I have vivid childhood memories of driving through the country, on either dirt roads, or major highways, and being struck by the heavy scent of a pig farm. There is no odor quite like it, and no image can quite convey its potency. Now, I spend a fair amount of time around horses and horse barns. I have cats and dogs and birds. Animal scents are not unfamiliar to me. But, pigs. They are something else.
So, when I watched Mike Rowe, from the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” working a pig farm, I almost gagged. The series has the host, Mike Rowe, travel to various places and apprentice at the worst jobs you can imagine. But, these are all jobs that people do every day, jobs we probably don’t even think about. This particular episode, Pig Farmer, first aired on Tuesday, August 9, 2005. Here is a short recap of that episode from the Discovery Channel web page:
“(for) Mike’s first task at the Iowa pig farm, he takes on the duty of feeding a group of pigs standing in “crud”. After feeding the swines, he travels to the gilt pen where the hogs which will be held for breeding are kept. Mike shovels layers of pig droppings out and fends off bites from the pigs who see him as an unwelcome visitor.
After catering to both ends of the swine’s digestive system, Mike moves on to work with the baby piglets born just one day ago. His objective here is to clip their razor sharp teeth, trim a half inch off their tails, clip their dried umbilical cord and administer two injections in their neck: one of supplemental iron and the other an antibiotic to help fight infection. Mike sees how it is done and then dives right in.”
Now, I could go on and tell about the rest of the episode, but, well, its best I stop here. I hope though that this gives you a glimpse into how the folks from the first century would have heard this story about Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Pigs were considered unclean and never eaten by the Jews of Jesus’ day, and many Jews today. But the herd of swine also stand for other things considered unclean by the Jews of Jesus’ day: like the Roman Emperor and the Roman soldiers. That’s what the word “Legion” points us to. Which means that this reading is complex and has many layers of meaning.
So, the pigs represent the Roman Empire and the Roman soldiers. What about the possessed man and the pig farmers, who is he, who are they? Let’s look at the possessed man first. Often in group dynamics there will be one person who serves as the community scapegoat. This person, as the scapegoat, manifests all the illness of the family or community. This person is always sick and has lots of ongoing problems. Now, not every sick person represents a group scapegoat, it’s more complex than that. But generally speaking, a chronically sick person may be the scapegoat of a particular system. By being the scapegoat this person manifests the anxiety and illness of the entire group so that the other people can function as healthy people. It’s a complex process where both sides work together. The group unconsciously decides who the ‘sick” person is. The designated person, being highly sensitive, agrees, unconsciously to carry the burden.
Perhaps in this gospel community, the Gerasene demonic was the community scapegoat. He manifested all the ailments of the community, their fears of darkness, their worries about disease and illness, their concerns about money and clothing, he was the designated sick one. He was the identified patient (a technical term used by mental health professionals).
The community was comprised of pig farmers. They made their living raising and caring for pigs. So, two significant things happen when Jesus heals this man. One, the community loses their scapegoat and two they lose their source of income when the swine jump off the cliff.
Homeostasis is a term from biology. It means that all systems work hard to achieve over and over again the state they consider to be “normal.” The state that feels “normal” however, is not always the healthiest state, especially in complex systems of human relationships. But human communities nonetheless seek homeostasis, meaning they want things to stay the same, to feel “normal” what ever that is. Unless the entire community can change for the better, eventually someone else will become the scapegoat.
This week we have celebrated two major events in the world history and global dynamics. One was World Refugee Day on Wed. and the other is the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the very lucrative slave trade. True. Christianity is as much to blame for slavery as it is the cause for its end. Sadly, people in this world, because of greed, hatred, and prejudice, cause harm to other people, creating many of the influences that cause war, and refugees.
The Gersene Demonic may be a metaphore in our world for those marginalized by religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As global societies we are the pig farmers.We put upon certain people our anxieties, fears, and illnesses.The world communities let these designated others carry the burden so we can think of ourselves as healthy.
Thankfully these designated people are not compliant. Many of them refuse to carry this burden; they want to live healthy lives.
As Christians, Jesus represents to us all that is good and holy and well in God’s love, in creation. Jesus is the one doing the real dirty job in this world: sitting with, eating with, being with, healing the unwell, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, tending the needy of this world. There are no scapegoats in Jesus’ world. No one is less than anyone else. Jesus resets the homeostasis in a new way. What is normal for Jesus is the created order of the world that God desires, that God first set forth at the beginning of creation. It is an order that humans try to disrupt, and Jesus aims to restore.
Jesus leaves the healed man behind, to carry on in his absence. We are called to do likewise. To carry on, to be the face of Christ in the broken world.And to heal the chronic illnesses of our world. In baptism each one of us has been made new. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us of this. There is a new order, no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are ALL one in Christ. And as Christians, we are called to carry on in the name of Christ; to be his hands and heart in the world.