afraid of; to divest them of the “clothing” of humanity with which we view the people we love and respect. We see people who are oppressed – by things like poverty or old age or mental illness – and so often the best we come up with as human beings is to keep them from being a threat, or a nuisance, to ourselves or others. We make laws about where homeless people can sleep, so they don’t pose a problem for local businesses or city residents, and we make restrictions about what help can be given them and how it can be given. In Denver, one beautiful city park I visited has been disfigured and broken up by barriers and caution tape, put there for the express purpose of preventing people who have nowhere else to go, from camping where the “nice” people want to walk their dogs and have their picnics.
We build nursing homes, and we call them by nice, respectable names like “rehabilitation and senior care”, but way too often – not always, I know, because they provide very important care for the people we love who need that safe space and extra care – but way too often they provide a convenient place to keep people, who no longer look or act or smell like the people we knew and loved, from being an embarrassment and an inconvenience that disrupts our busy lives. Far too often nursing homes have become little more than a “holding place” where our parents and grandparents and elderly neighbors are set aside, isolated from family and friends, until the final separation of death releases them from our responsibility and their loneliness.
And we don’t even know what to do with the mentally ill. Even though people who are mentally ill are way more often victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violence, mental illness makes a convenient scapegoat when we are feeling terrified about shootings and other threats to the safety and security of ourselves and our families. There is a stigma surrounding mental illness, a shame that we would never consider laying on people with “respectable” illnesses like cancer or heart disease. Those who are oppressed by mental illness carry that stigma with them; often their families bear it on their behalf – or sometimes they turn a blind eye to it and refuse to acknowledge the suffering of their child or spouse.
It’s worth considering that much of what was considered demon possession in Jesus’s day and age was very probably mental illness. And yet, no matter what was wrong with the man we call the Gerasene demoniac, schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder or demon possession, Jesus related to that afflicted man as a brother, a fellow human being, with respect, with compassion, without judgment or fear. No looking back, no pointing fingers, no condemnation. Jesus not only cast out his oppressors, but he clothed him, he accorded him a place of care and closeness, and sent him out as his own representative.
Jesus gives us this particular story, not primarily as a proof of his power over demons, but much more importantly so that we might know that he saw this man not as a monster, but as a brother. And so are we also called to see, and care for, and respect, all those this world shuffles off as the “last and the least” of the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. There are so many oppressed human beings out there – refugees, immigrants, prisoners, the desperately poor and the very elderly, the disabled and the sick – there are countless children of God out there that the world fears or despises or ignores or considers to be a nuisance, even vermin, on the level of rats or cockroaches – and it is those people Jesus calls us to set free from their chains of shame and suffering. It is those people – who are our brothers and sisters – Jesus calls us to clothe with the respect of full humanity. And it is through those neglected, marginalized, unseen people that Jesus will make himself known, to us, and to the world.