An Expensive Gift

I’m sitting in the teacher’s chair in front of a handful of students at a local church’s classroom. I’m teaching how to craft Bible stories, and right now we’re working on the story of the Demon Possessed Man from Mark 5. But the roles have been reversed. The teacher has become the student.

If you’re not familiar, Mark 5 tells the story of a wild man, possessed by an army of spirits, living among the dead with self-destructive behavior that means he’ll have his own grave soon. His family tried to stop him, but he can’t, won’t be stopped. Then Jesus shows up and the spirits start groveling before the all-powerful. Long-story short, The demons are exorcised and the guy gets his life back.

When we teaching a Bible story, we tell the story several times and then ask a series of questions to get people talking and thinking. I have already asked the question, “Was there anything you didn’t understand about the story?” No one responds. “Was there anything unclear in the story?” Still nothing. The terror of looking stupid is global problem.

So, I opened my mouth to get us talking. “Many times I’ve told this story, people struggle with why Jesus allows 2,000 pigs to die and the village to suffer such a financial loss. I don’t know about you all, but I don’t really understand this . . .” Short-story long, the army of dead afflicting this guy need a new home. They ask to possess the herd of nearby pigs. Jesus consents. Chaos ensues. The fallout is so bad that, once news gets out, the entire village shows up and ask Jesus to kick rocks; the implication being that Jesus may be bad for their health and bad for business, no matter who he saved.

The students were honestly dumbstruck that I was asking the question. I’m no stranger to playing devil’s advocate, so I insisted this really was unclear. The look on their face was the look of people accustomed to incompetence. If translated, I think the verbalized look would be , “Sheesh! Another one?” They instructed me this was the whole point of the story, that Jesus would rather 2,000 pigs die than this man—this man’s life is that valuable to Jesus.

Now it was this dummy that was struck. From my perspective, the 2,000 pigs are completely arbitrary. But my students-turned-instructors were right. Our salvation comes at a cost. The danger is we (Westerners at least) abstract salvation to the point we often think of it as a muttered prayer or a couple of lifehacks that cost us nothing. Untrue. Evil, true, unfettered malevolence, does not go quietly. These spirits were not going away until they completed their chaos with killing. Evil’s lust for destruction cannot be satiated without a ransom: something on which to pour out their violence.

C. S. Lewis famously illustrated this “ransom theory” when Aslan, the great lion, is killed by the White Witch. Aslan’s at the hands of his enemy breaks the long winter spell. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who ended up paying the ultimate cost for resisting evil, also taught that grace is not cheap: it is a costly discipleship. My
Malagasy students understand this. And Jesus considers the economic tragedy of 2,000 dead pigs a cost worthy of a man’s life. A person past the point of no return, no less. Yet, the true tragedy is that most of us, like the townspeople in the story, if we’re really honest, think it’s too high a price to pay for anyone’s life.

I thanked the students for reminding me of this. Salvation is a gift, but it is not cheap or free.