Sunday, June 20, 2010

Maybe a crucified pig would move our hearts

Today's Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary was Luke's report of one of Jesus' most dramatic exorcisms. It included

"Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned."

It is hard to preach this passage. In all fairness, people have questions that are not easily ignored or answered. What became of the demons? If they lost their host bodies, did they just go infest somebody else? Aren't "demons" just an archaic way of expressing mental illness? Then why does the Bible say that some entity went from a man into a bunch of pigs?

But what really derails the sermon is the sympathy everybody feels for the pigs. If Jesus is good, why would he let that happen to the innocent animals? People are so put off by the passage that it is hard to come up with words that lead them into worship. They are confused by Jesus or even indignant toward him - hardly in a place to welcome his presence with praise.

That very ambivalence takes us to the stinging message of the passage. We simply do not love one another in the way that God loves the human race. Jesus does not move us because our fallen nature does not care about our neighbor's salvation.

The Gerasene community had given up on the possessed man. Luke tells us plainly that he was "a man of that city," but the other citizens just chained him up from time to time; mostly they were fine to leave him out in the burial caves or the outdoors.

When they find him "clothed and in his right mind" with Jesus, they are afraid. Then they seem to weigh their neighbor on a balance against their devalued pork futures, and find the deal intolerable. They ignore the healed man and ask Jesus to go away.

We're no different. We can watch countless portrayals of people being killed in our favorite TV series or even a single movie, and it's no big deal. It's entertainment, in fact. Compare it to your reaction to a TV or movie portrayal of a pet being killed.

How about in the real world? Compare your reaction to the recent news of Mexican police killed by narcotraficantes to your feelings over the oil coated creatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

We rightly see the beauty of so many creatures - but we are in a fallen state that blinds us to the beauty and value of God's most significant creature, the human being. Like the Gerasenes in Luke's report, we don't see the salvation of a fellow human as worth the loss of a herd of pigs.

How, then, can we comprehend the idea that God would value us so much as to allow the humiliation and death of his Son to save us? Maybe God should have sent a pig to be crucified for us - it might better move our hearts to worship.


Dr. Mabuse said...

Not only do people pity the pigs, I've heard some indignantly ask about the financial damage to the people who owned the pigs. Did Jesus pay compensation? The implication being that He is some sort of vandal, or else as the Son of God he could pull rank and just refuse to pay up. (Maybe they were wild pigs and nobody owned them.) I've never really heard a detailed sermon on this subject; it's mostly used as an example of Jesus' power over everything, even demons, and that's that. I wonder what the demons' alternative was? I imagine Jesus could have sort of dispersed them, like dust being thrown to the winds, and they were expecting some such annihilation. So they asked for a lesser sentence, Jesus gave it to them, and it did no good anyway; they ended up destroyed even though they got their own way. They're demons; they can't be reformed through penance.

TLF+ said...

Dr. Mabuse! Thanks for visiting.

I 'spose this all comes 'round to C.S. Lewis' idea that Jesus is either delusional, evil or exactly who Christianity says he is.

Passages like this one and so many others make it impossible to limit him to an exemplar of morals and manners.

I agree with you, there's much more to this passage than just Jesus having power over the demons, although this is one of the more detailed exorcisms we encounter (asking for the demon's name, discovering more than one spirit present, the fact that it takes several efforts to get rid of them).

I did preach on this lesson and this blog post summarizes my main point: this Gospel exposes our lack of love, our tendency to reduce everything to our own utility ("Did Jesus pay compensation?"), and our despising of salvation. The way the healed man is still ignored by the citizens is amazing - as is their rejection of the healer. "We provide chains and free lodging in the tombs, so we don't need any of this expensive mumbo jumbo! Now please leave."

Anonymous said...

In order to find fault with our Lord’s response in this situation we must first of all believe that not only was such an event possible, but that it did in fact take place. We need not disturb ourselves over stories which can be dismissed as mythical or legendary. I am pleased that those who find this account objectionable do at least pay it the compliment of taking it seriously.

But if such a thing can happen, what are we to make of the fact that a human being created in the image of God, and with surely a higher dignity than that of any animal, is capable of being possessed by demons with consequences that are far more disastrous than the earthly fate of a herd of swine?

The parallel passage in St. Mark’s gospel clearly states: “And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave.” This was not our Lord’s idea. As St. Luke puts it, “they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them.” In other words, He allowed (but did not cause) them to demonstrate that their concern for a herd of swine, and those who owned it, was no greater than their concern for the Gadarene demoniac himself. Surely no surprises there.

St. Luke adds that “they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep.” This indicates that being driven into the sea is not the fate that the demons had in mind, and precisely the one which they hoped to avoid by taking possession of the swine instead, something very much within their ability to do. Shall we pity the poor demons as well, in that they turned out to be a bit off in their calculations?

Both accounts indicate that after becoming possessed, “the herd ran violently down a steep place.” Must we believe that they essentially committed suicide in lemming like fashion upon realizing their situation, or is it not at least possible that they went “into the sea” inadvertently after losing their footing on a steep embankment while in a state of blind panic over their newly acquired condition?

Our Lord did not see fit to save the swine, but neither does it appear that He was directly responsible for sending them to their deaths. Nor did He save Himself from an ignominious death on the cross which guarantees the possibility that the happy fate of the Gadarene demoniac may now be shared by “whosoever will” avail himself of the freedom from Satan’s thrall that only His sacrifice has brought about.

For what shall we now blame our Lord Jesus Christ concerning this event? For the fact that the one who has become “the god of this world” through the rebellion of mankind is completely indifferent to the sufferings of human beings and animals alike? Or should we not take this occasion to recall that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” because our own sinfulness, and that of our primordial parents, has brought this about?

- episcopalienated

TLF+ said...

Thank you, episcopalianated. Did you preach on this? If so, bravo! If not, thank you for taking the time and effort to dig into the Gospel and share these good insights here.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I preached on it.

And my rector says that if I ever pull a stunt like that again . . .

Just kidding!

I do find the reaction that people have to incidents like this to be quite interesting. It reminds me of how upset some can get over our Lord’s response to the Canaanite woman in the 15th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel. Her reply causes me to think: “You know, those crumbs intended for the dogs sound awfully inviting to me. I’d trade places with her.” But I guess that’s politically incorrect, or something.

As for those hapless Gadarene swine. Perhaps when God does indeed bring about “a new heaven and a new earth” some provision will be made for them. I think that would be nice. But the Son of God may have had other things in mind when He came into the world to effect the salvation of our souls, and perhaps that’s why He left running the Humane Society to us, along with getting our animals blessed on the feast day of St. Francis.

Those swine may have to wait for their turn at a better deal, just like the rest of us. In the meantime, let us read this passage in awestruck wonder in the knowledge that our divine Savior was both willing and able to spare the Gadarene demoniac from a far worse fate than anything they had to worry about. And invite Him into our hearts so that He may do the same for us.

If we’re still troubled, we can always keep the Friday abstinence from meat, or just give up ham and pork chops for good. :-)

God bless!

- episcopalienated