While Mark’s gospel is often noted for being in a hurry with everything happening immediately, it is less often noted that his narrative slows down to a leisurely pace in the middle chapters. Consider, for instance, the story of the demoniac in chapter five. It’s a fairly long one, rich in detail, and not in a hurry to reach its conclusion.
Do you suppose Mark intended his readers to linger there for a while to ponder something? If so, what? We have a location: a non-Jewish region on the far side of Galilee, in a cemetery, with a herd of pigs feeding near by; a cast of characters: Jesus, a very strong maniac, the disciples, swineherds, and villagers. We also have a legion of unclean spirits who clearly knew exactly who Jesus was.
The maniac had been ill treated by the locals, but not without reason. On the one hand, he allowed himself to be chained up for their safety and his. On the other, in the rage of madness, he broke free of all restraints to roam the cemetery, howling at the moon like a B movie werwolf.
When called to account for themselves by Jesus, the unclean spirits, speaking as one, seemed to beg for mercy. What were Jesus’ options? I don’t know, but he did permit them to go elsewhere, into the pigs. It seems that unclean spirits going elsewhere are still unclean, bent on self destruction, even if that means the destruction of their hosts. I don’t want to get into a discussion about the nature of unclean spirits because it’s a rabbit hole from which there is no escape. But I do want to consider the cost of one man’s salvation.
The maniac, now healed, appears to have received more than his sanity. He received the same knowledge of who Jesus was that the spirits had, but with clear headed, sane understanding. Wisdom if you will. The herd of pigs, and the unclean spirits with them, drowned. That was a valuable herd. It represented somebody’s wealth, a considerable fortune, the source of his standing in the community, and now it was gone. The salvation of one dirty, screaming maniac at the cost of the considerable wealth of a hard working, responsible member of the community? What sense does that make?
Who cares about the maniac compared to the good standing of a person of wealth? Where is the equity in exchanging the lives of a valuable herd of pigs for the worthless life of a mad man? All it did was bankrupt a worthy farmer. So he’s sane, wise and knows God now: big deal! What’s that going to get him, and what good does it do us?
God’s calculus is strange indeed. It defies all the rules of logic and quantitative analysis. It’s fiscally and morally insupportable. More especially, it flies in the face of the self satisfied complacency of many who call themselves Christians. Now there is something to ponder in the middle of Lent.