You ever go to the lake? Just a day out on the water, relaxing on the beach. You’ve got drinks and snacks. Your friends are with you. And, of course, there’s the dude with impure spirits in him and the thousands of pigs plunging off a cliff. Just another day at the lake.
Yeah, if you want a pleasure cruise, the bible might not be the place for you. Things can get pretty weird—it is no day at the beach.
In Mark 5, the weird goes full throttle, as Jesus lands on the shore and is confronted with a man possessed by evil spirits. Legions. Legions of evil spirits. That could mean anywhere from 500 to 7,000. Or, put succinctly: legions. Legions of them.
The man had been banished from society—isolated and living among the dead in the local tombs. He approaches Jesus in all manner of disheveled, and the demons speak up through the man, calling Jesus by name in order to prove dominion over Jesus, in keeping with ancient superstition that claimed if you called a foe by his full name you had mastery over him.
Jesus, without needing the help of a superstition, accepts their alias “Legion” as sufficient, and then casts them out of the man. Before exiting, they plead with Jesus not to send them away, so he instead allows them to enter some nearby pigs, who promptly hurl themselves off a cliff. When pigs fly, truly.
Okay, what!? What just happened? Up until this point, the Book of Mark just sort of glides along. Yes, there is a hint of supernatural here and there, but thousands of pigs in flight? That is some next level stuff.
And while all of that is puzzling and strange and disturbing, what happens next might be worse. It is the line I want to focus on, one that is more shocking than the shenanigans preceding it. Here goes:
“Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.”
That. That line. Forget the forces of good and evil doing battle. Forget the pigs. And see the pitiless decision of humans time and time again. These villagers heard about a man they knew. A sick man. A deranged man. A violent man. A despairing man.
Then these people were told about how the man was made well.
And all they could see was the pigs.
This was weird. This was dangerous. This surely hurt their precious economy and made promise of future disturbances.
Get rid of Jesus.
So what if a man was made well? So what if there is hope hidden somewhere here? So what if Jesus is something from beyond?
What the people valued most was order, money, and themselves.
What people still value most is order, money, and themselves.
This is why we read something that rankles against our sensibilities of how things are, and we dismiss it outright. We abandon Mark right here because we don’t like the chaos that might come from unleashing the supernatural on our lives. George Orwell writes (and Rage Against the Machine wails): “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” What Orwell means is that the totalitarian government in 1984 can rewrite history to shape the present need and, hence, control future trajectory. A tiny totalitarian government lives within each of us. We know deep down that we have scant control—but we spend each day living in and fortifying the myth that we are in charge of our lives and our destiny. We alter the events of our past in order to refashion ourselves as wise heroes in near-total control. A god who is bigger than us threatens that control. Jesus: please leave.
Part of this control is purchased through money—or in this case pigs. Pigs become food (for some) and are thus valuable. They create either the energy to make money or the money itself at market. Kindly, leave the pigs alone. This is why our thoughts are seldom altruistic and instead morbidly financial. And it doesn’t stop at money—it is power and position and privilege. A few years back, I began reading about the idea of white privilege and systemic racism. These are notions that offended me initially, but as I read and thought about the concepts, they made more and more sense. One group of people are slave owners; the other, slaves. One group of people is free; the other in chains. One group of people controls policy and laws and elections for hundreds of years, while the other lives under injunctions they have little voice in shaping. Obviously these disparities of experience could potentially lead to some harmful systems, biases, and social norms. Seems convincing and true in so many ways. And problematic. If true, it begs for action and change. I’m fine with all that—so long as it doesn’t touch my pigs. Once an idea begins asking something of me, suggesting that I give up something? Cost me something? Kindly leave. I’m all about change so long as it no way encroaches on my familiar little comforts and power. I need healing.
Examples like this abound. But it all boils down to this: we love ourselves more than our neighbors. This is pretty natural, I think. But it doesn’t make it right or even good. The people in Mark’s story do not even pause and celebrate the wellness of the outcast—a broken man made whole. They ask no clarifying questions: “That is terrible about the pigs, but Dead Ed from the tombs: he’s okay? He can rejoin our town!? Is there anything we need to do to take care of him going forward?” Nope. What is in it for me and what isn’t? That is the lone thought, joined shortly after by, Please leave, Jesus.
Think about if those townspeople had the opportunity for a cosmic mulligan. They could choose to relive that day with or without Jesus showing up. If Jesus had never come to their town, Ed remains possessed and miserable among the dead, but the pigs are unharmed. What do you think they would have chosen? Their dismissal of Jesus shouts their choice. And what is so often my own.
I dismiss healing and wellness daily. All I see are the pigs. All that is and all that was and all that can ever be, encapsulated by a sounder of swine—my sense of order, my financial possibility and creature comforts, my entire well-being stagnant because I’m too stubborn to open my eyes to the possibility of a better way, a healing.
Jesus leaves. But most of us left well before him, having eyes and hopes for pigs alone.