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  • Writer's picturewakehadley

Jesus and the Pigs

The fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark records a story

full of demons, exorcisms, and pigs

which, by today’s standards, is unbelievable.

But even though it may be difficult to believe

this story historically and literally occurred,

this story speaks volumes

about what it means to be human

in the year 2024 and beyond.





Two thousand years ago,

Jesus and his disciples

board a boat in Capernaum,

sail ten miles across the Sea of Galilee

to the region knowns as the Decapolis,

specifically, the country of the Geresenes,

and then disembark from their vessel

into knee deep water.


Upon splashdown, an unexpected and hostile stranger

rushes toward the wading travelers at full speed.

In the midst of this commotion,

Mark, the narrator,

cinematically interrupts the scene with a voiceover

to inform us of this sprinting stranger’s origin story.


We are told this unnamed Geresene man,

whom we will call

Alex going forward,

is possessed by a demon.

And this demon has wrought havoc upon every aspect of Alex’s life.


For some time now,

the demon’s possession of Alex irritated and annoyed

the people of Alex’s home town.

They grew wary of his constant disturbance of the peace.

They whispered to each other about how unpleasant he was.

Whenever someone tried to help Alex,

they returned exhausted, telling their peers,

“There is no way to help that man.”

Parents worried Alex might harm their children.

Businessmen complained Alex scared their customers.

Children grumbled about Alex’s body odor.

while adults changed routes in the village to avoid Alex on the way home.

While everyone talked about

how much they wanted Alex to become well,

no one wanted Alex to live in their neighborhood.


Which left the townspeople with no other choice:

they forced Alex into exile,

turning Alex into a pariah.

Without a home to call his own,

Alex made his bed in the nearby cemetery

and slept among the tombs of the dead.


During the day, Alex gathered sharp rocks.

He scraped his arms with the rocks until he bled.

He cried out in pain,

but no one listened to him.

They only heard him.

And hearing him burdened the townspeople with guilt.

They swarmed the authorities of the village

and demanded they do something about Alex and his anguished screams.


The solution the authorities came up with

was to shackle Alex to the ground.

With his arms restrained, they thought,

Alex would no longer be able to scrape his skin

which would subdue his cries of agony.


Which led to the authorities bringing

hammers,

stakes,

and chains

to the graveyard,

where they tied Alex down like a dog.


But Alex, was a strong man with an even stronger heart.

He refused to be subdued.

When the authorities left,

Alex, with all of his might,

pulled on the chains.

These chains strained under the power of Alex’s muscles

until suddenly…

the chains snapped in two.


Free again to roam the cemetery,

Alex scavenged for more sharp rocks.

When he found them,

he scraped his arms, once again

which cried out in pain, once again

which irritated the townspeople, once again,

which brought the authorities to the cemetery, once again,

which chained Alex to the ground, once again,

which led Alex to break free from the chains, once again,

which initiated this cycle of futility, once again.


Mark does not share how many times this cycle occurred,

but as I read the text,

I am left with the impression

this cycle transpired at least three times.


What Mark does share

is that, eventually, the townspeople gave up,

and they begrudgingly allowed Alex to drift free in the cemetery,

cutting himself with rocks

and crying out in pain.


With that backstory complete,

Mark directs us back to the initial scene of this chapter.

Where Alex,

full of smells,

covered in dirt,

and screaming incoherently

charges toward Jesus and his disciples on the sea shore.


But when Alex arrives within striking distance of Jesus,

he does not lash out.

Rather, he falls at the feet of Jesus and yells,

“What do you want with me, Jesus,

Firstborn of the Most High God?

Swear by God that you won’t torture me!”


In a calm voice,

Jesus asks a surprising question,

“What is your name?”

And in response to this surprising question,

Alex offers a surprising answer,

“My name is Legion,

for there are many of us.”


In other words, Alex’s possession

or Alex’s disease

has become so severe

that the disease was now speaking louder than his own voice.


But we are not done with the surprises.

In yet another strange twist

Alex, or, more accurately,

the demon inside Alex, Legion,

begs Jesus not to send him out of the area.

Apparently, Legion loves living on waterfront property.


Before Jesus can come up with a solution,

Legion looks up the mountainside

and sees a plentiful plethora of

pink pigs foraging under the sun.

