One day Jesus and His disciples come ashore in the Gentile area of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. Once the historic land of God’s people, now it is populated largely by pagans and Gentiles. Immediately a pathetic yet terrifying individual throws himself screaming at Jesus’ feet. This poor soul had routinely been seized by unclean spirits. They drove him to cast away his clothes, to erupt into violent and unpredictable outbursts. They had caused him to become pitifully outcast, excluded from civilized streets and homes, living in the haunts of the unclean and the dead. The people of that place had tried to keep him under guard. They had tried to keep him in chains while his attacks lasted. Nothing seemed to help. When they weren’t busy being afraid of him, they were probably longing for the day that if he could not finally be at peace, he would at least die and leave them in peace.
How strange then to see what happened on that day when this man was finally granted peace. The demon-possessed man throws himself at the feet of the Son of God and the demons cry out (most ironically) for Jesus not to torment them. They plead with the Messiah that their rightful judgment, and sentence to the abyss not be handed down prematurely. Instead they ask to be allowed into a herd of nearby pigs. Unclean animals to hold the unclean spirits. Jesus consents and the next thing you know the entire heard up and runs off of a nearby cliff and drowns in the sea. A very picture of the same destruction and abyss the demons say they are trying to avoid.
The herdsmen, who had been watching in disbelief as all this happens, run off into the nearby settlement and tell everyone what has happened. Word quickly spread not only in town, but throughout the country side and everyone comes out to see the devastation first hand. So far it all seems pretty straight forward. A great miracle has happened in their midst. A tortured soul has been rescued from the gates of hell. A friend and neighbour has been won for the kingdom of heaven. How shocking then to hear the response of these people.
(35-37) Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. Fear of Christ. After all that has happened, the great work of God in their midst, they react with fear and ask for Jesus to leave. They plead with Him to go. They beg for Him not to stay.
How different is the response of the man who has been saved. (38-39) The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. Faith in Christ. Faith enough to see that Jesus is God, and what He had already done was enough. Faith enough to do even the hard thing and stay behind with people who would certainly fear and shun him. People who would talk behind his back and probably never fully trust him again.
Why such a difference in the two reactions? It is, I think, too easy to simply say one received a gift and the others did not. Peace was restored and safety returned for one and all through the gift of Jesus. So why does one react in faith while the others react in fear? Martin Luther gives us an idea of why when he wrote:
“God uses all evil for good, but man and the devil use all good for evil … God drives man to faith by means of fear and despair … For so God troubles the saints through the devil and his followers. On the other hand, the devil uses God himself and all good things for evil: chastity and celibacy for hypocrisy, humility for pride, love for sects and sedition, poverty for luxury and idleness.” 1 In all the evil that had befallen him, God lead this demon-possessed man to see His good hand at work. And yet, in this very same good and gracious act of salvation, the devil caused the villagers to see only what it had cost them. They had a blind eye to the mercy of God in their midst. Damn the man … Why did all their pigs have to die? It is a question that jumps into the minds of many who hear the story even today.
Dr. P. Kretzmann gives a wonderful answer in his commentary on this passage: “The devil is a murderer from the beginning. If he cannot destroy the souls of men, he tries to harm their bodies, and when this is denied him, he takes out his spite on the dumb animals. His one desire is to ruin the works of God. But he can do this only with God’s permission. It is indeed a secret of God why He gives this permission. But it may be said, in general, that even such visitations, by which the devil works harm against us, are fatherly visitations of God, by means of which He wants to chastise us and call us to repentance … They did not learn the lesson which was held before them; they did not realize that this was a time of gracious visitation for them. They were possessed with a great fear, they were panic-stricken. Their pigs, in their eyes, exceeded both the value of the one former demoniac and of the Prophet of their salvation.” 2
The people reacted in fear, because recognizing the authority of God in Christ, came with a cost that was higher than they were willing to pay. And not just in livestock … the price Jesus was after, was their repentance. Some things are simply more important than money or possessions. Things like our neighbours and their salvation. How sad, they completely missed the point. In trusting only their possessions and wealth they failed to factor in the great gifts of God’s mercy!
Jesus showed undeserved kindness to this pagan and gentile, by healing him and giving him a purpose in life. Jesus is merciful to the very townsfolk who denied him by leaving a faithful evangelist in their midst. He is even merciful to the demons, taking no pleasure in prematurely torturing them, but letting them seal their own fate. How could one so merciful not give back so much more than what he allowed to be taken away from them in a few pigs? They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, had they only reacted in faith, not fear.
But then again, what about us? How do we see this great lesson before us? What is our Response to Christ? Are we not just like the pitiable man once possessed by demons? Possessed by sin were we not also once naked before God. Subject to fits of rage and unpredictable behaviour. Were we not bound and shackled by that sin – sent out into the haunts of the unclean and the dead? Were we not outside of God’s kingdom, with no real home, no real friends, and no lasting future? But then Christ came. And Christ freed us from that sin and the strangle-hold of the devil in the waters of Holy Baptism.
And having been, freed from the slavery of sin and death, we now sit at the feet of Jesus and plead to be wherever He is. To go where He goes. Only He tells us that He must go on ahead of us and we are to stay here. We are to remain among the people of this world. Among our family and friends and coworkers and fellow citizens. And we are to be His witnesses. Even though the world doesn’t always trust us. Even though they might talk behind our backs or choose to shun us. We have been called to pay the price. Do we answer in faith or in fear?
And when Jesus calls us to reach out in turn to those in our community who likewise are shunned, or reviled, or feared … what then? When he places the drunk or the addict or the dying before you and says go talk to them. Or the person with reoccurring mental problems, and God says be patient with them. Or the person who is hurting, lonely, or friendless, and God says be there for them, for as long as it takes. Or the person who makes you afraid, or uncomfortable, or upset by their uncontrollable behaviour and God says accept them, love them, be merciful to them as I have been merciful to you. Open the doors of this congregation to everyone who is completely unlike you … What then? Do we answer in faith or in fear? Do we consider the price and tell God to go away, the cost is too high? Or do we thank Jesus for the privilege of following, knowing the great gift that has been given to us – and desiring to share that gift with others, no matter who they are.
After all, do we not follow the one who is merciful beyond our wildest dreams. One so merciful as to save us by giving up his own life. One so merciful he would willingly be cast out into the cross-strewn haunts of the unclean and criminal. One so merciful that He chose to be thrown into the tomb and raised again to new life. How then would He not give back so much more than what he allows to be taken away from us in a little comfort or popularity? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, if only we react in faith, not fear.
1 Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther’s works, Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 54, Page 99). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
2Kretzmann, P. (1921) Popular commentary of the Bible, The New Testament, (vol. 1, Page 311). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House