I just love this story. Sadly, today’s reading, Matthew 8: 28-34, is the shortest of the three narratives found in all the Synoptic gospels. You might want to read Mark 5: 1-20 and Luke 8: 25-36. Mark is the longest and most detailed, and Luke apparently used Mark as the source. I leave that to the scholars. The basic story in Matthew is simple. Jesus pulls up in a boat, having just calmed the waves, and is met by two demoniacs so wild that they can’t be chained or controlled. The legion of demons recognize Jesus, as they do, and beg Jesus to leave them alone, but Jesus banishes them into a herd of pigs (so not a Jewish town), and the pigs rush down a cliff to a stream and drown. The swineherds rush to the village and the villagers rush in, begging Jesus to leave. And back in the boat goes Jesus and returns to his own land. This is not a healing. This is about men, or a man in Mark and Luke, in the tombs, the place of evil and demons. The home of Satan, of death which Jesus Crucified will overturn. And the demons beg Jesus not to torture them before the End Time but to place them into animals unclean according to Jewish Law. And they are drowned. In the waters of baptism, their evil neutralized in the Water of Life? It is here that Mark and Luke depart from Matthew. In Mark and Luke the demoniac begs to go with Jesus, but Jesus orders him to return home and spread the story of what happened. In other words, this Gentile is sent to spread the Gospel. He is a new disciple, and he wants to be with Jesus. But Jesus sends him away on his own mission for his new Master. And that feels very much like things that happen in our own lives, when living out the will of God means going somewhere that we didn’t plan on and really don’t want to, but your vocation demands that you do in loving obedience. Jesus knows that spreading his mission is more important than comforting and teaching another faithful disciple. Discipleship is sometimes not only hard, but very disturbing.
I like demons, well, not the demons themselves but the notion of demons. How much more descriptive of our spiritual state than the ever-changing language of the social sciences. And isn’t the state of the soul, the salvation of a person and those who care for him or her, what really counts. Jesus drives out demons, and we can pontificate on how those poor benighted ancients knew so little, and there is some truth in that. But even then, people knew that a child that had been a hard delivery or had been in a serious accident was going to exhibit some permanent damage. Ignoring the gossips who would blame someone for their lack of devotion, people can be pretty smart. After Johnny fell off the barn he was never right in the head. That sort of thing. But Jesus came to bring the Kingdom, and pacifists that we are, we attribute pacifism to the Son of God, although even a quick glance through the Jewish Testament should suggest that warfare was part of life and part of the Holy One’s interaction with his people. And Jesus’ warfare was with Satan and the forces of evil that torment our broken human selves. Except for the scene he made at the outer court of the Temple, overturning tables and all, he didn’t advocate violence, so much so that the impatient mob chose the rebel leader Barabbas over him for release. But we cannot say that Jesus wasn’t at war with a lot of things. In dialogue and parable he challenged and overturned the traditional assumptions of the Temple elite. He scoffed at their outward piety and he scorned their neglect of the needy. And the list goes on, but I trust we can all fill it out. The narratives with the demoniacs was spiritual warfare, not an act of pity. Again, this is not a healing.
What I found curious was that in both Mark and Luke at the conclusion of this exorcism the man was in his right mind, dressed and sitting at the feet of Jesus as a new disciple. He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus sends him on a mission to spread the Gospel. And can we picture that in Decapolis, a man with a scandalous reputation standing in the center of a major commercial town, predominantly Gentile but with a large Jewish population, proclaiming some very strange message about the Kingdom of a Jewish God. He still sounds pretty crazy. The Holy Spirit takes us from where we are, and yet as she turns us and transforms us, she uses the material we brought to the table. So, like St. Paul, the demoniac once possessed by evil is now possessed by the Spirit of God. Yes, we may embrace being clean and clothed, but in our right minds? What we believe and what we preach, what in our hearts we know to be True, the Word made flesh but still God, one who dies and rises from dead, is nuts. There is no other way to say it. And we, too, are mocked in this post-modern world, the world of nones, of no religion. Are we so afraid of the madness of God’s overwhelming presence that we hide behind convention?
Was Jesus at war with nice clean middle-class behavior? Wasn’t that what his mother and brothers wanted for him when they came to take him home before he made a bigger fool of himself, or worse, got himself arrested? And what did Jesus say? No, you are not my mother and brothers and sisters. My family are these fanatics so in love with my Father and his Word that they will impoverish themselves and rush into the arms of death (Matthew 12:46–50; Luke 8:19–21). And I get it. I try to live by it. In fact, every time I have run away from him, he pursued me, grabbed me by the scruff, or rather by the heart, and dragged me back. So strong is that bond forged in baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, and the will of God to claim us.
We are a Church in crisis, and I fear we have become the Temple. I do not doubt that in the end our Triune God will prevail, but the God of the Jewish Testament wasn’t always so gentle with those who worshiped idols, and we have made safety an idol which dulls our senses and makes us blind and deaf to God’s presence. I think we need to look at the demoniac whom Jesus freed only to send him out on a difficult, lonely, and quite insane mission, one which any nice mother and brothers and sisters would say is crazy and doomed to failure or worse. Let’s do what Jesus does so often. Turn the story on its head. Is the demoniac a hero, or even a saint? Have we systematically driven out of our seminaries, priesthood, and pews those with an insatiable passion for God and his Christ, who hear the voice of the Spirit, have visions? Who are tempted by demons, protected only by the Holy Spirit? Where are we to find our prophets and mystics today when we kill them as assuredly by shunning and humiliating them as by outright murder? Because if we continue to do this, we will be the late great One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. A little crazy is good for the soul. And the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
To fix an error in last week’s reflection, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is by Bobby McFerrin, not Bob Marley, who did write a song which begins, “Don’t worry about a thing.” DK-R