When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Here is one of the more interesting stories in the Gospel. To our twenty-first century ears, it sounds odd, unusual, even a tad bizarre. A few notes on the context will help make several of the details less odd…and one a bit more.
First, while we may want to dismiss demon possession as a poor first-century misrepresentation of what we would diagnose as mental illness, it seems relatively clear that this is not what Matthew had in mind. Demons and the powers of evil are palpable in this story and demon-possession – that is, being utterly dominated by these powers – experienced as real. This may not be our experience, but it was the experience of Matthew’s community.
Second, why pigs? Given their status as unclean animals in Jewish culture, the herd of swine was a perfect place to send the demons. Few of Matthew’s original audience would have felt any sense of loss that this herd had been used and ultimately lost in this way.
Third, this cavalier attitude isn’t, naturally, demonstrated by the swineherd, who was responsible for these pigs, or likely the owners, who had no problem owning, eating or, most importantly, selling pigs that were now dead. This is why the townspeople want Jesus to leave – he’s a trouble-maker, disrupting the social order and messing with their commerce.
With these factors in mind, it’s easier to read this story as one more element in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as the bearer of God’s own presence (named Emmanuel in the earliest chapters) who crossed boundaries in order to free people from the bondage of sin and the power of evil, even if it means disrupting the order, creating a commotion, and being impelled to leave.
The detail that grabs my attention, however, is that of all the characters in the story, it’s only the demons who recognize Jesus for who he is. They immediately confess his identity – an identity that has proven elusive for even for his own disciples to grasp – and bow before his power. What is it, I wonder, that prompts good people like these townsfolk – or like us – to miss the identity of Jesus and the power of his grace in our lives even when it is evident to his opponents?
Prayer: Dear God, grant us vision to recognize when you enter our lives and the grace and courage to follow you when you call. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post image from The Brick Testament.