When we look at Matthew 8:28-34 and try to glean insights, we can make a few mistakes.
We can read this passage a-historically, or outside of its history. We can forget the cultural, economic, and religious angles to the story. When we do this, we miss the inherent clues that give more nuance to the story and help us understand the characters better.
We can read this passage through a lens of observation. We can try to to analyze and objectify, and then to clinically and neatly come to specific conclusions. We forget that this story should be personalized. We sometimes don’t let the text transform us and our sense of the world.
We can miss the larger narrative at play here that Jesus is clearly speaking to. We can miss the themes that define Jesus’ story and his message of the kingdom of heaven throughout Matthew. We can also miss the prophetic theater hinted at in this transformative act of exorcism and deliverance.
This passage sounds a lot like Luke 8 and Mark 5, where the story is preceded by Jesus calming the storm and then the miracles of the woman with the issue of blood and the daughter of the local ruler who had died.
In Matthew’s account, the context immediately preceding this story is also Jesus calming the storm. We see that he reveals himself to be the Lord over all nature. Essentially we see his power and authority over creation itself. And after this story, Matthew writes of Jesus returning to his hometown Nazareth, where he heals a paralyzed man.
My job is not to argue the facts of the text, and wondering if it were two men or one man, if it’s the Gadarenes or Gerasenes or Gergesenes. Each gospel writer has a specific audience in mind, as well as different sources for first-hand account of the events that transpired.
I’m going to look at this story primarily from Matthew’s perspective, and then I’ll then add in details from the Luke and Mark’s telling so we can see the larger canvas.
Writing to a primarily Jewish audience, Matthew’s choice of language, key themes, and stories he chooses to highlight, harken back to the Jewish national story and the promise and fulfillment of Messiah in the person of Jesus.
In reading this passage, the focus must be on the larger message the Gospel writers are attempting to communicate. It’s important that as we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal how this larger message affects us and our cultural context.
When Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake, in the region of the Gadarenes, two men who were possessed by demons met him. They came out of the tombs and were so violent that no one could go through that area.Matthew 8:28 NLT
This region is the seat of Roman power and authority in Judea. There are ten cities (Decapolis) with its Hellenistic culture and Roman armies standing at the ready, to do the bidding of empire.
Matthew says that these two men were so violent that no one could go through that area. The Luke and Mark passages reveal that this area included burial caves (tombs) and that these men were also naked and homeless.
As Jesus and his disciples are getting off the boat, they are met by these two men.
They began screaming at him, “Why are you interfering with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before God’s appointed time?”Matthew 8:29 NLT
Right away these two men begin screaming at Jesus… They ask Jesus, why have you shown up now? Why here? Why now?
How often as westerners with our privilege, our access, our self-realization, our education, our bank accounts, our prejudices, our exceptionalism, our nationalism, our consumerism, and even our racism, do we ask Jesus the same question?
“Jesus… I know exactly who you are! Why have you shown up here? Why are you confronting these places in my life? Why are you making me uncomfortable? Why here? Why now?”
I’m reminded of a quote from the great John R. Lewis (the U.S. Representative from Alabama, who marched with MLK):
“You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble… You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, when you leave here, to go out and seek justice for all. You can do it. You must do it.”John R. Lewis
Good trouble… It’s as if the good trouble that Jesus is causing, is a necessary trouble.
We worship a Savior who wants to disrupt our idols, our whims and fancies for individuals, ideologies, and things. He hopes to decenter our self-centeredness… and demand good trouble in us, through us, and around us.
The Mark and Luke versions of this passage adds more color to the question of, “Jesus why have you come here?”
When Jesus asks, “What is your name?” they reply, “Legion.” The irony of the name isn’t lost on Jesus’ Jewish audience.
Because this part of Judea is the seat of Roman power, there is a literal standing army stationed here (a Legion), ready to keep the peace. This included crushing uprisings, crucifying revolutionaries, and helping ensure the ‘Pax Romana’ or peace of Rome.
The occupying forces have become both a real and present physical danger, and now have also become an internal and spiritual danger to these men.
Do we recognize the occupying forces at work in our context, that constantly seek to Romanize the kingdom of God at work in and around us? Is our way of living, has the way of Rome co-opted the way of Jesus?“
Are we occupied? Whether externally or internally, naturally or supernaturally, literally or figuratively, by the forces that dehumanize, oppress, and keep people bound?
Have we gotten so comfortable with the occupying forces, that the kingdom of heaven, the way of Jesus, is more foreign to us, than the way of Rome?
While America has a 400 year history that includes the slavery/oppression of African Americans and the systematic genocide/displacement of Native Americans, I was born in India, which has quite literally a 4,000 year history of caste ideology, subservience of the ‘lesser’, and religious and economic oppression.
And I’m not even kidding when I say that Hitler was inspired by how India was built on a caste hierarchy. I come from a place where the water my parents and relatives swam in, consistently looked down on the Dalits, or the ‘untouchables’.
Even amongst Christians who worshipped Jesus, there wasn’t a theological framework that broke them out from the occupying force of viewing parts of society as less-than. The 400 year history of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and others… well that’s nothing compared to the philosophical roots of the country I was born in.
As I’ve prayed, sorrowed and imagined a better America, I’ve also been confronting my own prejudice that’s been a part of my heritage, as one born in India. I’ve had to ask Jesus to remove the occupying forces that I and my culture have grown accustomed to.
