When pigs fly……That’s the last phrase in the sentence, “That will happen… when pigs fly!” It has come to mean, there is almost no chance that “it” will happen at all.
But, when I hear that phrase, “When pigs fly” I think of the Michael Sowa postcard. On it is pictured a forest and fern surrounded lake, shimmering with invitation on a hot summer day.
Jammed under rocks is a old wooden plank that is now used as a rough diving board. On the other end of the diving board, having just launched in full stretch, and fine form, is a big pig with a small grin of knowing delight.
That pig is captured in the delicious pose of full out abandon, unrepentant joy, and expectation of wondrous reveling in glory. (You know what that moment feels like. It is when you are at your best. You are fully trusting. You are giddy with God.)
“When pigs fly” – Anything can happen. Miracles are likely. There are no bothersome laws of physics or governments that bind us. Tables are turned. The first become last and the last become first, and those familiar words are what the Gospel is all about.
So now we find ourselves, with pigs, in the middle of today’s Gospel. The herd of swine have accepted the demons and are running head long down the steep bank. Even though Luke tells us they drowned, what does he really know in this crazy quilt of
a pieced together Gospel. I choose to see those flying pigs frozen in flat out abandon.
Let’s return for a moment to some of the scenes in Luke’s story.
As the commentators tell us, this Gospel appears to be patched together from bits and pieces of folklore, decades of commentary, Hebrew Scripture lenses, and superstition. If you have difficulty understanding or accepting it, you are in educated, good company.
For example, there is great controversy over just where is Gersasenes . After much speculation, the best scholars can come up with is that it might be on the East side of the Sea of Galilee.
Supposedly in that area many pagans lived. Pagan are supposed to have lived there because there were herds of swine. And only pagans would eat swine. However, Jewish commentator Amy Jill Levin, writes that after much archeological digging in that
area, no pigs bones have ever been found.
The quasi-fact that pagans lived in that area is important because the Gospel of Luke is supposed to be the Gospel to the Pagans or at least the Greek pagans. In the last lines of the Gospel, Jesus tells the demonically freed man to “return home and tell all how much God has done for him.”
It is assumed that Jesus was sending him off to evangelize to pagans who had never heard of God or Jesus. Yet this Gospel is written in several styles of Greek: one of which was formal, Greek that would speak to the most classically educated.
And another was business Greek used for commerce and dealing in goods and ideas from all over the then known world. More than likely, the “pagans” already knew of the Hebrew God and of the latest miracle worker in the region, and didn’t need some fanatic nobody to spread old news.
Even if they had never heard of this God or Jesus, It is hard to imagine how the healed man’s testimony would make much difference, or that he would even be allowed to speak in his homeland.
The people who actually witnessed his cure were frightened, not delighted by it. They wanted to get rid of the one who had been possessed by demons, and get rid of the one who performed the exorcism, Jesus. The Geraseses guy scares them with or without demons.
And what is casting demons into swine all about? John Craghan (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 30 no 4 Oct 1968, p 522-536) in his commentary on the Gerasene Demonic, lends his insight that “there is a popular folk tale or story of a Jewish Exorcist in a foreign country that was transferred to Jesus.”
Josephus, a Jewish historian, who lived and studied and wrote soon after the time of Jesus, tells the story of one of his contemporaries who wanted to prove to the crowds that he had to power to drive out demons, so he set up a basin of water a little way off and told the demons to knock it over on the way out of the person he was exorcising. That way, his audience had dramatic, visual proof that the demons had been ejected.
Then there is the Babylonian incantation that directly asks the demon “to make a pig’s flesh, it’s flesh and a pig’s heart it’s heart.” As proof that the demon has left the person and entered the pig, the pig falls over dead. It is speculated that many of these folkloric, possibly true, or absolutely doubtful stories were weaved together into Luke’s Gospel for today.
However, it is likely that somewhere in the country of the Gerasenes a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, when pigs fly event happened and for ages people were tripping all over themselves to spread the story and make sense of it.
You know how this is. Think of an event in childhood. Children are always discovering something new and trying to make meaning of it in their world.
