Monday, October 5, 2009

What have you to do with us, Son of God?

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 neighbourhood.

- Matthew 8:28-34

This story appears in the gospel of Mark and Luke as well. It is the story in which the crazy man among the tombs, possessed by demons, states, "My name is Legion." I have twice written commentary on this story as it appeared in Mark's gospel (see the two links previously noted). In this version in Matthew, the phrase "My name is Legion" does not appear. But instead of one demon-possessed man, there are two. This gives us once again to note multiple demons in the story.

Again, as in the other versions, this story takes place in the country of the Gergesenes (or Gadarenes). This, obviously, is Gentile country. In Mark's gospel, we continually see the contrast as Jesus goes from one side of the Lake to the other, on one side Gentile territory and on the other Jewish. These men raise swine, considered unclean by Jewish law, and so are obviously Gentile.

Similarly to the other stories, these demoniacs are possessed with violent mental illness. They are unable to live among normal society, so they have been separated from their community. They are relegated to living among the tombs. This is powerful symbolism for their "death" - as a metaphor for what it means to live without "life in abundance," they are without community. Even their families cannot live with them, and they are counted as being "among the dead." Not only are they without relationship in a positive sense, but they are also violent. The demons that possess them, the "illness" with which they are afflicted, causes them to behave in ways that damage any potential for contact with others, to destroy any chance of right-relatedness.

Just as in the other versions of the story, Jesus is recognized. The same words are spoken: ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God?' In this version of Matthew's gospel, something else is added. The demoniacs also ask: 'Have you come here to torment us before the time?' This indicates an understanding of Jesus' role as divine Son of Man, who will Judge at the end of the age. In the previous chapter Jesus refers to himself as "Son of Man;" here the demons recognize him and call him "Son of God." So, for Matthew's audience, a very important understanding is given: this Messianic figure of Jesus will not only be the One to Judge at the end of the age, but his very presence has power over evil. The demons have no power of their own in his presence. They indicate that they are tormented by him. The demons being cast into the herd of swine is an indication of healing; what is unclean has gone into that which was considered unclean. Their self-destructive violence then possesses the herd of swine, and the swine perish in the water - just as previously the demon-possessed men were forced to live among the dead in the tombs. The fact that the villagers persuade Jesus to leave, rather than welcoming him, is another mirroring of the failure to receive that which is healing, and by inference, cleansing.

So after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' active ministry takes shape in many acts of healing. Whether that be through the healing of physical, mental or spiritual illness, Jesus is healing. His words and teachings are healing. The demoniacs are restored to health, to right-relatedness. In the other versions in Luke and Mark, the healed demoniac proceeds to become the first evangelist. He is rejected by his own who cannot accept the power of the kingdom, but he proceeds into neighboring territory, praising God and giving thanks and telling others about Jesus. Here in this version we are left with a question: what is to happen to the healed demoniacs in this town where Jesus is asked to leave? We must presume that they, too, will no longer be welcome. We know that they will have a place with Jesus and his followers, in this kingdom that is among us.

Personal change - this turning about that constitutes any form of repentance, of metanoia - may leave us separate from our old ways of life and our old associations. In the great example we have of Jesus, and in the previous reading, he has said of himself, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ A sense of exile accompanies many figures throughout Scripture. We turn from participation and relatedness in one sense, to a participation in this life of the kingdom. It may lead us to places we hadn't previously considered. We exchange, in a sense, one kind of life for another. As we transform and shape ourselves in this light, our lives take on qualities and characteristics that change relatedness and our ways of relating. But our exchange of the familiar is for life in abundance. As with so many things we can look at today - such as a widespread problem of addiction, for example - healing may not be easy. We may need to live separately from that which is a bad influence on us or too much temptation to fall back into a destructive life. But we have help, and we have this presence with us. We don't have to wait for a future time to heal, for things to be "made right." We have a choice to accept that which will "cleanse" us, restore us in whatever sense we may need that, and to participate in that life of the kingdom. It may sometimes feel like exile, or take on characteristics of rejection. But the joy in that particular relationship sustains us and makes the journey from the familiar worthwhile. That joy is one of the signs of "life in abundance," as well as its peace we experience that can be "beyond understanding."

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