This week’s Gospel reading is an uncomfortable one on two scores: firstly it deals with “demon possession”, a notion which is alien to our 21st Century sensibilities, at least in the West, and secondly because our increasing awareness of animal rights causes us to ask “What about the pigs?” However, St Luke’s initial audience would have had no such qualms. Their worldview could easily accommodate the idea that someone could be possessed by a legion of demons and it would be entirely fitting to them that these destructive and life draining entities should be disposed of via those most “unclean” of animals, pigs.
For them the primary message of the passage would be power of Jesus to save and heal, even in a Gentile community. But they may also have noted that despite Jesus revealing the extent of his power, the response to him is predominantly hostile. One might go so far as to say he was run out of town. St Luke attributes this to fear. Whether this fear was amplified by what happened to the pigs is unclear but being instrumental in the destruction of an entire village’s swine herd is unlikely to have endeared him to the community. The demoniac who is demoniac no longer, is a different story; overwhelmed by gratitude, and perhaps some fear of his own, he begs to be allowed stay with Jesus, but he is given a far harder mission, to return to his home, bearing witness to his antagonistic community of all that Jesus had done for him.
What we take from this passage will depend, as ever, on our point of view. There will be those who consider that the anthropocentrism of the passage and the fate of the pigs renders it irredeemable as a source for an ecologically sympathetic theology. Others will use it to suggest that a Biblically literate theology does privilege the needs of people over and above those of animals, particularly when people find themselves as isolated and enslaved as the Demoniac did. Those taking this line will wish to consider in which circumstances this privilege should be exercised and where its limits might be. Another approach would be to ask a different question. I would suggest that a contextual reading of the passage will cause us to contemplate what it means to challenge evil. The approval we would expect is not always forthcoming and even positive and necessary change can be met with suspicion and fear, particularly if it has economic implications. In advocating for our planet and encouraging attitudinal and behavioural change we can find ourselves identifying with the lone, brave voice of the former demoniac as he gives his uncomfortable testimony, more often that we might imagine.