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The Rattle of Chains

June 24, 2007

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 4     Luke 8:26-39


A friend will not eat pork. He grew up in an Islamic culture where pork was considered unclean. Though he no longer practises the religion of his childhood, he still does not eat pork. He knows about the history of food taboos and that millions of people eat pork with no harmful effects. Still, for him, for reasons he cannot articulate, pork is unclean.


In heart attacked New Zealand the taboos of his childhood are worth reconsidering. Concerns about trichinella [1] have given way to concerns about cholesterol. Maybe the old myths were wise myths? However, in our sane, demythologized society matters of the heart are matters best ignored. We seem to value being free from ideas that restrict us in order to be enslaved by things that consume us.


The problem is bigger than past practices and pigs. It is not so much about what we consume but consumption itself. Western society has made appetite an art form, extolling voracity and indulgence. We have a cake that we believe we have made, and therefore we rightfully deserve to eat. Often we share the odd slice or two. We feel sorry for those who miss out. We get fat; others starve. And our heart suffers.


In the presence of such a collective ravenous appetite it is not surprising that some are labelled insane. Those who criticise the consumption, those who refuse to join, and those who embrace counter-values are suspect. Like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest we need to daringly ask who are the insane. Not surprisingly Jesus’ family thought him mad. [2] Being told you are insane in a mind-eating, control-fixated, rapacious world is no insult. But it’s no accolade either.


In Luke 8:26 Jesus is in the territory around Gerasa. There he meets a dishevelled individual with a bad case of demons. The man shouted impolitely at Jesus. Jesus told the nasties to get lost [Exorcism 101]. But the nasties debated the point. They wanted to go and torment some poor swine. Jesus agreed, the demons possessed the pigs, which then did the lemming thing into the lake.


Here’s a riddle: What do demons, pigs, and Romans have in common?


There are deliberate puns in this story that link the three together. It was Roman soldiers, the foreign army, who brutally controlled and consumed Palestine. At Gerasa the Romans had killed a thousand young men, plundered and burned the town. [3] The location of our story is no accident. Neither is the name of the demons, Legion. Legion had only one meaning in the first century: a division of Roman soldiers. [4] Indeed the whole story is filled with military imagery. The term used for ‘herd’ – inappropriate for pigs that don’t travel in herds [5] – was used to refer to a band of military recruits. The phrase ‘he gave them permission’ [6] connotes a military command, and the word for the pigs ‘rushing’ [7] into the lake suggests troops rushing into battle. Enemy soldiers being consumed by waters of course brings to mind the saga of Israel’s liberation from Egypt and the demise of Pharaoh’s army.


The story also has an inescapable theme of impurity. In Jewish culture graveyards were places of defilement. Among the tombs was a fitting place for a demoniac. Likewise the absence of clothes was not a lifestyle choice. Those who had been deprived of their liberty, for example prisoners, lost the right to wear clothes. Nakedness was also a sign of being ritually unclean. Romans, as non-Jews, were considered unclean and impure. And, of course, the pigs, always suckers for bad press, were part of this impure package.


I feel for the pigs. Those little swine got a bad deal. They weren’t even consulted. Pigs, even today, are continually being put down – and not just by the creators of Kermit. Pigs are stigmatized as unclean, and having disgusting trough manners and personal hygiene. Their name is used as a derogatory label. It’s not only that inconsiderate driver who gets called a pig or swine, but also police officers and military personnel – particularly when working in a hostile environment. Even in Jesus’ Palestine pigs were used to symbolize Roman religion and Roman rule.


So, the riddle: What do demons, pigs, and Romans have in common? Well, they are impure in a Jewish sense. In another sense some would call them all swine. But more than that, they all consume. Pigs are good at eating. As Miss Piggy says, “Never eat anything you can’t lift”. Demons – psychological dislocation – also consume. In our story they have consumed the man. Romans of the 1st century oppressor variety also consumed. They stole from the peasantry, dispossessing them of their land and dislocating them from their community. They ate at the heart, the self-esteem and self-belief, of the people. In our story the consumption is total: physically, mentally, and spiritually the community was in chains. So was God.


The saga of the Gerasene demoniac is far removed from the quick-fix, individualized Benny Hinn miracle cure that enables the supposedly insane to re-enter the ranks of supposedly sane society. [8] Instead this is a symbolic story about being consumed, being colonized, not only in your land but also in your mind and theology. The demoniac is symbolically both a prisoner and mentally ill, externally and internally fettered. The exorcism, the duel with demons so beloved of Hollywood scriptwriters, is about a struggle for the heartland.


Take Butch and Sundance, my heroes. Not from Hollywood but from the heartlands of England. Two pigs who sparked a nationwide hunt in 1998 when they escaped from the abattoir at the last possible moment. They ducked under a fence, swam across a river, and dashed across a field in their bid for freedom. For several days they inspired a nation with their zeal and ingenuity. We all long to be free from that which restricts and oppresses us. Be it an invading army, mental illness, or an abattoir’s end. Retired now at a friendly farm, Butch and Sundance have been forever immortalized in stone on the exterior of Hereford Cathedral.


The message of hope is that healing happens when the individual, community, and God are liberated from the shackles of consumption. Jesus was confronting the powers, creating physical and spiritual space, so that life, healing, and hope were possible. Freedom is both external and internal, likewise salvation.


The appetite of our Western world is pervasive and invasive. We are the Romans of the 21st century controlling and consuming the world’s resources. Our appetite not only enslaves others, it enslaves us, and it fetters God. More and more we seem to be consumed by ourselves as a culture and what we require. We believe that we have earned our economic power and this is in the best interests of all. We believe that countries in poverty are being mismanaged, or are not as bright or as able as us. Yet despite these corporate dogmas our hearts tell us differently. We aren’t wholly convinced. In our supposed freedom why do we still hear the rattle of chains? We know there is a societal sickness, a dementia, and we look, even to pigs, for inspiration.


[1] Trichinella probably gave rise to customs safeguarding pigs.


[2] Mark 3:21


[3] This is recorded by Josephus in War, IV, ix, 1. This was carried out by Lucius Annius in the late years of the Jewish Revolt – within a decade of when Mark was writing. Luke has copied [with little editing] Mark’s account of the Gerasene demoniac.


[4] 4,000 – 6,000 men.


[5] Agele, 8:32


[6] Epetreson 8:32


[7] Ormesen 8:33


[8] For a more detail exposition refer to Ched Myers’ Binding The Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus New York : Orbis, 1994, p.190ff.

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