So there he is, naked and beyond the pale. In Mark’s Gospel narrative he even bruises himself as he has been robbed of his self-esteem. He is an outcast whose identity has been eroded by demons to such an extent that he has even lost his real name. It has been superseded by the name ‘Legion’ which is the name Luke gives us for the many demons who have taken over the man’s existence.
In spite of all this torment and isolation we know from his encounter with Jesus, as given in today’s Gospel reading, that this man is a good man. We know this because he falls down before Jesus and calls him ‘Son of the Most High God’. The demons have not robbed him of this recognition of the Son of God though his spirit has been so crushed that he assumes that Jesus will only torment him as a damaged lowly being.
What I believe we can perceive at this stage of the Gospel narrative is that the aim of the Devil is to create division as division is contrary to the unifying purpose of God for humanity to become as one. The words ‘divide and rule’ come to mind here. To create barriers between people the Devil occupies a person’s inner being and this drives them away from the centre of human affairs. That is one method. The other is to create a dispute of such magnitude that it results in humiliation and death away from the centre of human affairs. This method can be seen in the rejection of Jesus as the Son of God followed by his imprisonment, then his naked body left to die on the Cross, pierced by the Crown of Thorns. Here Jesus is the ultimate outcast left to die, as we sing in the Easter hymn on ‘a green hill far away’.
In today’s world we can see attempts to counteract this divisionism in a variety of ways. For the believer and non-believer alike there is an emphasis on people working together in teams and groups to mutually support each other and solve problems if need be. There is the desire to include people with special needs in all activities, to welcome diversity and to host refugees. As a Christian I see this as a step towards the ultimate reconciliation of God with humanity when all will become as one.
Let us now return to Jesus on the Cross. The moment that Jesus is nailed to the Cross he is trapped. Being trapped is very much a theme of today’s Gospel
reading. It is the hunter and the hunted. The man is trapped by demons and the demons are trapped in the man’s body, begging Jesus to set them free by releasing them from the man’s body and allowing them to enter the swine. Jesus permits this to happen and the demons are destroyed by the rush of the herd down the steep bank into the lake where they are drowned. This sets the man free at last to ‘sit at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’.
So what does this narrative of being trapped and set free tell us? What I believe it tells us is that in spite of the constant attempts of the Devil to confine us all in mind, body and spirit, God has the final say in terms of our freedom. We may all from time to time feel trapped, either by external circumstances or by internal mental conflict but as Christians we have the assurance given to us in the Bible that it is God who commands the process of being confined and set free, even though the Devil can temporarily hold sway. Thus Jesus frees the man and he himself is set free from the power of death by his Resurrection. We, as Christians, are also offered the freedom of the Holy Spirit to guide us through times of fearful confinement and peril.
This commanding position from on high is not readily perceived by those who witnessed Jesus healing the man and those who were informed by them of what had happened. They know that Jesus has demonstrated his power to heal by freeing the man from the demonic trap he is in, but it leaves them fearful.
Seized with this fear they ask Jesus to leave them and he does so but this is not the end of the story. The healed man begs Jesus to go with him but Jesus orders him to return to his home and ‘declare how much God has done for you’. Out of the fearful reaction of the people is emerging a mission to the Gentiles by one man who is told to return to his home to declare God’s power to heal and restore. Out of the fearful episodes that have occurred both for the man and the people is going to come a spreading of the Word of God which trumps the Devil’s card. God is the fountain of sending love and this is the deepest source of mission so we can say that ‘hearts are trumps’!
We may ask, though, in the light of today’s Gospel, how should we view the treatment of the swine? They have done no harm and yet are destroyed by demonic possession which sends them rushing to the lake. This is a complex situation. Are we to infer from Luke’s Gospel, as both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did centuries ago, that this killing of the swine was ‘for the good of men’s souls’? This, I believe, is rather a harsh judgement on the animal kingdom. In the Book of Genesis, God does give Adam and Eve dominion over
living creatures, inviting them to name them. Here we have dominion but no evidence of condemnation of the animal kingdom. On the contrary, as Adam and Eve have disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit it is they who are brought down to ‘move upon their belly’ and ‘eat dust all the days of their life’.
They are the ones who are ‘cursed among all animals and among all wild creatures’ which gives animals the greater good.
Could it be, then, that the swine are symbolic? The might of Rome at the time was symbolized by a white sow and the word ‘Legion’ in the context of ancient Rome meant a large unit of the Roman army. Although pigs were sacrificial in Greek and Roman worship, we might say that the fate of the swine was not so much a rejection of the animal kingdom but a rejection of Roman rule.
Hopefully then by looking back into earlier Bible texts and considering symbolism we can avoid an attack in today’s reading on the animal kingdom.
We can instead focus on the power of God to heal us and consider how that first missionary push that was given to one man to achieve has spread throughout the world.