The Gospel According to St. Matthew (8:28-9:1)
The reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost seems very familiar because the same story in the Gospel according to St. Luke is chanted on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. It is often referred to as “The Pigs Gospel.” To modern day readers of the New Testament, it seems a rather innocuous episode in the life of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Why did our Church Fathers consider this episode so important that it was assigned to be chanted on two different Sundays during the liturgical year?
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew the setting for this story is that our Lord had just calmed the stormy Sea of Galilee, and He landed on the other side of the lake, away from Galilee his home. Immediately He encounters two men possessed by demons so fierce that ”no one could travel by that road.” While the disciples in the boat were wondering what manner of man Jesus was that even the winds and the sea obeyed Him, the demons came to proclaim the answer. Jesus alone came towards them since no one dared to bring them to Him. They dwelt among the tombs as if already dead. This is a reminder to us that sin and evil lead to death. But because Christ is the Conqueror of Death, the demons screamed out, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?” The appointed time is the end of the world when all will be judged.
Each Gospel account was written to proclaim the Good News to a particular audience. St. Matthew, a converted Jew and a tax-collector, wrote his Gospel account in order to convince Jewish believers that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Christ had just crossed the Sea of Galilee to escape the demands of the people that He cure their afflictions, but they had no accompanying faith or recognition of who He was. The irony for St. Matthew is that the Gentile Centurion, and even the demons recognize that Jesus is the Son of God, but not His Chosen People. There is another surreptitious message being proclaimed by the presence of a herd of swine: These are not Jews, Christ is already spreading His universal message to the Gentiles, beyond His Chosen People, the Old Jerusalem. For Jewish believers swine are unclean and it was forbidden to eat them or even have anything to do with them. A swineherd could only be present among non-Jewish people. Christ commands the demons to enter the herd of swine, reminding and teaching us that God can perform good even by using something unclean and perverse. Perhaps this was why the Church Fathers loved this episode enough to have it chanted on two different Sundays during the Church Year: The pigs rushed down the steep bank into the sea where they drowned. Even swine know that death is better than being possessed by a demon. It is a call to repentance, a call to us to put off the demons, the old man within us. Living with our demons actually makes us lower and less sensible than pigs! The heavy handed influence of monasticism on the services of the Orthodox Church may be the answer to why this episode is repeated twice in the Sunday Gospel readings: The seeking of perfection by monastics leads them to constantly reflect over their sinfulness and unworthiness. Because this Gospel account clearly illustrates the baseness and degradation of sinfulness and evil, it may possibly be the reason why this episode is repeated on two different Sundays in preference to many other important occurrences and lessons in the life of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.. A sinful and demonic lifestyle is a swinish lifestyle, and NOT the life that we who are created in the image and likeness of God are created to live.
The final event in this Gospel story is that the whole town came out to meet Jesus begged Him to leave! Contrast this with the Samaritans in the town of Shechem who invited Him to stay after His encounter with the sinful woman at Jacob’s Well. Is it possible they were overwhelmed and fearful of the awesome power of God which they observed? This is not totally unusual for St. Peter also asked the Lord to leave him because he was a sinful man (Luke 5:8). Is St. Matthew making the point that these Gentiles were able to take the first steps to wisdom because they had fear of the Lord which the beginning of all wisdom, and the Chosen People did not? Or is it that the people of Gadara reflect the sinfulness of all humanity, a sinfulness that makes us more comfortable with demons than with God? The Lord came with power to deliver the world from the power of the Enemy; but they preferred distance from God, submitting to the slavery of evil and rejecting the presence of God. John the Golden-Mouth calls them a senseless people who sent Him away when they should have adored Him and marveled at His power. Are we, too, insensitive and blind to the power and majesty of our Good God? When the inhabitants of that country, after having received such benefits, were driving Him away, Jesus did not resist, but relented, and left them for they had shown themselves unworthy of His teaching. Is it possible that we, too, often ask God to leave us because we are not willing to respond appropriately to the love and awesome power of God? Perhaps it is a result of sin that we are unwilling to give ourselves and each other and all of life to Christ our God. Let us remember that we are the summit of His creation and are called to live as children of God, as His Inheritance!
Fr. Dennis Kristof