15 – In the Pigpen
“So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country,
who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating;
and no one gave him anything.”
Work does look like a solution to his difficulties. His bank account reads zero. His friends have proven faithless. The higher flyer has crashed. But he is still alive! He goes out job hunting. Get the right job, he says to himself, and he’ll be back on his feet in no time. He’ll recoup the losses and the original nest egg will get reconstructed and then he’ll show everyone what he’s really made of.
But job prospects are slim. With the famine, the markets have collapsed. Small businesses have had to become family businesses until the crisis is over. Downsizing is taking place in every enterprise. If there are no crops, there is no money. If there is no money there are few spenders. If no one is buying, who needs artisans or vendors? The want ads disappear from the newspapers. He seeks and cannot find. He knocks and the doors don’t open. He asks, but receives rejection slips.
Meanwhile he is getting more hungry and more desperate. He decides to take whatever he can find, since beggars cannot be choosers. So “he hired himself out to a citizen of that country.” But that may not be the best translation of the idea in this passage. This reading of the text makes it seems like he is doing the citizen a favour in offering himself to his service. But the better translation is “he attached himself,” or “he joined himself” to this citizen. But to be more literal and closer to the original language, “he pinned himself” to a citizen of that country. The inference is that he insinuated himself and would not take “no” for an answer. He was desperate enough to make a public nuisance of himself until he was “given” a job.
But the question must be raised: Why did this citizen give him a job, and why this one?
- He could have been kind and compassionate, helping out a young man in dire need. Some might add him to the category of “the righteous Gentiles.”
- It has been suggested that a politically savvy person might want to get rid of an unwelcome hanger-on by offering him work that he knows he will refuse. And if he takes the job, the hope would be that when he quits the job, he would at the same time quit hanging around.
- The owner could have been a particularly insidious customer. It was obvious that the young man was Jewish. What job would be the worst of the worst if you wanted to be vindictive? Anti-Semitism is not of recent origins. It has long roots in the ancient east. He has a chance to add insult to injury by giving to this Son of the Covenant the least kosher task anyone could provide, feeding his pigs.
So a job is given to the young man, but it may have been that the cure was worse than the disease. He may not be dying of hunger now, but dignity and hope are dying in the young man. He knows that he has hit bottom.
That ancient Jewish audience knew the depths of that descent. For a son of Abraham to join himself to a Gentile and end up slopping his hogs, is to have moved beyond the pale. Any Jew, anywhere in the world, would have shuddered at the thought. “How are the mighty fallen” from palace to pig pen in such short order. They knew that for him to have even taken such a job, gave evidence that he had deserted his Jewish heritage and must have excommunicated himself.
The law was clear (Leviticus 11:7-8) “The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.”
But their recent history was even more clear and commanding. In the Maccabean revolution around 171-164 B.C. eating pork had become an issue that called for martyrdom. It was better to die than submit to eating, touching or tending swine. The two books of the Maccabees tells the story of the trigger events that caused a spark to hit the dynamite:
And the king (Antiochus Epiphanies IV) sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” (I Mac. 1: 44-50)
“Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to do who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life.” (II Mac. 6:18-20)
It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” (II Mac.7:1-2)
But in spite of knowing the law and the legends, he accepts the job, and makes the pigs his daily companions. How long he stayed with that task, none of us know. How long he had been away from home is also unknown to us. He could have gone through his wealth in weeks, months, or years. He probably didn’t stay with the pigs long.
The parable tells us, “No one gave him anything.” That could mean several things. It could mean that the owner cheated him, and paid him nothing. Free labour under false pretences! It could mean that he was not paid with money, only given shelter; room but no board! It could mean that he was given his wages. Even fools do not work long without some wages being received. But there is no doubt that he would have been paid a very low wage. He had just joined the class of the working poor, who are usually hired at minimum wage for maximum labour. But because it is a time of famine, the cost of food is now inflated, and wages are depressed lower than usual. His meager income purchased very little, leaving him hungry enough to want to join the pigs at the trough. No one gave him anything beyond his pitiful earnings, which were not sufficient to stop a slow descent into starvation. “Here I am dying of hunger” is his evaluation of his current state.
In that declining condition, the pig’s dinner looked awfully inviting. The pigs were munching on pods that were produced by the Carob tree. These were the seedpods of the tree that though containing indigestible seeds also contained a sweet fiber that could be used as low-cost animal feed. Though used primarily for animal fodder, in times of famine they could be eaten by the poor, since they were edible, however unpalatable, to humans.
The text seems to read “He would gladly have eaten.” Some think it should be read “He gladly fed himself…” We are not sure if he succumbed to the temptation, or whether his desire alone was a wake up call. Some commentators think he stole the pods from the pigs and therefore became a thief in the bargain. But the law does say, “you shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.” It was part of humans decency in all cultures to allow the workers, animal or human, to nibble at the produce they were producing.
But it is in such a moment of hunger mixed with revulsion that he wakes up to the truth about himself.
The Law and the Prophets, as well as Jesus and the early church, all expressed a great concern for the poor. In recent decades Liberation Theologians[i] have been insisting that “God has a bias towards the poor” and that “orthopraxis” (right practice) is to be as important as “orthodoxy” (right belief) in the life of the church. They insist, along with the New Testament writer James, that “anyone then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” (James 4:17)
These theologians, whatever their excesses and misdemeanors are supposed to be, are nonetheless advocates for the poor among us. Sometimes their voices sound angry and accusatory, and their actions seem to be much too abrasive, but like the Psalms of Cursing, they are the voice of desperate people, victimized by those in power, who cannot be heard, unless another speaks for them.
It is difficult to be poor, it is even more difficult when faced with hunger. Hunger for food can drive a person to do things they would never do under normal circumstances. The story of Jean Val Jean, in Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables, is the story of the prolonged injustice perpetrated against a good man who stole a loaf of bread to feed his family in their extremity. It is easy to say, “better to die of hunger than do wrong”, but dying of hunger is slow work and hardly as heroic as martyrdom.
Humble poverty is one thing: crippling poverty a totally different thing. The Biblical story tells us that it is no shame to be poor, and because the poor cannot depend upon large bank accounts and powerful friends, they do tend to turn to God and to each other for mutual support. But when grinding poverty deprives a person of food and shelter and health care, despair is more often the result.
Practical and tangible compassion must be extended to all who hunger, for when we do not feed them, we make them more vulnerable to temptation, and when we then refuse to forgive them for deeds done out of desperation, we may be the cause of their further sin and despair. Our failure to feed the hungry in our midst and around the world may well be the unforgivable sin of the church, (Matthew 25:13-46)
Some have suggested that the famine was the work of God to force the young man to repentance. Such an understanding is simplistic if not evil. Do we mean to infer that an entire region of that country gets to suffer so God can bully one young man towards penitence? I think not! The text simply says, “a severe famine took place throughout that country….” That is not to say that God does not work in such circumstances. He does. But to make God the initiator of every human tragedy is to paint him diabolical, not divine. Instead God asks his church to intervene in every human tragedy to alleviate the suffering that “life” not “God” brings.
[i] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).