The Swine Flew

Mark 5:1-20
Feb 2, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

I like to watch murder mysteries, especially ones set in England where quaint English villages apparently contain a disproportionate number of psychopaths.  In some episodes, the body count can become quite high and the manner of death thought up by the script writers is often quite creative:  I have watched murderers kill their victims with medieval spears, chop off their heads with a guillotine, drown them in soup, fire cricket balls at their heads, and one woman died when her murderer dropped a giant wheel of cheese on her.  No matter how many people die in these shows, however, and no matter how gruesome their deaths, I am never bothered by it and even have fun trying to guess who is next to meet an untimely end.  Any character is fair game, with one exception — I will refuse to watch if anyone kills the dog.  How strange it is, I think to myself, that I can abide the deaths of countless fictional people but I can’t stand watching the death of even one fictional dog, yet I know that I am not alone.  When a dog comes onto the screen of a thriller, how many of you, like me, think, “Kill anyone you want, but don’t kill the dog!?”   

The story in chapter five of the gospel of Mark has elicited a similar response from readers.  It tells of a man who has been possessed by so many demons — a legion of them, five thousand demons (1) — that he has been sent away from human society.  The villagers have driven him into the mountains where he has been living in the tombs, tormented constantly, with no one but the dead to keep him company.  Surely, this is a man who deserves our sympathy.  Jesus, at least is moved on his behalf, and when Jesus sends the demons that torment him into a nearby herd of pigs causing them to stampede into the sea and dragging the demons to their doom thus freeing the man of his torture, surely we should rejoice at his restoration, but all we can say is, “Oh, Jesus, not the pigs!”  

In fact, this episode in the gospel of Mark has disturbed people pretty much from the time the gospel debuted.  If it’s not readers’ concern about the welfare of the pigs themselves, it’s concern over the massive economic loss to the pig herders.  I found a site on the web where someone had calculated just how much that herd of pigs would be worth today.  Assuming these were run of the mill pigs and not show pigs, the site said, the average pig today is worth about two hundred fifty dollars which means that 2000 pigs would be worth five hundred thousand dollars.  Half a million dollars of pork chops lost in the sea. (2) People hearing this story wanted to know why Jesus showed such disregard for the well-being of the herd of pigs and for their owners.  While the Gerasene man is over on one side rejoicing at his healing, the readers of the gospel are looking in the other direction crying out, “But Jesus, what about the pigs?”

Now, before I go any further, let me assure you that I actually don’t think that any animals were harmed in the making of this episode in the gospel of Mark.  Remember that the gospel of Mark was written at least 40 years after Jesus’ ministry and during those four decades, memories of Jesus’ teaching and stories of his life were passed down orally.  As people shared those stories, they probably embellished them a little or exaggerated the details.  Moreover, people’s understanding of mental illness in the first century was very primitive, and because they attributed many psychoses to demon possession, they assumed that if someone were healed of that illness, the “demon” that had caused the illness would need another place to live.  Anyone who witnessed the healing of the Gerasene man would likely have been looking around trying to figure out where his demons had gotten to.  As Jesus talked with the disturbed man, who the Bible says often burst forth in howls and moans, and as the people crowded round to watch the healing, I can imagine that a herd of pigs nearby might become agitated and might even run down the hill toward the sea to get away from the commotion.  And it’s not unlikely that upon seeing that, someone pointed it out to their friends and speculated that the “demons” had moved from the man to the pigs.  The next thing you know, as the story is being shared and embellished, soon that herd of nervous pigs has grown in the telling to “2000 demon possessed pigs drowning in the sea.”  The reason that I suspect, however, that the original scene was not as gory as we have it in our Bible is because first of all, I don’t believe in demons.  I, as a 21st century person, understand that mental illness is due to brain chemistry and not demonic possession so when Jesus healed the man, I don’t think the healing resulted in a lot of homeless demons.  Secondly, as one modern pig farmer has pointed out, pigs can swim so even if the commotion caused some spooked pigs to end up in the water that day, they probably were fine.  Frankly, however, a handful of wet pigs just doesn’t make as good of a story as “2000 demonic pig deaths” and people of the first century didn’t need the internet to grab onto a sensational story and run with it.   

