Pity the poor
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 19th June, 2016
Pity the poor
pigs! There they were feeding on a hillside, minding
their own business when they were possessed by a deep
desire to career off down a steep incline and into the sea
If it’s true, and it seems to be, that animals seem
particularly sensitive to oncoming earthquakes –
retreating to safe ground – then the presence of a
destructive spirit causing great distress spooking the
pigs isn’t that surprising.
Instead of retreat to safe ground, however, the opposite
was enacted. And the pigs perished. Pity the poor pigs! A
strange tale, to be sure. And especially as the herd
chased their collective tails downhill fast to drowning.
The God who, Jesus elsewhere declared, never lets a
sparrow fall unnoticed, seems profligate (in a perishing
sense) over these unsuspecting pigs.
It would be easy to wonder at the sacrifice of innocence
in all of this. But that could run the risk of missing
another significant element within this story.
To be sure, the stampede to oblivion is a stark and
terrifying and challenging image. But there’s something
else buried within the tale, so to speak, that might just
be far more challenging to us and telling of us. There’s a
real danger that the horror of the pigs, headlong,
lemming-like, dive to destruction deflects our attention
too much from what happened as a consequence.
Unsurprisingly, the swineherds told everyone they could
find what had gone on. Naturally enough, crowds were fired
with curiosity and wanted to go and see the scene for
themselves. In this, they were perfectly human. The
swineherds would have been, at the very least, excitable
in their – doubtless, breathless – relaying of this
amazing happening. A crowd would have quickly gathered.
Everyone had, doubtless, heard about the naked man who
lived in the tombs. After all, as we heard, he was “a man
of the city”.
His breakdown, turning him into a man destined to strip
naked and scratch the merest of livings, will surely have
prompted stories. That something dramatic had happened to
this strange, shadowy, man must have been irresistible. No
wonder a crowd gathered. And what did they find? They
found the broken man made whole; “clothed and in his right
And their reaction.? “They were afraid”! Yes,
afraid?! It’s a telling response. What should, on the face
of it, prompt a sense of rejoicing and relief prompted,
instead, fear! What was the basis of this Fear? It’s hard
to be sure but, on the face of it, it seems perverse. Here
was a man they had known to be in anything but his right
mind “for a long time.” And now he seemed fine. And
they should have been rejoicing. It seems perverse but is,
perhaps, in part, a pointer to humanity’s fear of change,
even when change seems so obviously for the better.
It would, of course, be foolish to suggest that all those
who came out from the city and the country to see the
scene were callously disregarding of the distress the
naked man, who had been brutally bound in chains and
shackles, had endured. It wasn’t that they were all sorry
that the demented, distressed man seemed now to be at
peace. Their fear wasn’t a reaction to his being healed.
It was, perhaps, that they were thrown into a turmoil over
what this all signified.
Jesus, they saw all to clearly, had a kind of power that
was unsettling. Somehow, they saw with piercing clarity
that their lives were about to change in ways they could
not predict. The tormented man, who had been shackled and
guarded for every one’s safety, who doubtless had a
fearful reputation, sat meekly and mildly, at Jesus’s feet
Why fear this? Why would the peoples’ reaction be to ask
Jesus to leave? Could it just be that some were all too
aware of deep-buried demons in their own lives, keeping
them from contentment? Did they see all too clearly what
was going on here? Did they realise all to transparently
that Jesus would stir things up in a way that might
require radical change within them too?
The cured man was sitting at Jesus’s feet – in his right
mind. Why would that be fearful except that it would be a
challenge to change for them too?
But I still pity the poor pigs. It feels somehow brutal
and offensive that innocent animals would be made to bear
the blight of a man whose life had become defined by
demons. They carried off the demons – the separation of
the man from peace was brought to an end. Put in that way,
the pigs are almost Christ-like in their innocent bearing
of sin (which is the potent way of seeing the affliction
of the shackled man – chained to sinfulness). Their end
was a cliff, Christ’s was a Cross.
The result in each case was a deliverance of others from
sin. Why fear that, we might well ask. Strange creatures
we humans. We might think we are our own worst critics but
the truth is we are more likely to be our own best
defenders. We find justification for what we define as
necessary and desirable in our lives. What defines us we
defend – often vigorously. And the suggestion that we may
need to radically alter to find the wholeness that alone
can bring truly fulfilled life is strangely resisted.
The Psalmist put it well, “Be not far from me, O Lord; you
are my strength; hasten to help me. Deliver my soul from
the sword, my poor life from the power of the dog. Save me
from the lion’s mouth, from the horns of wild oxen.”
More animals! More metaphors for all that keeps us from
contentment. Deliverance is the cry. Saving is the plea.
With Christ, the shackles are removed. This is a word for
now as for then; for us as for them. The saving, healing,
forgiving power of the love of God we read of in past
stories remains a present reality. And no pigs need be
harmed! And peace and wholeness is the promise. Of that we
need have no fear.