Matthew 8: 28-34 What Sort of Man is This Part 2
Parallels Mark 5: 1-20, Luke 8: 26-39
28 When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31 The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. 33 The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34 Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ encounter on the other side of the Sea of Galilee with demoniacs is significantly shorter than Mark’s (and Luke which follows Mark’s narration) with the naming of demon as ‘Legion’ being omitted. Matthew will regularly deviate from Mark’s narration for structural, theological and perhaps here social reasons. This is another story where comparing the differences in the stories can illuminate some of the subtle ways Matthew is constructing his gospel to help the disciple understand who Jesus is and what it will mean to follow him in a world of competing loyalties.
The first obvious difference between Matthew’s narrative and Mark’s is the number of people who are possessed. In Matthew there are two, where in Mark (and Luke) there is only one. Structurally the number of demoniacs gives us a structural clue linking this story to the story of the two blind men in Matthew 9: 27-31 (also the second miracle story in a group of three). Both the demon possessed ones and the blind ones see what others cannot. These two loud and fierce demoniacs which have made that portion of the country of Gadarenes their domain understand who Jesus is in a manner that his disciples in Matthew’s gospel do not yet.
As readers we have heard Jesus identified as ‘Son’ in the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:17) and will also hear this identification at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5) spoken from heaven. Now from the mouths of demon possessed we hear the same linkage as Jesus is titled Son of God. We have already seen Jesus’ power over demons, disease and even the elements but this is the first time we hear the demons speak. As Stanley Hauerwas can state:
Demons recognize the Son because they—more than we—are able to recognize what threatens them…. The disciples fear Jesus’ absence as he sleeps in the boat; the demons fear his presence. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 97)
Ironically, the demons speak truthfully because they realize that Jesus’ presence is a threat to their domination of their hosts and the area where they are able to overpower others who would transgress the area around the tombs. They know that their time is coming to an end and that the kingdom of heaven is approaching, but they view Jesus’ action as a premature incursion occurring before the appointed time.
The most significant difference in Matthew’s narration is the exclusion of the conversation around the naming of the demon. There may be multiple reasons that Matthew does this. Matthew may be attempting to demonstrate the authority of Jesus and his ability to cast out the demon without its name (obtaining the name of something was considered powerful in the ancient world and this is one of the reasons that the name of God was never spoken). There may also be a social reason for the exclusion of this portion of the scene. Many scholars designate Antioch as the place where the gospel of Matthew was written. As I mention when writing about this passage in relation to the gospel of Mark the combination of Legion and the herd of swine could ask some very provocative questions about the relationship of Rome and the demonic. If Matthew is written near Antioch, it would also be near the Legion X Fretensis (one of two Roman legions in Syria) whose primary emblem was a swine. Matthew, while holding the tension between the kingdom of heaven and the empire of Rome, does not intentionally exclude Rome and even its soldiers from coming under the influence of the kingdom of heaven. I think the gospels in general and Matthew in particular do not portray Jesus as advocating for conflict between Jerusalem and Rome and any resistance is non-violent. Matthew may view the linkage of the demonic with the legions as language that was too near the revolutionary overtones used by zealots in the lead up to the Jewish War (66-73 C.E.) that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
The community around the two demoniacs has found a way to cohabitate with their presence as marked by the large herd of swine nearby. The demons beg Jesus to cast them into the herd of swine and Jesus grants their plea. Even demons may beg Jesus for mercy. Immediately the herd rushes into the sea and we are connected back to the previous narrative where demonic (or at least dangerous powers) are at work on the sea but in the presence of Jesus the sea remains undisturbed. The casting out of the demons and the death of the herd of pigs causes the swineherds to return to town and to relate what they saw occur. Again, the irony of the story is strong when the whole town comes out to greet Jesus like a visiting dignitary but on seeing him, they but instead of welcoming him they ask him to depart their region. Like the demons they do this from the posture of begging, but Jesus hears and heeds their request.
This scene across the sea takes place among the Gentiles, and here Jesus is not met with great faith (unlike the Centurion or the Canaanite woman). Yet, the disciples, the little faith ones who get into the boat with him are left with another identity to ponder and another way in which Jesus demonstrates his power over the forces of the demonic. The kingdom is not welcome everywhere in Matthew’s story, nor will Jesus’ disciples always be welcome. Jesus does not force himself on this community of the Gadarenes which is not ready to receive the gospel, nor will he put pearls before those who choose swine with demons to a reality where demons are driven away. Jesus does not condemn the community, but he does depart. The community chooses the world they know over the kingdom of heaven, but even those who attempt to follow Jesus may choose what is safe rather than having faith in the Son of God. But sometimes even those who are directly opposed to the kingdom of heaven bear witness in their own strange way to who Jesus is, and so demons can speak in harmony with the voice from heaven in declaring Jesus as ‘Son of God’ and disciples upon returning to the boat are left to wonder what sort of man this Jesus of Nazareth is.