Following along in Matthew’s gospel, we recall the previous narrative was about the calming of the storm that beset the apostles while they and Jesus were crossing the lake. They arrive at their destination, a place known as the Gadarenes – among the Decapolis – 10 gentile cities on that side of the lake. Here Jesus was met by two people possessed by demons who completely controlled the two people. While people are often blind to the true identity of Jesus, the demons clearly have an insight into Jesus’ identity. “What have you to do with us, Son of God” – not Jesus’ usual self-reference as Son of Man. “Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?”
There was a belief that demons would be free to roam the earth until the Judgment Day came. They did this by taking possession of people. This possession was often associated with disease, because disease was thought to be the consequence of sin and a sign of being in Satan’s power. You may have noticed that most often when Jesus expels a demon there is also a healing that takes place. This dual power is a sign that the Kingdom of God has begun. The demons thought they had until the end of time and space – the demons recognized that things were not as they expected.
The result of the exorcism was that those who herded the pigs observed their watery demise and spread the news to the people of the nearby town. Miracle and healing aside, what strikes me as odd is the people’s reaction. “…when they saw [Jesus] they begged him to leave their district.” And their problem is what……?
One possibility is that since this all takes place on the other side of the lake, i.e., Gentile territory, for them he is not a messianic figure, but a wandering Jewish “holy man” whose activities have already caused a great deal of damage. In this region, populated by Gentiles, perhaps their livelihood depended upon the drowned pigs. If so, economics was more important to these people than the freeing of the demoniacs from Satan’s dominion. One commentator on this passage notes that “They preferred pigs to persons, swine to the Savior.” It is perhaps a way of saying their temporal concerns were primary above any spiritual concerns.
Both the demoniacs and the inhabitants of the town ask Jesus to leave them alone. His presence was too disconcerting for them, they preferred “things as they are” rather than have the balance of their lives upset by the power of Jesus’ presence.
The readings for today ask us whether we too find this contradiction in our hearts. Not only about the power of God in our lives, but perhaps we prefer the economics of the market place vs. the economy of salvation. We may not have asked Jesus to go away, but have we asked Him to stay?