Saturday, June 29, 2013

Of Pigs and Demons

Vengeance Is Mine, sayeth The Lord
Luke 8:26-39 / The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac Part II
Romans 12:19/Deuteronomy 32:35

The Gerasene Demoniac, Part II: What about all those pigs? Evidently everyone wants to know: why did Jesus send the demons into the nearby pigs instead of into the abyss?

The easy answer is that the demons, named Legion because they were so many, asked not to be sent into the abyss, but “send us into that herd of pigs” instead. Jesus, being all compassionate, complies.

As always in the world of Biblical interpretation, there is another way of looking at things. When asked their name, the demons reply, “Legion!” The name would carry a particular resonance for the first readers of Luke’s gospel – for it was the Roman Legions who in the year 70 ce had leveled Jerusalem, including the Temple, and most all of Israel/Palestine. There were those still living when this gospel was written and edited who had stood among the ruins, who had witnessed the still smoldering embers of the Second Temple – the center of the Jewish universe, and the center of the Christian narrative.

It is hard for us to imagine the impact that had on the ancient psyche – to see the place that had been the center of Israelite worship lying in ruins at the hands of the Roman Legions. We might recall what it felt like, and still feels like, to remember the destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York City. Now imagine all of New York City and an area about the size of New Jersey completely leveled. And consider that the parts of NYC near the center of the destruction on 9/11 are the modern day centers of worship for world capitalism. This is the scale of destruction the Roman Legions had exacted upon their Israelite colony. Add to this the reality that for decades the people of Israel had been waiting, hoping, praying for a messiah to deliver them from the Roman occupation.

Strange historical factoid: the ensignia symbol for the 10th Roman Legion was the Boar. That’s right, a wild pig. With all this as background, now let us imagine we are among the first audience in the late first century to hear Luke’s gospel read out loud. Chapter Eight, beginning at the twenty-sixth verse. Jesus sends the demons into the pigs, the pigs hurl themselves headlong into the sea and drown. Legion, the Tenth Roman Legion, is hurled headlong into the sea! This is just what everyone had been waiting to see happen! Serves them right, we say. It’s about time, we say. If only, we say.

But we are meant to remember. A central principal of the Bible is the theological understanding that vengeance is God’s alone. Some 20 years or more before Luke, Paul had written as much in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 12: “…for it is written, Vengeance is mine.” Recalling what had been written in Deuteronomy (the book Jesus quotes the most ) chapter 32: “…To me belongeth vengeance and recompence.” When one takes this in and internalizes it, passages such as those in Psalm 137 that advocate dashing Babylonian babies against rocks take on a whole new meaning. A psalm most likely written during the Babylonian captivity, it expresses something very much like sending Roman legions headlong into the sea to drown. At the end of the day, however, the psalmist, and God’s faithful, leave vengeance  to the Lord, the God of the Exodus – who evidently arranged for a gentile, Cyrus the Persian, to liberate them from Babylon, and who also raises Jesus from the dead. Nothing we could imagine or do ourselves could possibly been so fantastic, so great!

This is, in fact, a central premise of Confession, or The Rite of Reconciliation: we state our fears and the horrible things we want to  happen to others, and then receive absolution letting God be the final arbiter. It’s OK to think and even say horrible things, it is the acting on them that is just plain wrong. Legion and the pigs are a kind of parable, meant to make us scratch our heads and think of life in new and different ways.

Perhaps Jesus, the same Jesus who advocates loving our enemies, offers the vicarious episode with the pigs as release. Perhaps it is meant to make us laugh at ourselves and our puny ideas of vengeance. Perhaps it was a prophetic foreshadowing and sign of hope for those who had been under the rule of Rome for so long. It may even be a statement on the ultimate futility of military occupation. The Bible appears to sanction imagining what vengeance might look like were it left up to us. We are meant, however, to know that imagining is as far as we should go. The act of such imagining is meant to purge the very idea of vengeance from the core of our being. We are to let go and let God. When looked at like this, can we possibly imagine what a world ordered in such a way might look like?

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