(click here for readings)
By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
“The swineherds ran away,
and when they came to the town they reported everything,
including what had happened to the demoniacs.
Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus,
and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.”
I always remember my mother, and probably someother Catholics, having qualms about this passage in the gospel. Every time this passage came up, at Mass or at Scripture Study, she would express her sympathy for the poor pigs and their swineherd who depended on them for his livelihood. Why did Jesusrelay the demons to the pigs and potentially jeopardize that swineherd’s future? It seemed unfair. I remember nodding in agreement at the time—like any normal child, I liked animals—but I now think we should look at this story with new eyes, and ask different questions because there is something deeper at stake.
In a story that features two demoniacs skulking about a cemetery, Jesus’ exorcism, and a town who rejects Jesus even after performing this great feat and saving these men, it seems odd that many readers would express the most concern about the pigs. Would they not want to ask about the demoniacs? Or about demonic possession? Or why a town just seems to ignore these poor men who are “so savage that no one could travel by that road”? Perhaps the bizarre imagery of possessed pigs running off a cliff sticks in people’s minds and distracts them from the bigger details that lead to that memorable scene.
First we should recognize that the biggest detail of this story is that Jesus drives out very nasty demons from these two men. Evil took possession of these men, robbing them of their dignity, their free will, and consequently their lives. More than any other quality in the Bible and beyond, this act of enslavement characterizes evil. Addiction, brutality, ignorance, duplicity, and nearly every other vice results from the loss of one’s free will. Most people know about the enslavement of men by other men, but we should also recognize other forms of enslavement: enslavement to one’s appetites, or emotions, or ideas, or, in this case, the devil himself. Through temptation,rationalization, lies, or through forceful possession, Evil will take over a soul and bind it in chains that are stronger and more constricting than the most durable metal.
Only Christ has the strength to unbind the individualenslaved by evil. Counteracting the tactics of the devil, Jesus does not tempt, but tempers; He does not rationalize, but teaches; He does not lie, but is the Truth incarnate; He does not possess, but liberates. Unlike the town, and like many people who read thispassage, Jesus realizes that the lives and souls ofthese men are far more important than the lives of some pigs. When given the choice by the demons—and, for this reason, people should really blame the demons, not Jesus, for killing the pigs—Jesus accepts this, willing to sacrifice the pigs for the sake of these men. Later, He would sacrifice Himself for the sake of all men.
Sadly, the town would have preferred that Jesus leave the demoniacs alone. They betray their own complicity by asking him to leave immediately after he cures them. Either they were upset about the pigs and the potential profits lost, or they felt more comfortable with the presence of demons than with God’s Son; most likely, both reasons likely accounted for their rejection of Jesus. All too often, utilitarian concerns will lead to tolerance of evil and the rejection of goodness. It is more practical to leave two men incapacitated by demons than waste resources curing them, and it is more practical to carry on with abusiness that serves personal interest than invite a man in who threatens to overturn such ethics of greed.
Our society has similar attitude to the town ofGadarenes. We have millions of people under the spell of evil, and we would prefer to keep it that way instead of curing them; despite our denial, this ambivalence has allowed evil spread even wider. In the absence of God, the devil will always fill the void. Under the devil’s influence, we see how the natural rights of men are curiously inverted: the right to life turns into the right to death; the right to liberty turns into the right to slavery; the right to the pursuit of happiness turns into the right to the pursuit of despair.God commands us: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” We think we do well enough to put off seeking the good, and not necessarily seek evil. Unfortunately, evil has a tendency to seek us despite our best efforts to be neutral, much like the demons seeking the pigs who were equally indifferent.
Just yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, allowing them to not provide coveragefor abortifacients—drugs used to kill human embryos(although many new outlets will soften this term and simply call them contraceptives)—in the insurance plans for their employees. The owners, both Protestant Christians, did not want any part in aiding the destruction of human life, but the HHS mandated that all employers’ insurance plans must cover these drugs, regardless of their objections, or they will have to pay enormous fines. Fortunately, Hobby Lobby won the case, and they do not have to cover these drugsor pay the fines. Unfortunately, they had to win this case by stressing their religious convictions and earning an exception to the mandate, thus making life and its preservation a private religious opinion, not a natural right. Furthermore, the protection of life and the refusal to take part in death and sterilization is a privilege granted by the government, not a decisionnaturally entitled to the individual.
In a way, I look at Hobby Lobby’s victory in court as Jesus’ exorcism of the two demoniacs. The ownersdid right to defend their commitment to life in court, just as Jesus did right to cure the two men. Unfortunately, the court limited and defined their victory in such a way that it was the exception, not the rule, private, not public. Similarly, the town limited Jesus’ miracle to those two men only, an isolated exorcism instead of a town-wide conversion to Truth. Finally, pundits who comment on the case loudlylament any kind of religious victory and warn of a possible slippery slope into other religious exceptions to providing healthcare, even if this is unlikely—companies had the right to drop these types of treatments before the HHS mandate, and there was no such deluge of religious exception claims. In the aftermath of Jesus’ miracle, even thousands of years later, people comment on the pigs and how Jesus might threaten the lives of other poor pigs, even though this never happened—as far as I know.
We should learn from the mistakes of the town, or we may very well turn into the pigs falling off the cliff.