This is a hard passage that raises many questions, and I invite you to join me in exploring them.During my first several readings many decades ago, I just didn´t understand. The first part of the story, in a nutshell is this: Jesus meets a man who is possessed by many demons, possibly even thousands of them. Then Jesus liberates the man from the demons, which of course is wonderful! But this was and is my struggle: Demons don’t fit into any framework for my faith and the science-oriented part of me rejects the notion that there could be such a thing. Maybe it was really a story about mental illness?
But that didn’t help me deal with the next big question: The demons/the mental illness didn’t just leave the man and disappear. They are given permission by Jesus to enter a herd of pigs, and the pigs run down into the lake and drown. Was Jesus somehow involved in the killing of a herd of pigs? Two thousand pigs, the way Mark tells this same story. Jesus, the compassionate one? Even if Jesus, as a Jew, didn’t personally value pigs, these pigs were still someone else’s livelihood, which was now gone, thanks to Jesus?! What?!
Since I didn’t need to understand the story for myself, I didn’t worry too much and just left it at, «I don´t get it». But then I became a hospital chaplain. On the mental health unit, I met people who felt that they were possessed by demons. I also met people who, even if they didn’t believe in demons, told me their deep depression or their manic energy felt as if it came from something other than themselves, something foreign, like an evil spirit. Or something evil was behind their illness. Now what?
Suddenly I did need to understand this passage. I did need to engage, not set it aside for later. And as I listened to their stories, I realized that although these foreign entities were scary, it helped these patients to think this way. The Bible tells us over and over again about God working against evil spirits. These patients´ understanding was thoroughly Biblical. What´s more, they felt empowered, like they were on a team with God, and God would help them to heal from their despair, or the voices that told them they were bad, or not lovable, or the urge to hurt themselves, or hurt someone else. It gave them hope.
As far as theology goes, I still can´t explain demons to you, or whether this passage is really «just» about health problems. I won’t affirm that there are demons, of course, any more than I would say that there is no such thing as demons or evil spirits.
Thankfully, my job only requires me to understand that, real or imagined, encountering evil spirits would be a frightening thing. We all know how frightening it is to have «something other» insist that you are bad and must punish yourself and hurt yourself?! I get to say, “That sounds very scary”, and provide the compassionate pastoral presence that I would offer to anyone who is scared. I get to say, «You are safe here. I am here to help you. God is with you and will never leave you or forsake you.»
About the pigs…
Going back to the story: The way Jesus liberates the man from the demons is by giving them permission to enter the pigs. The pigs then run down the steep slope, into the lake, and they drown. Did Jesus intend the pigs to be destroyed with the demons? Were they just the means to an end?
Or should the pigs perhaps be thought of as an extension of God, and like nature does, the pigs reveal God´s power over demons?
Or maybe the pigs are sentient beings who somehow understood what was going on between Jesus and the demons, and volunteered to take the demons into the depths, even at the cost of their own lives?
I think you could make a good case for any of these versions, and reasonable people could disagree on this.
My experience as a hospital chaplain takes me down another road: I can´t say what Jesus intended. But I suspect that the pigs went crazy when the demons entered them. I think the experience was so overwhelming they just couldn’t stand it, and they ran into the lake to be rid of the demons, and drowned. Sadly, many people with mental illness can’t live with the their pain and suffering or the mistaken belief that they are a burden to their loved ones, and do end their lives.
Here, in our midst, in these pews there are people who sometimes or often struggle with these kinds of feelings and thoughts. There are also people in our pews who love someone who suffers in this way. I may not know why the pigs ran into the lake, but I do know that we are called to the deepest compassion and tenderness with ourselves and with others in the face of suffering. No wonder we call out to God, asking for relief, praying to be healed. And we can only imagine how sweet that relief was for the demon-possessed man. No wonder he wanted to follow Jesus and be with him and get more help if he needed it!
This passage makes me grateful for the wisdom that generations of Christians have passed on through the years. I´m not an expert on pig spirituality, but I believe that humans are blessed with something that can make it easier: we have language to encourage each other, we know a reason for hope, we have church, we have the wisdom of the Bible, we have hymns, and our faith community.
Going back again to the story Luke tells, the demon-possessed man was healed. But we have to acknowledge that the pigs were not healed. This leads to the hardest question of all. Most people I encounter in the hospital are, by necessity, those who have not been healed, at least not yet. They can´t set this question aside, and are staring right into the teeth of it. These questions aren´t optional for them.
“Why has God not healed me?» «Why am I dying?” “God healed the person in this story, why am I still suffering?» «Why was my brother not saved?» «Why was the shooter in Orlando not healed of his mental illness – if indeed was that it was – before he could kill and maim so many people?»
Theologians have debated the question of why bad things happen for thousands of years, and much smarter people than I am have dedicated themselves to understanding this. And no-one has come up with an answer that has settled the question, once and for all.
Here is what I can say with certainty when someone asks, “Why have I not been healed?”
It’s not because you haven’t prayed right.
It’s not because you didn’t believe right.
It’s not because God doesn’t love you, or you aren’t deserving.
You are precious, and beloved, and your prayers have been heard.
I don’t think we can know in a theological sense, not in this life. But there are other ways of answering the question than with theology. One of those ways is by asking another question:
Can you be okay with not knowing, if you are certain that God loves you, from the tips of your toes to the ends of each hair on your head, inside and out?
Can you be okay with not knowing, if you are sure that God will be with you always, no matter what?
Here´s another way of answering the question, with a guided imagery:
Let us take a moment. Close your eyes, relax, put your feet not the floor. Imagine Jesus in the sanctuary here with us. He looks at you, and his eyes are full of love. He reaches his hands toward you and cups your face in his hands. His love embraces you, warms you and fills you. And he promises that he is there, with you, now and always.
And finally, I want you to know this: «I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.» Romans 8:38-39