When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. And suddenly they cried out, saying, "What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?" Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. So the demons begged Him, saying, "If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine." And He said to them, "Go." So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water. Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region.
- Matthew 8:28-34
On Saturday, we read that when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side. Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead." Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him. And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep. Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" But He said to them, "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?" Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. So the men marveled, saying, "Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?"
When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. This story -- or a very similar one -- appears also in the other Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Luke). One big difference is that in Matthew's Gospel there are two demoniacs, and in the others there is only one. (There's also a difference in the location; here it is the country of the Gergesenes, elsewhere it is the country of the Gadarenes. Either way, many commentators note that both were names, respectively, of a little town and a city near one another in the Decapolis, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.) Of note is the fact that these demon-possessed men come out of the tombs. They are also exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. Jesus and the disciples have come to the "other side" of the Sea of Galilee. The Decapolis was a "mixed" territory, so-called as it was constituted by ten cities of Greco-Roman influence, containing both Gentile and Jews. So it's a kind of foreign territory, and this story reads like an epic in the ancient Greek tradition, with these two exceedingly fierce men who are so beyond civilized norms that they live among the tombs. The disciples were already terrified as they crossed the Sea in a ferocious storm, although among then are well-seasoned fishermen by profession. The strangeness of their situation as Jesus leads them to this place is only amplified by the story.
And suddenly they cried out, saying, "What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?" The demons know who Jesus is. This is yet another new "strange" element in the story, as the disciples are brought into this place, following Jesus' directions. We're given a clue about the spiritual reality that surrounds every biblical narrative. Jesus comes representing a Kingdom, that is not just of this world. His opponents are a part of a spiritual battle. These demons ask Him if He's come before the time of the Judgment. They are perplexed, says my study bible, that their power is being terminated before that time.
Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. So the demons begged Him, saying, "If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine." And He said to them, "Go." So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water. This frightening event increases in its dramatic and vivid images. We note the power of Christ over the demons; although their malice and destructive power is great, they still need permission from Christ to enter the swine. My study bible says that the immediate destruction of the herd shows that the men had been protected by God's care; otherwise, they would have perished under the demonic influence. It reinforces that swineherding was not lawful for the Jews, and shows the incomparable value of human beings, whose salvation is worth every sacrifice.
Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region. Some commentators believe that since these people keep swine, they are not Jews. But still others say that indeed, these are Jews who are apostate, raising swine unlawfully. And we see their rejection of Christ -- they are much more deeply concerned about their loss of swine than the restoration of the demoniacs to health and freedom from their oppression. All of it adds to the strangeness of the place and the experience for the disciples.
This is a story that is really a rarity and a mystery. Why this place? Why these men, so isolated from the world that they live among the tombs? Why has Jesus come here? In Mark and Luke's versions, there is a single man, and there is more to the story. He begs to come with Christ and the disciples, but Jesus tells him to go to his home, and tell all the things the Lord has done for him. So, why two demoniacs here? There are other occasions in which a story found in other Gospels involving one character is "doubled" in Matthew. Some speculate that Matthew's Gospel was written primarily for a Jewish audience, and this "doubling" is meant to show that Christ as Messiah is here for both Jew and Gentile. Some comment that it's not of real importance. But each version of this particular story has some basic elements that are far more important than any differences: Jesus has come to this extremely strange and forlorn place, and led His disciples here through a storm in which they were afraid for their lives. We're invited to ask why, due to the dramatic nature of this story. Has Jesus come here for these demoniacs? Well, on one level, we'd have to answer "yes" to that question. From the other stories, we know the healed man became a type of evangelist in the Decapolis. On another level, it's a story that teaches all of us about our Lord, and about discipleship. Nothing stops Jesus from coming to the most hopeless and afflicted and isolated. There is no obstacle that will stop the healing power of Jesus to change affliction, to restore, and to bring back those dead to life and community for their uncontrollable problem, or the destructive influence by which they are oppressed and rendered far from community or "civilized" life. This story teaches us that the same is true and expected of His disciples, wherever He leads then in true faith. There is no problem too tough for Christ, too strange, too outside the box. This is the message of this story. There is nothing so far outside of experience that Christ's essential healing power can't come into play and influence. We note carefully that there is a vested financial influence also at work here in this story, in the people who beg Jesus to leave because they're lost their swine. Brilliantly, we must also add that as one more obstacle that will not stop Christ from bringing His healing power -- on any level of what that means -- to those who love Him and need Him in faith. With all the vivid images in this story, we may be tempted to think that it's so strange it couldn't possibly apply to our lives or to situations with which we're familiar, but really we'd be wrong. All of it applies. When we think we're in a hopelessly strange situation, when we know of others who are somehow forlorn, when we wonder if anyone has been in so strange a mess as someone or something we've heard about, let us dwell on this story. It teaches us that there is no surrounding too strange, no situation too tough, no odds so great that Christ can't be there with us. No oppression is too harmful, nor material interest too strong. And He will command His disciples to follow.