When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. 33The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood. And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.
So, usually when reading the Bible we like to put someone in the hero and someone in the villain role. Things are much simpler that way. I’m sure this comes from our literary tradition. This is probably not a good way to read the Bible. The Hebrew and Jewish writers wrote many (if not mostly) ambiguous characters… at times even Jesus falls into this gray area. This story is one such example.
Certainly this story places Jesus in authority over the demons and nature as he drives out spirits and sends them into a herd of swine. Yet, in this version of the story we don’t know how the demoniacs feel about their healing. It is clear how the locals feel about it however. This is not a Jewish town. These are Gentiles. The herd of swine was likely a source of sustenance and possibly income for at least one person and perhaps a larger component of the local economy. Jesus’ miracle has destroyed the lives of people in this village and they are driving him out of town.
What does this mean? Is it just that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet? Certainly our best intentions bring about less than perfect results. Niebuhr reminds us that there is a dark side to all of our good deeds. But Jesus? Really?
I say yes. Jesus’ actions while never motivated by self interest probably had secondary and/or unintended consequences that may have been misunderstood or even harmful in some way. I first considered this possibility while listening to Anee Rice’s latest book The Road to Cana.
What does that mean for us and our best efforts? It seems like a good time to give up if even Jesus might have unintentionally hurt people. On the flipside I think it simply forces us to recognize the limits of our own efforts within the boundaries of human community. This is part of the mess we live in and even Jesus had to live and work with that reality.
There are many who will decry the unintended consequences of the slow food or locavore movement. They will question the outcomes and eventually in doing so will throw the baby out with their industrial bath water. Despite the ever present shortcomings, we should press on toward a more sustainable future. It seems to me that is precisely what Jesus was doing.