Nevertheless, what is important to see here is that whether the story of the pigs’ fate was exaggerated or not, as people passed that story around, they, like us fixated on the pigs.  Before long, the healing of the Gerasene man wasn’t even the central act of the story.  By the time it reached Mark and he wrote it down in his gospel, the story was as much about the aggrieved swine-herders and their pigs as it was about the Gerasene man.  In verse 16, Mark says, “Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.”  Their fates have become equal in importance. Jesus was moved by the suffering of the man and healed him but instead of rejoicing at the man’s liberation and focusing on his restoration, the townspeople fixated on those pigs, never failing to include the agitated herd in their story of this healing.  The town even decided that Jesus was too dangerous to have around and begged him to leave.  It’s no wonder that over the years, the story grew in size to a tale of 2000 demonic drowned pigs because who would really want to admit that they drove a great healer out of town because they were more concerned about a few wet nervous pigs than they were about the Gerasene man?

In fact, I think that the fixation of the townspeople on the pigs began the moment Jesus restored the Gerasene man to his right mind because they would rather think about the pigs than think why that man was in the mountains in the first place.  The Gerasene man had been one of them; he was someone’s son or brother.  He had grown up in that village as a child but as his illness worsened, the townspeople rejected him.  They had refused to take on the admittedly difficult task of caring for him and instead had driven him out of their town and into the mountains where he spent his days alone among the tombs.  Mental illness is isolating enough on its own; but to deliberately drive the man away from all human interaction and force him to live with the corpses of dead people could only have worsened his condition and his suffering.  One woman with borderline personality disorder writes, “With mental illness, some people do not understand how severely it can impact your life.  Just recently someone told me it was ‘just a mindset that can vanish if you have a winning attitude.’ It’s because of these misconceptions,” she writes, “that I often feel embarrassed to talk to friends or family about my conditions….  I … struggle in silence because I feel like no one has a clue how I feel.  Mental illness has left me feeling like I was disgusting and shameful. It’s made me feel like I’m not good enough.”  (3) The Gerasene man must have struggled with all of these same feelings of self-disgust and failure, and the townspeople, instead of caring for him as a human being in need of human compassion, treated him like the monster he thought he was reinforcing those feelings and droving him further into isolation.  It is no wonder that when Jesus restored him to his right mind and the townspeople looked into the eyes of this healed man and remembered that he had once been their brother whom they had turned away; they were mightily unsettled.  They saw their own shame; they saw their own cruelty; and they saw their own neglect of a man whom Jesus had shown them deserved so much more from them.  The man’s healing caused them to re-examine their own behavior, and that self-scrutiny was so painful that it was easier to fixate on the pigs.

How often do our own virtuous protests over injustices done to pigs or strangers or someone on the other side of the globe become a way of avoiding painful self-reflection on the ways we ourselves have been unkind and unjust to our neighbors?  In America today, our society is rife with virtuous indignation.  Standing up against societal oppression and injustice is undoubtedly part of the call of the Christian but so too is confession and humility, and too often the volume of our indignation against the injustices committed by others is proportional to our unwillingness to admit our own complicity in the problems we face as a society.  We scornfully point out wrong-doing; we are quick to accuse the other of immorality, bias, and stupidity; and we are all too ready to denounce others as unable to listen to reason, while at the same time we stop our ears and close our eyes to our own contributions to the divisions among us.  In other words, like the villagers in Mark, we fixate on the fate the pigs so that we can feel good about the Great Tenderness of our Hearts while avoiding thinking about our own complicity in the suffering of the Gerasene man.

The story of the Gerasene man is said to be a story about one man possessed by demons but it turns out to be a story about an entire town possessed by demons — the demons of pride, self-certainty, fear, and self-righteous indignation.  Jesus was able to heal the Gerasene man, a healing that probably began as soon as Jesus acknowledged his humanity and refused to turn away from him, but the demons possessing the townspeople remained.  They couldn’t confess their ill treatment of their brother.  They couldn’t admit that they had been failed to show compassion, had failed to listen to his suffering, had failed to treat him with even as much concern as they lavished on a herd of pigs.  It is no wonder that when the Gerasene man asked Jesus to let him go with him, Jesus sent him back to his village saying, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”  Jesus knew that there was a whole town still in need of healing, and it would come from the mercy of the very man they had rejected, a searing mercy that would force them to look with their own eyes upon the suffering they had caused, admit in humility their own failures to love, and in their confession, let go of their self-righteous indignation and open their hearts to true reconciliation and peace.


Footnotes:

1. According to http://www.primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk/romans/Legio.html, until the middle of the first century, 10 cohorts (about 5,000 men) made up a Roman Legion. This was later changed to nine cohorts of standard size (with 6 centuries at 80 men each) and one cohort, the first cohort, of double strength (5 double-strength centuries with 160 men each).

2. https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/two-thousand-pigs/

3. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/January-2019/Combatting-the-Loneliness-of-Mental-Illness