Four of the senior men of Gadara hurried along the road toward the lake. It had been reported that a foreigner had driven a herd of swine into the lake and killed them all. The apprehension grew as they heard rumors that the farmer’s entire livelihood had been destroyed by magical powers. Worse still, those responsible had not left and there were at least a dozen of them.
The city fathers asked, “By what authority do you destroy another’s property?” “By a power that is greater than you can comprehend.” Well there is an all-purpose conversation stopper. So the elders tried again: “For what end have you ruined a humble swineherd, whom we have known to be a God-fearing and honest man for his entire life?” The stranger answered, “I have done this to prove the power of the authority I represent. You needed to be reminded that all men are insignificant despite their best intentions or actions. The power is not a respecter of persons and can punish anyone without reason other than as a test or for the opportunity it gives to live a better life.”
This was a crushing claim and it required several minutes of reflection to absorb. Finally, one of the Gadarenes spoke out optimistically because he thought he had found a chink in the stranger’s argument. “I know,” he said, “that on your side of the lake is it no sorrow that a herd of pigs has been destroyed. In fact, it may be counted righteous to destroy that which is forbidden. But those are not our ways. You have taken from a man everything he had. Is it just to bring the laws of your land into ours, especially seeing that we are causing no harm to you?” One of the gang of twelve stepped forward. “That is easily answered. Where there is a difference of interpretation as to what is ultimately right, the one with the flawed understanding must give way to the one with true knowledge. If you are incapable of distinguishing between a false prophet and a true one then you have condemned yourself to suffer the evil of your own ways.”
Another of the twelve added, “You may have overlooked the fact that a sick fool was cured here. Even if you discount the magnificence of this act, you cannot ignore the good that was done, especially to one of the least worthy of men.” That too was a stumper to the wise men of Gadara, and there was an embarrassing silence before venturing even a tentative answer. “Certainly, we are grateful for the good shown to us. If the power who authored this miracle could, we would welcome such mercies every day for each of us. Ultimate power should not place limits on compassion and love.”
The stranger answered. “It is unwise to use a human standard to determine what is good and what is not good. That right is higher than man and only a few of the worthy are permitted to glimpse it. Beware of thinking that you understand; you may be fooled.” One of Gadarenes seemed to have missed the point here because he responded, “We do not presume to seek ultimate truth; we only call those acts we believe will make us better ‘good’ and we call ‘bad’ those things that make us worse as people or as a community.”
The accomplices were upset at this and all began talking at the same time.
Blasphemy. How can You are damned for not Don’t you see your If you are so ignorant of
you presume to have doing God’s will, regard- confusion here? You the right, ask someone
a personal standard less of whether you either know and do who knows.
for right or wrong? understand it. the right or you do not.
The stranger raised his hand to quiet the clamber. “This is a deep question, and it is fitting that our hosts inquire about the end of knowledge. Listen, and I will explain. It is appropriate for now that men such as these guide their actions by the best lights they have. That is useful for bringing love among neighbors. But it must also be understood that no man understands the ultimate truth and that no man lives until the end of time. What is good in your eyes today may turn out to be evil in the world to come. The set of books that guide behavior on earth is not the same set of books that will be read at the end. For example, this swineherd may grieve today, but be rewarded beyond comprehension at a time when none of you will be able to see this. Submit to this now and I can offer you a guarantee to be redeemed later.”
The former owner of the pigs just shook his head when he heard this. He muttered something about “What if this guy is wrong – then I will have an everlasting disappointment and no one will know that he was mistaken in the first place?” He kicked the dirt and continued, “Seems like I should at least have been given a choice in the matter.”
“You have given us some hard sayings indeed,” said another of the Gadarenes to the visitors. “Does the power we cannot understand apply to evil as well as good? We rejoice at the healing of our sick friend, but we weep because another lost so much. Surely there is something not quite right in saying that a worthy power is the author of both good and evil.”
More grumbling among the twelve. “Look, you weren’t here so you did not see what really happened. Our master simply transferred the evil from one place to another – no new evil. And what is more, he did so at the request of the evil itself. Now before you jump to any false conclusions about this meaning that our master is in cahoots with the Devil or that our master does evil, hear this explanation. First, you have no true understanding of what is good or evil, so hold your opinions about who should suffer and who should flourish. Second, the master only does good; he permits evil, but does not actually do anything evil himself. The world, including those who think they know better, is inherently evil through and through. How did the fool become sick? Would not all of the pigs have died anyway? You see, ‘evil’ is just a name you apply to those things you find personally inconvenient.”
The Gadarenes withdrew to decide what they should do. The hard blow was the accusation that good and evil are something beyond the measures they had always used to guide the way to treat each other. And worse still, the “something beyond” was forever out of reach. Perhaps that is how it is on the other side of the lake – let it be. It was agreed all around that they were presented with a closed book: the sick had been healed, the hogs were gone. Evidently the stranger had the power to make such things happen at will and the tribe seemed to have completely satisfied itself that its position was clear to all who could see it. Besides, there were twelve of them. Better to acknowledge the facts on the ground and negotiate.
“We, the men of Gadara, acknowledge the amazing feats you have accomplished and humbly admit that we cannot understand them. It may be as you say that those who take your word for it will both inherit eternity and live today a full life in the belief of a better one to come. We embrace the belief but not the promise. We will accompany you to your boats and wish you a prosperous voyage to the other side. In the meantime, as we have no alternative in the face of the awful power you possess, we will forgive you and turn the other cheek regarding the hogs. And you can quote us on that one.