That’s the work of liberation Jesus is doing in me…
There happened to be a large herd of pigs feeding in the distance. So the demons begged, “If you cast us out, send us into that herd of pigs.” “All right, go!” Jesus commanded them. So the demons came out of the men and entered the pigs, and the whole herd plunged down the steep hillside into the lake and drowned in the water.Matthew 8:30-32 NLT
As we continue onto the climax of this passage, it is entirely apparent that Jesus and his kingdom, have complete authority and autonomy.
But Jesus is still trying to make a point.
Pig herding was not something an upstanding Jewish person would partake in. Jewish people did not eat pork and did not raise pigs. Pig herding is a reference to those Jews who were willing to compromise their values in order to serve the occupying forces in the region.
A large herd of pigs on a nearby hillside was a reminder to the Jewish people, that there was revenue and profit to be had from subservience to the empire.
Mark’s telling of this account numbers the pigs to around 2,000, which is about the size of a Roman Legion.
Prophetic theater at it’s finest…
Jesus embodies the authority and rule of God’s reign. His kingdom is more powerful that occupying forces of Rome, and liberation from those occupying forces will at times include the subverting of the economies that serve those occupying forces.
Following Jesus and walking in the liberation of his kingdom, implies that we are no longer defined by the occupying forces.
Following Jesus and walking in the liberation of his kingdom, also encourages us to leave behind the economies and systems that support and entrench those occupying forces, be it in our hearts, minds, our words, our actions, our relationships, our homes, our cities, our land.
The herdsmen fled to the nearby town, telling everyone what happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the entire town came out to meet Jesus, but they begged him to go away and leave them alone.Matthew 8:33-34 NLT
The most telling part of Matthew’s account is the response of the townspeople. They come out of the city to meet Jesus, but don’t invite him back in.
The word used in the text, is sometimes used when referencing the meeting of an honored visitor outside the city. Effectively it meant that they know who Jesus is, and rightfully want to honor him for who he is. But they also want Jesus to leave, because he is disrupting the status quo of subservience to and profit-making off the occupying forces.
These townspeople feared Roman power more. They didn’t want Jesus to bring true and complete liberation, because it wasn’t in their best interest.
How often are we like these townspeople?
We can recognize the liberation of God’s kingdom… but stay unwilling to let Jesus do even more, because our livelihood, or revenue streams, or privilege depend on it. We benefit from being an accessory to, or an enabler of occupation.
What types of occupation have we condoned? Or gotten comfortable with? Or accepted as part of the norm? Are we ‘meeting Jesus outside the city’ or welcoming him in?
You might be wondering like me, “Jesus how do I encourage your true and complete liberation? How do I let you have a run of everything? How do I get out of the way, and join you in loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly?”
And in that, I am reminded of the larger themes in the story…
In this passage, we see that Jesus’ kingdom is more powerful than any occupying power, and yet his way of conquering or winning looks totally different.
In this story, Jesus liberates the occupying forces from these men.
And yet as we look forward in Jesus’ story, we see Jesus willingly giving himself to these occupying forces in death.
And not just to any kind of death, but the kind of death reserved for insurrectionists and revolutionaries.
Jesus shows us that we don’t conquer the occupying forces by using the tools developed and perfected by those occupying forces.
He calls us to be militant in our love, to be empathetic and passionate in our embrace of all. Liberation is for the widow, the orphan, and the prisoner. And it is also for the Roman Centurion, the Pharisee, the tax collector, and the prostitute. The way of Jesus isn’t about creating groups where we can other-ize and demonize, but to reveal that God’s kingdom is large and open.
In suffering and shame and crucifixion, Jesus shows us that he walked towards those occupying forces, with great love, great compassion, willingly, saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do…”
Jesus absorbed all the violence of the world on the cross, and subverted it with love, mercy, and an empty tomb. He transformed the Empire’s instrument of terror into a conduit of God’s love. He conquered sin and death, and occupation and oppression, not with hate or slander or anger or evil or violence, but in another way entirely.
In the person of Jesus, as sons and daughters of another kingdom, we must embody the liberation of Jesus… that breaks the oppressor’s power and is a salve to the vengefulness of the oppressed.
Jesus calls us to join him in this work of liberation… as sons and daughters of a different kind of kingdom. This is a work that begins first as we invite Jesus into the mess of our lives, where we let him disrupt our status quo and re-prioritize our motivations and aims.
It then calls us out to those uncomfortable places where we join him in kingdom work of redeeming and restoring. To be that essential salt in a tasteless, unimaginative world, and a bright light in those dark corners of oppression and hate.
As the great Christian minister and Civil Rights activist John M. Perkins writes:
“I am all for churches being a part of the nonviolent marches and protests that have happened in the wake of violent killings, but these protests happen only after a tragic event has taken place. I want the church to be what prevents these acts from ever happening. I want the church to be the community that is so dedicated to loving our neighbors, to caring for the poor and neglected, and to living out true reconciliation that these killings do not even take place.”John M. Perkins, from his book “Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win”
And that reminds me of the warning God gave to the children of Israel through the prophet Amos. What he proclaimed, may very well be for us today:
I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.Amos 5:21-24 The Message
May we follow Jesus in inviting people into true freedom, justice, and liberation. The kind that no earthly king, CEO, president, or emperor can give.
May we follow the ethic of God’s new creation, as sons and daughters that embrace all of life, with new creation imagination.
May we live as wanderers, liberated by and living for the King of all kings.
May we sorrow and imagine and love and persevere, as we let God’s kingdom break into all the earthly kingdoms we’re surrounded by.