This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily radings along with a headline from world news:
ARREST OF GODFATHER POLITICIAN IN LONDON CAUSES CHAOS IN KARACHI
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
28-29 When he arrived on the other side (which is the Gadarenes’ country) he was met by two devil-possessed men who came out from among the tombs. They were so violent that nobody dared to use that road. “What have you got to do with us, Jesus, you Son of God?” they screamed at him. “Have you come to torture us before the proper time?”
30-31 It happened that in the distance there was a large herd of pigs feeding. So the devils implored him, “If you throw us out, send us into the herd of pigs!”
32 “Then go!” said Jesus to them. And the devils came out of the two men and went into the pigs. Then quite suddenly the whole herd rushed madly down a steep cliff into the lake and were drowned.
33-34 The swineherds took to their heels, and ran to the town. There they poured out the whole story, not forgetting what had happened to the two men who had been devil-possessed. Whereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and as soon as they saw him implored him to leave their territory.
You can read the same story in Mark chapter 5 but what a difference! Mark’s version is a masterpiece involving compassion for a real person, the naming of the evil spirit as the power of Rome (“legion”) and the liberation of the person from his madness. Matthew doubles the number of persons but cuts the story to the bone. Although he used Mark as source material he had his own agenda. Here his interest seems to be Jesus’ authority even in foreign territory which Jews would have imagined a particularly infested with evil spirits. They believed that at “the end of the age” God would establish goodness throughout the earth, which is the reason for the demons’ complaint that Jesus has started the clean-up process early. Jewish culture had a special horror of mental illness and always attributed it to the power of evil. They did not think the victims were evil but they feared the destructive powers that infested them. Because demons were engaged in spiritual battle against God’s goodness, they were thought to be able to detect God’s action more readily than human beings, hence their recognition of Jesus as Son of God.
If this seems too freaky for modern minds we might reflect that addicted persons are (until they truly desire change) particularly good at avoiding any therapy that seriously challenges the addiction’s power. The story also gives a convincing portrait of the community reaction to the healer who disturbs the status quo: they ask him to leave. The devil they know is better than the exorcist they don’t know. Jesus is depicted as confronting evil spirits which frightened others in order to release vulnerable human beings from their power. If all forms of healing can claim the blessing of Jesus, psychotherapy might claim pride of place.
We also have to admit that for first century Jews any story about the mad behaviour of pigs would have been funny rather than sad as they saw pigs as unclean animals and pig-farming as a disgusting, Gentile trade.