To hell with the pigs!

Aug 17, 2015 by

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Jesus asked the man possessed, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. They begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding, and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. — Luke 8:30-32

On first hearing, this story is about Jesus liberating a tormented individual by casting out a Legion of demons from him. But when the early church retold this story — as three Gospel writers do — it may have taken on laughable or even revolutionary political overtones.

On the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, these remains of a fifth-century church and monastery at Kursi mark the traditional location of Gergesa where Jesus cast demons out of Legion. In the distance are hillsides where swineherds cared for pigs. — J. Nelson Kraybill

On the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, these remains of a fifth-century church and monastery at Kursi mark the traditional location of Gergesa where Jesus cast demons out of Legion. In the distance are hillsides where swineherds cared for pigs. — J. Nelson Kraybill

The incident happens immediately after Jesus calmed a storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Having dem­onstrated sovereignty over nature, Jesus now takes command in the spirit realm. The boat makes landfall in Gentile territory — on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, in a region called the Decapolis. Here farmers raised pigs, something forbidden for Jews.

The hated occupiers

First-century listeners to this story must have caught their breath when the demon-possessed man said his name was Legion. That was the term for a unit of the Roman army that included 5,000 men and an equal number of auxiliary troops. The army of 10,000 that Rome used to subdue Palestine — and eventually destroy Jerusalem — was the Tenth Legion. The symbol of this hated occupying force was — a pig!

Did the story of a demoniac named Legion, ending with possessed pigs perishing, imply that the pig-honoring Tenth Legion also was evil? Understood this way, the story takes an anti-imperial edge:

  • Jesus cast demons out of a man named Legion, just like countless Jews hoped God would expel the Tenth Legion from Palestine.
  • Confronted by Jesus, demons from a man named Legion entered swine and went pell-mell into the “abyss” (or “hell,” Luke 8:31). In the same way, many people of Palestine hoped that Legions of Rome would go to oblivion.
  • Swineherds and local people by the Sea of Galilee tended to their pigs just like Jewish collaborators schmoozed the occupying forces of Rome.
  • The swineherds were afraid after demons left the possessed man and wanted Jesus to leave (8:35, 37). Similarly, Jews who collaborated with Rome were afraid of what would happen if the Roman army left Palestine. Such collaborators were behind the plot to kill Jesus.

Evangelistic ending

It looked like Rome was invincible. The Tenth Legion, in fact, stayed in Palestine until the fourth century A.D.

Whatever political discontent the story of demon-possessed pigs might have stirred, however, the narrative ends with evangelism rather than hatred or political action. Jesus tells the man who was delivered from a Legion of demons to return home and declare how much God has done for him.

Sometimes nonviolent political theater, parody or satire are good ways to confront oppression as we get on with the task of telling others about Jesus.

Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.


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