by Peter Law
In Mark 5, we read the story of Jesus healing a man with many demons. In the introduction to the story, we’re informed that the man lives in the Garasenes, Gentile land that would be considered unclean, in the tombs (unclean) that he cut himself with stones (open soars are unclean!) that he lives near a huge herd of pigs (unclean, unclean!) and is host to evil spirits (UNCLEAN!!!). This man represents the kind of person, a good, religious first century Jew would do his very best to avoid. In our modern context, we might envision Jesus venturing into an unlicensed casino on skid row to rescue a lone crack-addicted prostitute.
What does Jesus do to this most unclean of men? In the previous chapter Jesus calms the storm, so it might not seem terribly surprising that Jesus is able to heal the man. Jesus commands the evil spirits to leave the man, and, not surprisingly, the do. But at what cost? Jesus allows the pigs to escape into a very large herd of pigs nearby. “No kingdom divided against itself will stand,” (Jesus’ words from 3:24) so when the unclean spirits try to hijack unclean pigs you might say the whole thing goes sideways for them in a hurry: The pigs rush into the sea to their deaths.
A herd of 2,000 pigs represents a huge investment of money for the villagers. The pigs may have represented a significant portion of the villagers’ livelihood. This explains why they witness the healing of the man— a man whose existence likely caused them so much worry— their overriding emotion isn’t one of thanksgiving, but dread. They’re afraid Jesus’ continued presence with them will cost them more than the unbearable price they’ve already been forced to pay. They must get him out of there. Their stuff was far more important to them than the man who was healed.
This is a place where the values of God’s Kingdom are at odds with the values of the kingdom of this world. Jesus is calling these people to accept a tremendous inconvenience, a huge economic loss, in order to have something more valuable: the return of a man who was tormented by severe mental health issues back to their community. They’re not sure that’s a good deal. Truthfully, they’d prefer to have the pigs.
This story is a reminder to us that God’s values aren’t always our values. That when it comes to weighing costs against benefits, God’s tally sheet looks different than ours. People are supremely important. Stuff, is less so. We might affirm these values when asked, but then live the opposite. I have to ask myself: what price am I willing to pay, what sacrifice can I obediently make in order to see people come to freedom in Jesus? Are my pigs, whatever they may be, worth more to me?
Image by Hernán Piñera. Used according to Creative Commons License.