“‘What is your name?’ he asked him. ‘My name is Legion,’ he answered him, ‘because we are many.’ And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the region. A large herd of pigs was there, feeding on the hillside. The demons begged him, ‘Send us to the pigs, so that we may enter them.’ So he gave them permission, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs. The herd of about two thousand rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned there.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is the value of a human life? That’s a big question to ponder, especially if you’re reading this mid-morning when it hits your email inbox. But let’s get the juices flowing early today. What is the value of a human life? With what shall we compare it? Is a human life roughly comparable to the life of another creature? Is it worth more or less than riches or fame or convenience? Can we trade stock in lives? Are some worth more than others such that sacrificing one for many is a worthwhile exchange? This snapshot from Mark’s story about Jesus’ first visit to this region of Galilee seems like it’s about the shocking destruction of a huge herd of pigs. But it’s not. It’s a reminder–along with this entire tale–of just how valuable each human life is. Let’s look together at why and how.
This story offends the sensibilities of modern, Western readers. I won’t speak for the non-Western world, although I suspect the things that may bother folks from the majority world in this story are probably not the same as the ones that bother Westerners. In any event, this story is offensive. Or, at least, it seems like it should be. It starts and ends strong, but this middle section is just trouble. I mean, it’s great and all that Jesus heals this demon-possessed man, but why the wanton destruction of this poor herd of pigs. Not only were these innocent animals slaughtered, but this was a staggering loss of property and the accompanying wealth it represented. Imagine being one of the families who owned some of these pigs. Imagine being the men into whose care they had been entrusted. This may have represented a profound economic devastation to this region. It’s no wonder when they arrived they begged Jesus to leave. They probably threatened Him if He didn’t go. How could Jesus be so callous to the lives and livelihoods of these people. He really was a bit of an arrogant racist like other Jews were then toward Gentiles. Why should we follow someone like this who claims to be God?
Have I just about covered everything? And yet, I’d be willing to bet that if you’ve given this story much attention before, more than one of those thoughts swirled around in your head as you puzzled over what to do with it. If you’re someone who is committed to the Scriptures and your faith in Christ, the likely outcome was that you just kind of glossed over this part and skipped ahead to the easier-to-love story about Jesus and the bleeding woman in the next section.
So, how is this story supposed to be something we appreciate? I’ll answer that in two parts. The first will offer some necessary background to reframe what happened here through the eyes of the people who experienced it in the first century. The second part will offer a reminder of what really matters most to Jesus and why we should be exceedingly grateful for that.
For readers in the first century, especially Jewish ones, this was the best part of the story. When the storyteller reached the part about the pigs drowning in the Sea, a little cheer would have gone up from the crowd. It would have been like watching your underdog basketball team take down the heavily favored opposing squad.
First century Jews hated pigs. Their hatred was partially religious. Having been commanded under pain of expulsion from their community to not eat something for 2,500 years will tend to leave one fairly strongly opposed to it. But that wasn’t the only reason. For first century Jews, pork represented the vileness of paganism and of intense persecution. When Rome conquered Palestine, their attempts to break the spirit of the Jewish people to get them to fall in line with the rest of the empire included publicly torturing prominent citizens to death with the promise that if they would just eat some pork rinds the pain would stop. Many Jews died for courageously sticking by their refusal. For the Jewish people pigs represented everything wrong with the world.
Today, our concerns have shifted a bit. We’re concerned about private property and personal economic turmoil. We’re concerned about innocent animals almost and in some ways more than we’re concerned about innocent humans. If you don’t believe me, consider the public uproar that would ensue if an animal shelter announced their plans to begin putting to death animals with any kind of physical malformity. You would have a list of celebrities 100-miles long signing up to condemn them. P.E.T.A. would probably put out a hit on the shelter’s owners. It would be a national conversation for weeks until the shelter finally caved to the pressure campaign. Then, the owners would be tossed out and replaced by new owners who pledged to be absolutely non-euthanizing. Now, consider that in light of the fact that mothers told their unborn child may have Downs syndrome choose abortion about 95% of the time. I’m just saying…
In any event, in the first century, this part of the story wouldn’t have bothered anyone. Additionally, the blame for the destruction of the pigs doesn’t lie with Jesus. Jesus merely allowed the demons to inhabit the pigs–something that, again, would have seemed entirely appropriate to first century readers. What the demons did with their new hosts was on them, not Jesus. Perhaps Jesus knew this was a possibility, but that doesn’t make it His fault. Besides, for Jesus, people were more valuable than animals.
This leads us to the second part. Human life is immensely valuable. What we see in this story is just how much value Jesus placed upon human life. Every human life. By every contemporary account, Jesus should have left this man alone. He was an outcast in every sense. He had been isolated from his friends and family. He was locked out of his community. They had given up on him and sent him to live in the tombs probably hoping that he would go in one and die there. His life and value were forfeited as far as everyone who had ever been in his life was concerned. Except for Jesus.
Jesus saw this man and in spite of everything wrong with him–and there was a lot wrong with him–loved him. He loved him enough to engage with him as a person. He was not once disrespectful or ugly. And then He healed him. Completely. For Jesus, this man was worth it. He was worth more than a whole herd of pigs. He was worth the social shame Jesus might accrue because of His engagement with him. This man was worth it. His life was worth it.
The real question for us is not whether we value animals sufficiently that we are bothered by the pigs. In fact, if the destruction of the pigs is the thing that stands out to you the most here, you’ve missed the real heart of the story. The real question is whether we value people sufficiently that we understand that protecting of life at every point is worth more than anything else in the world. Life is precious. It is a precious gift and we are to follow Jesus in honoring and protecting that gift every chance we get. Everything we do should be aimed in the direction of honoring and ennobling the lives of the people around us. All of them.
We still have our outcasts today. We have people we don’t really believe are worthy of honor or respect. If we are going to live up to our claim to be followers of Jesus, though, we can’t walk that path. Every single life matters. Eternally. We are to receive every single one of them exactly as they are with the loving embrace of Christ and only then begin moving them in His direction. Nothing less than that will do.