Today’s passage is an unsettling one, especially to our modern sensibilities. First, we rarely talk in the West about spiritual beings like demons – although in much of the world such things are still treated as a part of life. Second, we find the idea of the drowning pigs abhorrent. What are we to make of it?
Two bits of context are important – they might not explain everything, but they help to set a backdrop for what’s going on here. First, the ancient world did not have the same emotional attachment to animals as we do. Farm animals were treated well (because they were incredibly valuable commodities), but were there for human usage and sustenance. The loss of these pigs was a financial disaster and a spiritual judgement, but not an emotional trauma at that time.
Second, the keeping of pigs was forbidden to Jews. Pigs were an ‘unclean’ animal, so the fact that these farmers were keeping a large herd of them was a sign of the poor state of their spiritual health. This part of Israel had been colonised around 700-500BC by other peoples who had mixed their religious practices with the Jewish inhabitants, leading to a hybrid form of religious observance which broke many of the orthodox Jewish laws.
So, when Jesus gave permission for the demons to enter the pigs, he was cleansing the people of two unhealthy influences: spiritual beings and idolatrous practices. This is why the people were afraid rather than angry. They knew they were doing wrong, and Jesus had called them on it.
A wise commentator once said that Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable – and this is exactly what we see here. A tormented man is healed and restored. An apathetic population is challenged.
Jesus is many wonderful things: but he is never safe! Let’s continue to be amazed by Jesus. If we need to be challenged by him, let’s be brave to hear it. And if we are disturbed today, may his wonderful grace grant us deep comfort and rest.