If one set aside an afternoon to count the drove,

they would arrive at the sum total of 2000 pigs.


“Jesus!” Legion says,

“Send me and my fellow demons to the pigs so we can possess them.”

Without a word, Jesus nods,

And Legion and

all of his demonic cronies

exhume themselves from Alex’s body,

and flurry rush into the hides of the hogs.


Immediately, the pigs squeal

and snort

and shake with unpredictable gyrations

as the pigs become agitated.


The pigs move without any kind of foresight.

They bump into each other

they head butt each other

they flail at each other.


Until finally, they run at each other

which eventually leads them in a cacophonous stampede

toward the edge of a cliff overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Like lemmings,

the pigs careen over the edge

and fall to their death.


Now I have a confession to make:

In all of my life, I have never seen 2000 pigs together.

I point this out because 2000 pigs,

is a LOT of pigs.

To give you an idea of how many pigs 2000 pigs is,

we need to calculate how long it would take

for all 2000 pigs to all run off a cliff.

If we assume five pigs

can fall off the cliff’s edge at one time

and it takes two seconds

between the groups of five to fall off the edge,

then it would take

800 seconds for the stampede to end.


Which means the people observing this bizarre event

would be watching pigs die

for almost 14 minutes.

For all of the kids in the congregation today,

that’s the equivalent of two full episodes

of Bluey.

TWO episodes with wall to wall pigs

falling to their own demise.

That, my friends, is a LOT of pigs.


Sometime during this odd scene,

the swineherds of these 2000 pigs,

have seen enough.

They run

to tell the townspeople about it.

The same townspeople who, may I remind you, chained Alex to the ground.


By the time these townspeople arrive at the scene,

they see the Sea of Galilee littered with pig carcasses,

a handful of unknown foreigners on the shore,

and next to them,

in a serene state of mind,

is Alex.


He is breathing calmly.

He is at peace with the world.

And he is healed.


Consider this story from the perspective of the townspeople.

While we are unsure of the timeframe,

they have been, for some time,

completely overwhelmed

and discouraged by Alex’s condition.

They were driven mad by Alex’s madness.

So mad, they were willing to disparage their own humanity

and chain a human being to the ground.


Therefore, we assume the townspeople

are elated to see Alex in a right state of mind.


But Mark tells us a very different story.

We read,

“As (the townspeople) approached Jesus,

they caught sight of the one

who had been possessed

sitting fully clothed

and perfectly sane.

And they were filled with fear.”


This miracle of Jesus reveals a tragic undercurrent of the story.

For days and months and, most likely years,

the townspeople spoke to each other

about how they would do anything

to have the problem of Alex’s illness go away.


And then they find themselves standing in that very moment

and rather than feeling humility and appreciation

as the recipients of a miracle from God,

they only feel terror.


This fear is so overwhelming,

they beg Jesus to leave their town.

Jesus complies.

He and his disciples

wade back to their boat and climb over the gunnel.

As they begin to raise the sail

Alex sloshes out to the boat in a hurry.

“Jesus!” he says,

“Please take me with you! I want to be one of your followers.”

But Jesus shakes his head.

He says,

“Go home to your people

and tell them what our God has done for you.”

Jesus then turns, and, with the disciples,

sets sail and leaves Alex,

the Townspeople,

and the country of the Geresenes behind.


Growing up, this story was taught to me this way:

There are demons who are alive and want to attack us right now.

But don’t worry,

Jesus Christ has power over every demon.

And, as long as you pray

and read your Bible

and attend church

and don’t drink

and don’t have sex before marriage

and you type “OMGosh” instead of “OMG,”

then Jesus will ensure you never get possessed by a demon.

But if you fail to do any of those things…

…then you better hope you meet a Christian

who does all of these things

so they can perform an exorcism on you

before it’s too late.


And while I believed this growing up,

I now see how much this cheapens the story.


Because this interpretation neglects

the most human, the most relatable,

and the most believable

part of the entire story:

When Alex was healed,

the townspeople were not happy.

Instead, they were filled with what…?

Fear.

They were filled with fear.


This story is saturated with wisdom for our modern world.

Christians frequently turn a blind eye to this wisdom

because this wisdom challenges the way we live today

and does not allow us to maintain the status quo.


