Matthew 8:28-34

THE DEMON-HAUNTED UNIVERSE

Matt. 8:28-34

And, when he had come to the other side, to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, as they emerged from the tombs. They were very fierce, so that no one was able to pass by that road. And, look you, they shouted: “What have we to do with you, you Son of God? Have you come to torture us before the proper time? “A good distance away from them a herd of many pigs was grazing. The devils urged Jesus: “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them: “Begone.” They came out and went into the herd of pigs. And, look you, the whole herd rushed down the cliff into the sea, and died in the waters. Those who were herding them fled, and went away into the town and related the whole story, and told of the things which had happened to the demon-possessed men. And, look you, the whole town came out to meet Jesus: and when they saw him, they urged him to depart from their districts.

Before we begin to study this passage in detail, we may try to clear up one difficulty which meets the student of the gospels. There was clearly some uncertainty in the mind of the gospel writers as to where this incident actually happened. That uncertainty is reflected in the differences between the three gospels. In the King James Version Matthew says that this happened in the country of the Gergesenes (Matt. 8:28); Mark and Luke say that it happened in the country of the Gadarenes (Mk.5:1; Lk.8:26). There are even very considerable differences between the different manuscripts of each gospel. In the Revised Standard Version, which follows the best manuscripts, and which makes use of the most up-to-date scholarship, Matthew places the incident in the country of the Gadarenes; Mark and Luke in the country of the Gerasenes.

The difficulty is that no one has ever really succeeded in identifying this place beyond doubt. Gerasa can hardly be right, for the only Gerasa of which we have any information was thirty-six miles inland, south-east of the lake, in Gilead; and it is certain that Jesus did not voyage thirty-six miles inland. Gadara is almost certainly right, because Gadara was a town six miles inland from the shores of the lake, and it would be very natural for the town burying-place and the town grazing-place to be some distance outside the town. Gergesa is very likely due to the conjecture of Origen, the great third century Alexandrian scholar. He knew that Gerasa was impossible; he doubted that Gadara was possible; and he actually knew of a village called Gergesa which was on the eastern shores of the lake, and so he conjectured that Gergesa must be the place. The differences are simply due to the fact that those who copied the manuscripts did not know Palestine well enough to be sure where this incident actually happened.

This miracle confronts us with the idea of demon-possession which is so common in the gospels. The ancient world believed unquestioningly and intensely in evil spirits. The air was so full of these spirits that it was not even possible to insert into it the point of a needle without coming against one. Some said that there were seven and a half million of them; there were ten thousand of them on a man’s right hand and ten thousand on his left; and all were waiting to work men harm. They lived in unclean places such as tombs, and places where no cleansing water was to be found. They lived in the deserts where their howling could be heard. (We still speak of a howling desert.) They were specially dangerous to the lonely traveller, to the woman in childbirth, to the newly married bride and bridegroom, to children who were out after dark, and to voyagers by night. They were specially dangerous in the midday heat, and between sunset and sunrise. The male demons were called shedim (HSN7700), and the female liliyn after lilith (HSN3917). The female demons had long hair, and were specially dangerous to children; that was why children had their guardian angels (compare Matt. 18:10).

As to the origin of the demons different views were held. Some held that they had been there since the beginning of the world. Some held that they were the spirits of wicked, malignant people, who had died, and who even after their death still carried on their evil work. Most commonly of all they were connected with the strange old story in Gen.6:1-8. That story tells how the sinning angels came to earth and seduced mortal women. The demons were held to be the descendants of the children produced by that evil union.

To these demons all illness was ascribed. They were held to be responsible, not only for diseases like epilepsy and mental illness, but also for physical illness. The Egyptians held that the body had thirty-six different parts, and that every one could be occupied by a demon. One of their favourite ways of gaining an entry into a man’s body was to lurk beside him while he ate, and so to settle on his food.

It may seem fantastic to us; but the ancient peoples believed implicitly in demons. If a man gained the idea that he was possessed by a demon, he would easily go on to produce all the symptoms of demon-possession. He could genuinely convince himself that there was a demon inside him. To this day anyone can think himself into having a pain or into the idea that he is ill; that could happen even more easily in days when there was much of what we would call superstition, and when men’s knowledge was much more primitive than it is now. Even if there are no such things as demons, a man could be cured only by the assumption that for him at least the demons were the realest of all things.

THE DEFEAT OF THE DEMONS

Matt. 8:28-34 (continued)

When Jesus came to the other side of the lake, he was confronted by two demon-possessed men, who dwelt in the tombs, for the tombs were the natural place for the demons to inhabit. These men were so fierce that they were a danger to passers-by, and the prudent traveller would give them a very wide berth indeed.

  1. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book tells us that he himself, in the nineteenth century, saw men who were exactly like these two demon-possessed men in the tombs at Gadara:

There are some very similar cases at the present day–furious and dangerous maniacs, who wander about the mountains and sleep in eaves and tombs. In their worst paroxysms they are quite unmanageable, and prodigiously strong…. And it is one of the most common traits of this madness that the victims refuse to wear clothes. I have often seen them absolutely naked in the crowded streets of Beirut and Sidon. There are also cases in which they run wildly about the country and frighten the whole neighbourhood.”

Apart from anything else, Jesus showed a most unusual courage in stopping to speak to these two men at au.

