Bible: Redeemed from the depths
April 17 — Luke 8:26-36; April 24 — Luke 15:11-24
You have to know something about pigs to understand these two passages from the Gospel of Luke.
First-century Jews did not raise pigs; they did not eat pigs. Leviticus 11 has a list of unclean, or impure, animals that the people of Israel were forbidden to eat: camels, rock badgers, hares, fish without fins and scales, birds of prey, storks, herons, bats, certain insects — and pigs. “The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft footed, does not chew the cud. It is unclean for you. Of its flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you” (Lev. 11:7-8; see also Deut. 14:8). The pig is not the only unkosher animal, but it comes in for particular contempt and disgust in the Talmud. Some Jews refused to call the pig by its name, but called it “another thing.” To call someone a pig was the worst kind of insult.
In Luke 8:26-39, we know that Jesus is not in a strictly Jewish context in the country of the Gerasenes because someone is raising pigs. It is not clear whether the man who had demons is Jewish, although he does call Jesus “Son of the Most High God.” The man is tormented by demons he calls “legion.” Does this refer simply to many demons? Or to the Roman legion occupying Palestine? A Roman army legion was like a military division or battalion. In the first century a legion was composed of about 5,000 soldiers.
To Jewish hearers of this story, it must have seemed poetic justice that, when Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man, the legion of demons was allowed to enter the unclean animals, the swine. In the time of the Maccabees, the Romans had desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing swine there; now the legion enters swine, rushes down the embankment and is drowned in the lake. Meanwhile, after the exorcism, the once-demon-possessed man is in his right mind. Formerly naked, violent and living in the tombs, the man is now able to be a part of the community.
In Luke 15:11-24, we know the prodigal son has sunk as low as he can go when, in a far country, he hires himself out to tend pigs in a time of famine. In fact, the pig feed looks appetizing. When the son “comes to himself,” the journey back to his family is long — in geographical distance and in relational and moral distance. He had squandered his property in dissolute living. He had fed unclean animals. He had been starving. Now he comes back from that distant land to his father’s embrace.
Jesus’ parable extends through Luke 15:32, which we need to read to get the main point: The community of faith should celebrate when someone who has been lost is found and restored.
Both texts for these lessons depict people who have hit bottom — the man in the tombs and the Jewish son as swineherd — and then are reincorporated into the community. The man living in the tombs is out of control (in truth, he is controlled by the demons); after Jesus commands the demons to leave, the man is clothed and in his right mind. Hunger and poverty drive the younger son to come to himself — another way of saying he is in his right mind.
The Gerasene man goes from outside the city, where he had been living, to proclaim throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him; he is now a part of the community.
The younger son returns to his father’s compassion, new clothes, a feast and restoration to his family. The father admonishes the older son to be part of that restoration.
If the man from the tombs and the prodigal son can come back from the bottom, is there anyone who cannot? No matter how deranged, how violent, how offensive, is there anyone beyond the reach of Jesus’ healing command? No matter how obstinate or distant, are there any who cannot come home?
These Gospel readings remind us that Christ’s love reaches all the way to the bottom. In this we are called to be imitators of Jesus Christ.
Lois Y. Barrett is professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives in Wichita, Kan.
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