We can dive deeper into this wisdom

if we empathize with the ancient culture which produced this story.

We need to take a step back morally,

back before the time of the organization PETA

and the awareness of ethical animal treatment.


Because in the ancient world,

when Mark writes this story,

these pigs were not thought of as living creatures,

but solely as monetary capital.

To the swineherds in this story

these pigs were their livelihoods.

And while I fruitlessly searched for the estimated worth

of a pig in first-century Palestine,

I found information about how much a pig is worth in our economy.


According to Harmony Springs Farm in Maryland,

a fully grown pig today is worth $600-$750.

If we take the average of that number

and multiply it by 2000

then we discover that the drove of pigs

which Jesus allowed to die was worth

a grand total of

$1,350,000.


This is a LOT of money.

Not only that, but this is a LOT of money for a tiny village

with no archaeological trace.

This sum total leads me to believe

that these 2000 pigs belonged

to more people than just the swineherds.

The worth of these assets is so high,

it’s reasonable to assume

that this town’s primary industry

is the industry of pork.

And this reasonable assumption

completely changes the way we perceive the story.


Now a skeptic might object and say,

“If this town’s primary industry is pork,

then why didn’t Mark just tell us that?”

To which I would respond, “I think he did.”

Because, as I stated earlier, 2000 pigs is a LOT of pigs.

And I have a strong hunch that

anyone from 2000 years ago

would hear about 2000 pigs

and think,

“Well, it takes a village to raise that many pigs.”


The people of this town

are swineherds

and butchers

and feed suppliers

and packers

and shippers

and traders

and farmers

and fertilizer gatherers

and bankers.


Of course, not everyone in the town

has a job in which they interact with the pigs.

But we can imagine the entire town’s economy, most likely,

rises and falls with the industry of pork.


With the local economy in mind

I can understand how the townspeople arrived at the scene

and saw Alex calmly sitting on the sea shore

with the corpses of 2000 pigs

bobbing next to him in the Sea of Galilee

and they were immediately filled with fear.


For them, their minds scrambled to figure out

what this means for their fragile economy

which has just taken a $1.35 million hit.

In their duress, they looked around for someone to blame.

And they pointed their fingers at the foreigners as they cried

“They did this to us!”

and then they beg the foreigners to leave.


From the perspective of the townspeople,

I can see how Jesus Christ is the villain of this story.


Which raises the question:

Why did Jesus Christ,

who Christian’s proclaim to be the Son of God,

destroy a village’s local economy?


Because Jesus believed

there is more to life

than economic prosperity

and financial stability.


This ancient story

about pigs and demons and swineherds

challenges all of us living in a capitalist society,

to journey inward

and ask a difficult question,

“Am I living my life in a way that trusts

there is more to life

than economic prosperity

and financial stability?”

This can be especially difficult today

because we often view economic prosperity

and financial stability as deities of their own accord.


Upon hearing this question,

your ego, just like my ego

will tempt you to pull the ejection handle

and say, “Yes I do, thank God I am not like the townspeople,”

and then move on with your life, completely unchanged.


But if you have a heart,

which I know everyone does,

we need to stop and ask,

“But why would Jesus

send all of these innocent people into poverty?”


The answer is an uncomfortable one:

these people were not innocent.


Remember the exile the townspeople forced on Alex

because he threatened their business dealings?

Remember the bed among the graves they relegated Alex to sleep in

because they did not want him disturbing their peace?

Remember the chains they placed on Alex

because they did not want to listen to his cries for help?


And while these townspeople

politely told themselves they would do anything

if it meant that Alex could one day be cured,

the death of these pigs and their fear revealed

that they actually would not do anything for the wellbeing of Alex.


All of those pleasantries exchanged among the Geresenes

are exposed as lip service

by the dramatic actions of Jesus Christ.


And while the townspeople were filled with fear

at the massive economic hit to their town’s economy

I believe they were also filled with fear

because Alex,

now in the right state of mind,

could turn on them and tell the world

how horrendously cruel they had been to him.

Or, with Alex being a strong man,

they were afraid that he might chain each of them up

one by one

and treat them the way that they treated him.


