Now, I do know, of course, that this story is not really about the pigs. Even so? Whenever this Gospel from Luke rolls around, I find myself focusing on them all over again. And yes, I know that most commentators consider this a throw away detail, and perhaps it is. For it is so that swine were considered unclean and therefore expendable to those first followers of Jesus. Maybe they were just a means to get the legion of demons out of the one who had been possessed. And maybe not. Either way? It may be so that you and I hear this story in a different way than those who first heard it. And perhaps this is an example of a way the Gospel is alive: speaking always in new ways to bring home the powerful gift of redemption. Regardless, those pigs were certainly the instrument Jesus used to bring freedom and life to one who had spent countless years living among the dead. And as such? It is possible that they are symbolic of something more.
Now I do not have a whole lot of first hand experience of pigs, even though I have grown up in and continue to serve in a part of the world where a not insignificant part of the economy rises and falls on the price of pork chops and bacon. And yet, I have a story about a pig which goes back to before I was born. It is a small piece of our family lore and it is a story which has been told over and over again.
As I have shared in this space before, it was the spring of 1960 when my mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While she tested positive, the extent of her infection was extremely small — about the size of a dime on one lung. No matter. Her doctor reacted quickly and had her admitted to Muirdale TB Sanatorium near Milwaukee. When she first arrived, they said she could expect to be there for six months. (It turns out her stay in that place was much shorter. After nine weeks they determined what had been so from the start: she wasn’t really sick and they let her go home.)
She was recently married then and found herself suddenly separated from her new husband, my dad. She lost her job as a teacher for there was no tenure to protect her. She was literally cut off from everyone and everything she knew and loved.
To be sure, there are parts of this story which resonate with the one who was possessed by demons.Though she was not relegated to the “tombs” as he was? She was certainly put together with a lot of other people who were dying. And there was this. She will tell you that while the letters and gifts sent to her were abundant, she received very few visitors. People were afraid.
And this. When she did get out and was able to return home, she felt as though she carried a stigma. When an area school principal called her up and offered her a job (apparently there was a shortage of teachers back then), she replied, “Do you know about me?” In other words, do you know I am tainted, less than I will ever be again? And he replied, “I do. My son had TB.” This was surely an unexpected moment of grace in a difficult time. And yet, while her life mostly picked up where she had left off months before, she would never be quite the same again. Indeed, ever since she has carried an understanding of and sensitivity to certain experiences in the world which she knew nothing of before that time.
So back to the story about the pig. During those months when she was at the TB San, partway through she got a week-end’s leave to attend her niece’s wedding. She and my dad were out at her parent’s home — a house which sat on an acre of land in the country. While her folks they were not farmers, a family member had acquired a pig and had given it to them. That weekend, it was suggested that Mother should go out and see the pig and so she did. Well, she will tell you that she took one look at that pig and was struck by its lonesomeness. And she started to cry. No doubt, at some level she saw something of herself in that farm animal. For pigs are, in fact, every bit as communal as you and I. No doubt it was lonely! And ever since? It has been a story which has become emblematic of her sense of isolation when she spent those months away from loved ones treating a disease she hardly had. Oh yes, while we smile at it today, when I was a little girl, it would bring tears to my eyes as well to hear her tell this.
And so as I sat with our Gospel story and then as this part of our family story came to mind this week, I found myself thinking about pigs. Indeed, as I was looking into ‘pigs’ in these last days, I found these words from Winston Churchhill:
“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
Apparently this is found in his autobiography, reflecting a conversation he had with a grandson on their farm.
So it is that along with Churchhill, there are many who would say that among mammals which are not human, pigs do come pretty close:
- Did you know, for instance, that the average pig has the intelligence of a three year old child?
- That the pig’s best mode of defense is to run and that it can run at the pace of 7 mph?
- And this, of course, that the pig’s heart is so close to a human heart, that some of the parts are interchangeable? In fact, often people will opt for a pigs’ valves over artificial ones when replacements are needed!
(For more interesting information about pigs click here: Pig Facts)
No, pigs are not human. And no, they do not compare to Jesus and the sacrifice he made on the cross in behalf of the whole world. Even so, it it too much of a stretch to think about that herd of swine which gave their lives (not to mention the swineherds and their families who must have undergone unimaginable economic hardship for some time to come) as somehow a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do that we might have the chance at freedom and peace and life itself?
Indeed, I think back to that somewhat silly story which has a cherished place in our family’s larger story and I remember that it was a pig which somehow enabled my mother to grieve all that she had lost.
- Most of the scholars do not focus on the herd of swine in this story. Coming at it from a different time and place, I always start there. Might this be an example of a time when the Gospel speaks in new ways? Why or why not?
- Certainly what we would understand as mental illness takes center stage in this story. If you want to see my thinking about this story from this angle a few years ago, click here.
- If you had to encapsulate the ‘good news’ of this story in a sentence or two what would you say? Why do you think this story has been saved and passed down?