If we really want the details of this story we have to go to Mark. Mark’s narrative (Mk.5:1-19) is much longer, and what Matthew gives us is only a summary. This is a miracle story which has caused much discussion, and the discussion has centered round the destruction of the herd of pigs. Many have found it strange and have considered it heartless that Jesus should destroy a herd of animals like this. But it is almost certain that Jesus did not in fact deliberately destroy the pigs.

We must try to visualize what happened. The men were shouting and shrieking (Mk.5:7; Lk.8:28). We must remember that they were completely convinced that they were occupied by demons. Now it was normal and orthodox belief, shared by everyone, that when the Messiah and the time of judgment came, the demons would be destroyed. That is what the men meant when they asked Jesus why he had come to torture them before the proper time. They were so convinced that they were possessed by demons that nothing could have rid them of that conviction other than visible demonstration that the demons had gone out of them.

Something had to be done which to them would be unanswerable proof. Almost certainly what happened was that their shouting and shrieking alarmed the herd of pigs; and in their terror the pigs took to flight and plunged into the lake. Water was fatal to demons. Thereupon Jesus seized the chance which had come to him. “Look,” he said. “Look at these swine; they are gone into the depths of the lake and your demons are gone with them for ever.” Jesus knew that in no other way could he ever convince these two men that they were in fact cured. If that be so, Jesus did not deliberately destroy the herd of swine. He used their stampede to help two poor sufferers believe in their cure.

Even if Jesus did deliberately work the destruction of this herd of pigs, it could surely never be held against him. There is such a thing as being over-fastidious. T. R. Glover spoke of people who think they are being religious when in fact they are being fastidious.

We could never compare the value of a herd of swine with the value of a man’s immortal soul. It is unlikely that we refuse to eat bacon for breakfast or pork for dinner. Our sympathy with pigs does not extend far enough to prevent our eating them; are we then to complain if Jesus restored sanity to two men’s minds at the cost of a herd of pigs? This is not to say that we encourage or even condone cruelty to animals. It is simply to say that we must preserve a sense of proportion in life.

The supreme tragedy of this story lies in its conclusion. Those who were herding the pigs ran back to the town and told what had happened; and the result was that the people of the town besought Jesus to leave their territory at once.

Here is human selfishness at its worst. It did not matter to these people that two men had been given back their reason; all that mattered to them was that their pigs had perished. It is so often the case that people in effect say, “I don’t care what happens to anyone else, if my profits and my comfort and my ease are preserved.” We may be amazed at the callousness of these people of Gadara, but we must have a care that we too do not resent any helping of others which reduces our own privileges.

THE GROWTH OF OPPOSITION

We have repeatedly seen that in Matthew’s gospel there is nothing haphazard. It is carefully planned and carefully designed.

In Matt. 9 we see another example of this careful planning, for here we see the first shadows of the gathering storm. We sec the opposition beginning to grow; we hear the first hint of the charges which are going to be levelled against Jesus, and which are finally going to bring about his death. In this chapter four charges are made against Jesus.

(i) He is accused of blasphemy. In Matt. 9:1-8 we see Jesus curing the paralytic by forgiving his sins; and we hear the scribes accusing him of blasphemy because he claimed to do what only God can do. Jesus was accused of blasphemy because he spoke with the voice of God. Blasphemia (GSN0988) literally means insult or slander; and Jesus’ enemies accused him of insulting God because he arrogated to himself the very powers of God.

(ii) He is accused of immorality. In Matt. 9:10-13 we see Jesus sitting at a feast with tax-gatherers and sinners. The Pharisees demanded to know the reason why he ate with such people. The implication was that he was like the company he kept.

Jesus was in effect accused of being an immoral character because he kept company with immoral characters. Once a man is disliked, it is the easiest thing in the world to misinterpret and to misrepresent everything he does.

Harold Nicolson tells of a talk he had with Stanley Baldwin. Nicolson was at the time starting out on a political career and he went to ask Mr. Baldwin, a political veteran, for any advice he might care to give. Baldwin said something like this: “You are going to try to be a statesman, and to handle the affairs of the country. Well, I have had a long experience of such a life, and I will give you three rules which you would do well to follow. First, if you are a subscriber to a press-cutting agency, cancel your subscription at once. Second, never laugh at your opponents; mistakes. Third, steel yourself to the attribution of false motives.” One of the favourite weapons of any public man’s enemies is the attribution of false motives to him; that is what his enemies did to Jesus.

(iii) He is accused of slackness in piety. In Matt. 9:14-17 the disciples of John ask Jesus’ disciples why their Master does not fast He was not going through the orthodox motions of religion. and therefore the orthodox were suspicious of him. Any man who breaks the conventions will suffer for it; and any man who breaks the religious conventions will suffer especially. Jesus broke the orthodox conventions of ecclesiastical piety, and he was criticized for it.

(iv) He is accused of being in league with the devil. In Matt. 9:31-34 we see him curing a dumb man, and his enemies ascribe the cure to an association with the devil. Whenever a new power comes into life–it has been said, for instance, of spiritual healing–there are those who will say, “We must be cautious; this may well be the work of the devil and not of God.” It is the strange fact that when people meet something which they do not like, and which they do not understand, and which cuts across their preconceived notions, they very often ascribe it to the devil and not to God.

Here then we see the beginning of the campaign against Jesus. The slanderers are at work. The whispering tongues are poisoning truth and wrong motives are being ascribed. The drive to eliminate this disturbing Jesus has begun.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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