The politics of swine

23 June 2019
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7C (RCL)

1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalm 42 & 43
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Poor Elijah; he’s had enough, enough to be ready to die. He’s just slaughter 400 of the prophets of Ba’al, and now Jezebel promises to make him just like one of them. He runs away into the wilderness (a smart move), and sits down under a broom dry and asks to die. One suspects that the author of the book of Jonah had read 1 Kings. Instead, he takes a nap, and an angel gives him bread and water (just as God gave the Israelites manna and water on their wilderness journey). This happens twice, and then he journeys to the mount of God.

When he arrives (in the same cave Moses hid in?), God asks him what he is doing there. He offers a self-defense: I’m fleeing for my life because of my zeal for you. God then passes him by, just as God passed Moses by – except not. For Moses, God was in the storm and fire and earthquake. Not so for Elijah – God is in the sound of sheer silence. Our author is telling us a profound shift in theology has taken place. For Moses, God promises victory, victory of Pharaoh and his armies, and victory over the inhabitants of the land Israel is to occupy.

After Elijah encounters God in the silence, God again asks him what he is doing there, and he gives the same self-defense. God charges him to return through the wilderness with a grim charge. Anoint Jehu in Israel, Hazael in Syria, and Elisha his successor. Between them, they will wipe out all of Israel except for a remnant of 7000. This is not the God of Israel’s victory anymore. Indeed, a profound shift in theology has taken place.

All of the prophets’ invective against ivory palaces and bowls of wine comes into play here. The monarchy was meant to protect the poor, and instead enriched itself. Naboth’s vineyard is the prime example of the corruption at the top. Elijah is sent with the message that the theology of the monarchy has been overthrown, and the only cure is to sweep away the upper classes. Yikes.

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is equally political. It is a complicated story, and leaves many loose ends unaddressed. How will the sane ex-demoniac be welcomed back to his village? What will the village do now for its economy, now that its cash-crop (if you can call swine a crop) is wiped out? No wonder they chased Jesus away.

Jesus has just crossed the stormy sea, and calmed it (demonstrating power over the sea, just as Moses had). In a chapter or two, he will feed a crowd in the wilderness (just as Moses had). This is the story of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army (Legion) in the Red Sea, in a herd of swine. Luke’s hearers would be snickering at the parallel. Again, we have an inversion of the official, political theology. Rome’s theology of its pious worship of the God’s being responsible for its military success is overturned in a herd of swine.

Both of these stories have sharp relevance for today. Even the Galatians reading challenges us. We live in an age that builds walls and barriers, and Paul is telling us that baptism tears down any barrier we can erect. This theology will be uncomfortable for us who enjoy the fruits of Empire. The humor is that Luke compares those fruit to swine, absolutely forbidden to Jews, and a central piece of Jewish identity from the Seleucids onward. Both of these stories (and the Galatians, too) are texts of resistance. What must we part with to be faithful?

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