The next story in our look at Matthew chapter 8 looks like it’s unrelated to yesterday’s. But it’s basically the same story as the calming of the storm. In your Bibles it might be titled “the healing of two demon-possessed men”. Or in mine, “Jesus makes devilled ham.”* (I’m into boutique translations.) Either way, let’s read it now:8:28-34 When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” 30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” 32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.
How can I say this basically the same story as the calming of the storm? Especially when the alert reader will have noticed the absence of a storm. And the presence of pigs. How is it the same story?
Well firstly, let’s see what this story is not primarily about.
Because this is one we’re less likely to personalise along the lines of “Jesus calms the storms of my life”. Funnily enough, we’re less tempted to ask, “what are the pigs in my life that need to be possessed by demons and drowned in a nearby lake?” It’s pretty clear that this story isn’t primarily trying to teach me about my walk with Jesus.
It also doesn’t try to teach us anything about demons. Or how they can inhabit pigs. Or what happened to the demons when the pigs drowned. Or why, when governments don’t negotiate with terrorists, Jesus appears to negotiate with demons. None of those questions is answered.
Because the story, again, is about Jesus. And who he is. Not just the one who has power over the natural world. But also the one who has power over the super-natural world. He speaks, and the storm is stilled. He speaks, and the demons obey.
In fact, the demons got the point of the story.8:29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted.
They don’t ask the disciples’ mystified question, “what kind of man is this?”. The demons already know, all too well. He’s the Son of God. And they’re terrified. Unlike the disciples, the demons get who Jesus is.
But at the very least, the disciples responded in a positive way to what they witnessed. They were intrigued and amazed. And significantly, they stuck around to see what would happen next. By contrast, the people who saw the demons driven out – they just wanted Jesus gone.8:34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.
That is, they refused to recognise their Creator when he showed up. Why?
Partly, I suppose, because he was bad for business. The pig farmers weren’t too happy at losing all their pigs. That’s their livelihood Jesus is messing with. Their wealth. It’s like today if Jesus drove out some demons into your retirement savings, which then took a plunge on the stock market, losing most of their value. Granted, not as funny as the pig image, but just as devastating. You’d be unhappy, too if your fortune got… repossessed.
But maybe they also didn’t recognise him because they weren’t expecting him. After all, Jesus had crossed over into Gentile territory at the start of this story. Evidenced by the fact that there were pig farmers there – not something you’d find in a good Jewish area. So maybe we shouldn’t expect non-Israelites to recognise him, at this point in his ministry. (This also stands in contrast with Tuesday’s story about the centurion – Gentiles, too, have to have faith if they want to be part of Israel’s return from exile.)
But the point of these contrasting responses is clear enough. Jesus turned up at the start of his public ministry claiming to speak the words of God. That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is all about, in Matthew chapters 5 to 7. He talked the talk. Now here in chapter 8, we see him walk the walk as well. Not just speaking the words of God, but performing the actions of God. We saw this earlier in the week, as he went around healing. He cured a man with leprosy, the centurion’s servant with paralysis, and Peter’s fever-ridden mother-in-law. Now, he shows he doesn’t just have authority over sickness. But over the whole natural and spiritual realms.
The point – if we hadn’t grasped it by now – is all about Jesus. Who is this man, that even the wind and the waves and leprosy and fevers and demons obey him?
Jesus – is – God. That’s the point.
At which, like the disciples, we are awestruck. Humbled. Amazed. And we respond by worshipping him. We respond by recognising who he is. And we respond… well, how do we respond? We’ll look at that tomorrow.
To think about
Do you see people acting like the pig farmers – shutting Jesus out immediately, in case he upsets the balance of their lives?
What about you – do you ever keep Jesus at a distance, in case he turns your carefully planned family life, career, or financial security upside-down?
What does it mean for you, personally, that Jesus has authority over the spiritual realm, as well as the natural world?
*I owe the “devilled ham” pun to Ben Witherington, in On the road with Jesus – he cites an unknown preacher as the source. Or sauce.