This story asks us to journey inward and ask the question,

“Am I living my life in a way that trusts

there is more to life

than economic prosperity

and financial stability?”


But this story asks us to keep going with another, more difficult question,

“When I consider the way I hold on to my money…

…am I more concerned about growing my money

and keeping my money

than I am concerned

about the well-being of another human being?”


This is a hard question for us to ask in America today.

After all, one of our favorite superheroes is Batman.

A billionaire who solves Gotham City’s psychological healthcare crises

by pummeling the mentally ill into submission

and locking them away in an asylum.


My friends, I have good news for you this morning:

Batman is the antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel calls us to a life of

overflowing compassion,

innovative love,

and generous inclusion,

rather than economic prosperity and financial stability.

And if entire economies need to be burned to the ground

so that human beings can love one another

just as we love ourselves…

…well, this story illustrates that this economic loss

and rebuilding

is the work of God.


Now, if you are listening carefully to my words,

you may have noticed my intentional use of medical terms

to describe the process

of Jesus casting Legion out of Alex’s body.

For this story, I employed words such as

“Healing,”

“Cure,”

and “Well.”


But on this morning in particular, I want to ask you:

“Was Alex cured?

Or was Alex liberated?”


This question causes me to prefer the language

of demons and possessions

even though I do not personally believe literal demons exist.

Because if Legion is oppressing Alex

and Jesus breaks the hold Legion has over Alex,

then isn’t that the act of liberation?


And, when we consider that the Bible starts

with a MASSIVE liberation of 1 million slaves,

then every liberation in the whole of human history

must be considered the work of God.


But the story does not stop with questions even at this point,

because the more I think about this,

the more I am convinced that the demon, named Legion, is real.

Not real in the way that the demon

has a heart beat or the demon is a self-conscious entity,

but real in the way that this demon

is the embodiment of the townspeople’s greed.


And if the liberator Jesus Christ

arrives in a village by the sea

then I hold a strong suspicion that he is not interested in liberating just one man, but has a desire to liberate every human being in the town.


My friends, I firmly believe that

Anytime

anyone

chooses love over greed

they are participating in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


The internet taught us that anyone

can believe anything they want without proof.

But a life of great faith is a life that strives to be less greedy.


For all of my Christian siblings who are listening this morning,

I hope that when you share your testimony

about what Jesus has done for you

a big part of that testimony

will be about how Jesus liberated you

from the demon of greed.


I speak pointedly about greed

because greed is inextricably linked

to the United States of America.

And, until just a few years ago,

I was completely unaware of the scale of this greed in our history.


The great

Ta-Nahesi Coates brought my attention to the enormity of this greed

when he wrote an article in the Atlantic entitled,

“Slavery Made America.”


In this article, he cites three different history scholars

which paint a very different picture of the Civil War

than what I took in while I was studying in school.


He cites Dr. Roger Ransom

who records that in South Carolina when the war began,

“almost 60 percent of the people (living in the state) were enslaved.”

He talked about Dr. James McPherson’s work

which argued that not only was the Civil War first and foremost

about the institution of racially-motivated chattel slavery,

but also about it’s economic expansion into unsettled territories to the west.


But the idea that rocked my paradigm

was from Yale Professor Dr. David Blight.

Dr. Blight teaches,)

“...by 1860, there were more millionaires

(slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley

than anywhere else in the United States.


In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves

were worth some

$3.5 billion,

making them the largest single financial asset

in the entire U.S. economy,

worth more than all manufacturing

and railroads

combined.”


In Mark 5, we have a story

about Jesus destroying a thriving economy

that oppresses another human being.


How is it then,

the United States of America,

which, during its founding,

professed to be a nation of Christians,

built an economy

on the oppression of human beings

even though Jesus Christ dismantles

this specific type of economy in Mark 5?


I believe the reason is

because white Christians in America

loved money

more than they loved people.

They were possessed by the demon of greed.


On a national level,

we have this idea that a party or president is successful

if the economy is strong while the party or president is in power.


During this election year,

I have no interest in telling you how to vote.

However, I feel a strong urge to remind all of us that

Christians must remember the story of Mark 5.


We need to remind each other there are things far more important

than economic prosperity

and financial stability.

Christians should not be voting

based primarily on what is good for our wallets.

