The story of Jesus driving out a herd of demons into a herd of pigs has always fascinated me. Matthew, Mark and Luke all three record the story or a variation of it, so apparently it stood out as remarkable and in some way essential to the gospel story. And while the story in and of itself does spice up the narrative, this episode conveys an unmistakable, and for many of us, an inconvenient point.
As Jesus’ boat arrives on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, he is met by a raving wild man. This maverick has eschewed clothing and housing for the better part of his life and has “lived in the tombs.” Some pretty dark stuff. But he meets Jesus on the shore, throws himself down and begins loudly begging Jesus to have mercy. At this point the reader is cued in that Jesus has already had dealings with the demon – or demons – causing so much damage in this poor man’s life.
And so a conversation ensures. Jesus, the God made flesh, enters a negotiation with a legion of demons. The resulting compromise is that the legion of demons can enter the nearest flock of pigs. They are in Gentile country after all. Everybody wins in this scenario. Except those unclean pigs, who immediately drown themselves in the lake. And the pig herders, who just lost out on all their income. Without going into too much detail about the economics of pig farming in first century Judea, it’s impossible to imagine a scenario in which the pig herders are not irate.
From here something very obvious happens, and I confess I’ve missed it each time I’ve come across the story. The townspeople are informed of this miraculous, if admittedly strange, occurrence by the aggrieved pig herders, who run into town to alert the others. Just imagine what their message would have been. Could they separate the fact that their neighbor’s life had been irrevocably changed for the better from the fact that their finances just took a hit?
No. No they couldn’t.
When the pig herders came into town the message they spread was one of fear. Things were changing in their town and they didn’t like it. Who would join them in preserving the way things used to be, even it that meant there were crazy dudes who lived in the tombs. After all, his struggles were not our fault. Why should we have to pay? We aren’t our brothers’ keeper after all. We’re just honest businessmen.
The Cuban-American theologian Justo Gonzalez writes, “The interests of a dominant social class work much more subtly, pervading the mentality of those who form art of it, and even those who are subject to it, to such a point that those interests are eventually confused with pure rationality.” This same dynamic is what George Orwell famously dubbed “groupthink” in 1984. And it is driven by those in control whose power is threatened by progress.
And so the crowd, whipped up in a frenzy of panic drives out Jesus. They act against their best interests, as we only do when we are driven by fear. And the incarnate God leaves without further incident.
We are left with the man, freed from his demons, spreading the message of his freedom in his hometown. He has been changed. He has encountered God and lives to tell the tale.
This is the inconvenient point of the story. The ones with power would rather drive Jesus from their town than celebrate something good happening to their fellow man. Their aggrieved financial situation drives them to cast their neighbors into such a state of fear that everybody misses out on God’s visit to their little town.
But I wonder how many of their minds were changed by the message of the one who encountered God.
Would they ever recognize that their fear was a tool of the greedy? Would they learn to celebrate the progress of their neighbor?