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Pity the poor Pigs!

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 and drown.

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 mind.”

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 – transformed. 

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.

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