I remember two sisters, neighbors and playmates of my sister and me. They had older brothers who were always creating eye-popping events to make sense of. One day the boys found a bag of cement in their basement and poured it into a downstairs toilet bowl, just to see what would happen.
I can remember their sisters excitedly gathering up my sister and me, running and babbling about a new and foreign substance called cement, then all of us standing over the toilet and speculating how that water hardened. How would we get it out.
Of course, just the proximity to the toilet made all of us have to go immediately. That episode gave a whole new meaning to clogged toilet. We passed on that tale, with our own embellishments, to many friends. You know how it goes.
Despite the disjoined, cut and pasted splicing of this Gospel, we can find our own meaning in it today. It often surprises me that when I am thinking about a Gospel and working on a sermon an event in my life will pop up that underlines the Gospel message for me.
In my work as a hospital chaplain, I pray with and for people in all areas of physical, emotional and spiritual pain. One of the areas we chaplains cover is the mental health unit. Of all the units in the hospital it is the one that chaplains enter with extra prayers under their belts.
It is more like a prison. There is a guard by the door. The “rooms” are cells. No decorations or furniture, only a bed. Chairs are locked in a hall closet that the guard must retrieve for us to sit and visit. It is bleak and sometimes when I am admitted through the guarded door, I think of Dante’s warning about hell, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
In that block of hospital rooms there is a cold feeling and cold temperature and; as part of the mix, the sense that this is an area where the “usual;” like the usual medications, the usual explanation, the usual conversation, the usual prayer doesn’t usually have effect or help.
As we try to assist those trapped in their psychiatric disease to find meaning and healing, we are stretched to find meaning for ourselves being there. It is a place that shreds a do-gooders ego.
I wonder if Jesus felt this way when he first met the Gerasene Demonic? I bet he did. He had to make some meaning of this man’s torment too. He had to ask, “What is your name.” In Biblical language and even today, if you can name something you can have some power over it. If you can name a disease you can order the correct tests, prescribe the right drug, offer the best chance for healing.
Often when a patient or staff member in the mental health unit asks for a chaplain, they are sending out a desperate plea to reach a person down in the tombs of their despair.
On this particular night, while the guard was unlocking the door, I thought of this Gospel and when pigs fly. The nurse pointed me to the room at the end of the hall. I came around the patients door and all of a sudden this tiny, bony, whirlwind of a body was in by arms, hugging me tightly. Something in her realized that something in me was safe. Immediately, something in me received that trust and pain and knew it was safe
For both of us, it was the absolutely correct thing to do. No words had to be spoken, just the spontaneous embrace of another human was enough to slow her whirling brain and bring us eye to eye, soul to soul.
Eventually she backed out of my arms and retreated to a corner of the room. I followed and stood beside her as she told the crazy quilt story of her life. It was filled with a legion of folklore, half-truths, childhood adventures, “what-ifs”, magical thinking, and painful, piercing personal history.
The story came out in jumbled lumps and tears. Eventually she crawled into bed, tired from ridding herself of some demons she carried. Drained from crying out poisons accumulated in her hellish life. She wasn’t cured but she was calmed. She could finally accept the vulnerable state of sleep, that she had fought off for 3 days.
As I walked out of her room, and back down the hall to the locked door, Luke’s Gospel loomed large. Too easily I could connect the dots. Had Jesus had once again sent the demons flying out of the Gerasene demonic and into the pig? That made me the pig! A soft, open eyed, open eared being, unattached to this particular demons history, just going about my business of wandering through the wilderness, when a whim of Jesus interrupted.
That whim, that experience, left me feeling, giddy. Something sacred had transpired between two people and I got to be one of those people. Something holy was riding along with me
A little piece of my heart was transformed, lightened. Jesus had entered that room with and through me. My patient recognized it and I recognized it after her hug.
In my role as pig, it wasn’t demons I took on. If they ever were there, they washed right through me. What stayed was the peace that passes understanding, and the healing of being understood that two humans find when they connect. What stayed was the feeling that I wanted to extend out to my fullest self in an exuberant stretch to tell the glory of God.
I left that hall of cells with a small grin of knowing delight, a pig in full out flight.