Instead, we should be voting based primarily

on what is good for one another.

If it works for us, then it should work for Alex.

This is what we must remember during this year on a national level.


On a personal level,

Money is not inherently sinful.

But money reveals to all of us where our priorities lie.


And so, this story asks each of us

a personal and practical question,

“Are you living your life in a way

which tangibly demonstrates

you care more about the well being of another

than growing your financial wealth?”


And if this question leads you to an answer of uncertainty,

then I would encourage you to think about

what a personal life

that prioritizes the well-being of another looks like on a practical level,

and then chase after that life with reckless abandon.


This explosive story of Jesus

invites all of us to rise above the temptation of greed

and embrace compassion.

But this is not the only invitation in this story.


Remember how Alex asked Jesus to become one of his disciples

and Jesus shook his head?

Instead, Jesus asked him

to go back to his hometown

and proclaim the good news of his liberation to the townspeople.


Now I assume Alex was crushed to have his request rejected by Jesus,

but Mark does not offer any commentary on Alex’s feelings.

Instead, Mark records Alex doing exactly what Jesus asked him to:

he returned to the town that oppressed him and shared his story.

When everyone in town heard his story

he went on to the other nine local villages of the Decapolis

proclaiming the good news of his liberation.


Two chapters later, in the seventh chapter of Mark,

Jesus and his disciples are sailing on the Sea of Galileee, once again,

to the country of the Geresenes

and, specifically, the region of the Decapolis.

Within moments of their arrival in the Decapolis,

word spread of Jesus’ return

and a massive crowd of approximately 10,000 people

assembled to listen to Jesus teach in the wilderness.


Ten thousand people!

In the Decapolis!

A non-Jewish collection of cities

without any family members of Jesus or the disciples

or any kind of social networking or YouTube.


The only way this crowd

showed up in this specific area

is because of the word of mouth

from Alex, one liberated man.


Even though he is a minor character in scripture

Christians must learn to celebrate Alex’s story.

Because celebrating Alex’s story

can ground us in the hope of what is possible

when we trust the Gospel truth

that economies

and pensions

and wealth accumulation

should never come at the expense

of the well-being of another human being.


In the same way,

mentors have taught me

Black History Month is,

first and foremost,

a celebration of Black excellence in America.

These stories of specifically Black excellence

ground all of us in the hope of what is possible

when we prioritize the well-being of everyone

and not just the well-being of some.


For that reason, I want to close with a story of black excellence.

specifically tied to the ideas shared in this story from Mark 5.

In 1831,

Rebecca Davis was born in the state of Delaware.

Shortly thereafter, Rebecca Davis moved in

with her aunt in Pennsylvania

and she observed first hand how

her aunt provided compassionate healthcare

for the citizens of her hometown.

Rebecca Davis would later write that because of her aunt,

she “…early conceived a liking for,

and sought every opportunity to be in a position

to relieve the sufferings of others.”


In 1852, at the age of 21,

Rebecca Davis helped relieve suffering as a nurse.

She impressed the male doctors she worked for,

and they wrote letters on her behalf

to the New England Female Medical College.

In 1860, she was accepted into medical school,

and, four years later,

graduated with the degree of Doctress of Medicine,

becoming the first African American

woman physician in the country’s history.


Shortly after she graduated, the Civil War ended.

She wrote, “…my mind centered upon Richmond,

the capital city of Virginia,

as the proper field for real missionary work…”

and she became a doctor for the Freedman’s Bureau,

a federal agency dedicated to the well-being

of newly liberated human beings.

While there, she met her husband,

a recently liberated man, and became Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.


After a decade in the mission field,

she returned to her educational home

of Boston in 1866.


Here, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler opened the doors of her personal home.

and welcomed any and all ill children

into her living room

where she provided healthcare for them,

regardless of their ability to pay.


Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler embodied

the Gospel of Jesus Christ

by caring for the people first

and her financial gain second.

She was not only a trailblazer

but also a generous soul.


May her story inspire you

to become more generous in today’s world.

May this story of pigs and exorcisms and demons

challenge you to look inward

and ask how you can prioritize another’s well-being

over your own financial gain.

And may you participate in the Gospel of Jesus Christ

by becoming rising above greed

and embracing compassion.




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