Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Two Demoniacs (Matt. 8:28-34)

We know that this incident is also told in other Gospels and as is the case with such parallel accounts there are one or two differences between them. It would be possible to combine the accounts and have a larger grasp of what took place here. Yet doing so might hide from us why Matthew described the account in his way.

The two obvious differences are (1) Matthew mentions two persons and (2) he does not mention that one of them was told by Jesus to go home and tell his friends what Jesus had done for him. Maybe the other person did not have a home to go to. But I would like us to try and note the points that Matthew wants his readers to take on board.

Before we look at some points in Matthew’s account, I would mention that the combined effect of the different accounts is to highlight the bigness of Jesus. Imagine someone who had only read Mark’s and Luke’s accounts and then came across what Matthew said. He would discover that Jesus helped two persons rather than only one. And the reader would observe that Jesus did all this is a very short time.

Why does Matthew mention two individuals whereas Mark and Luke focus only on one? An answer that was given by Augustine was that one man was much worse than the other and Mark and Luke chose to refer to him. Connected to that would be the possibility that only one of them came from the area and had family to go back to and tell what had happened. Another suggestion is that only one of them became a believer and witnessed to his faith, and that is why Mark and Luke focus on him. There is a suggestion that they were a husband and wife, but the man was highlighted. But these suggestions are only guesses because we do not know why Mark and Luke only mention one of them.

Dealing with fear
The disciples had been frightened of the storm as they crossed the sea and helpless during it to do anything about their situation. So far in his list of encounters, Jesus has brought his disciples into a variety of experiences, but in each of them fear and helplessness was prominent. They would have been frightened of dealing with a leper because of concerns of contracting the disease, of dealing with a Gentile centurion because the Roman authorities could use power against them, and of being in a fierce storm. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to Peter’s mother-in-law if no one could help her. In all these situations, they would have also felt helpless.

Probably the meeting with the demoniacs would have been the most frightening of all for the disciples. Matthew Henry, in discussing the various fears, mentions that as far as the disciples were concerned the diseases were inevitable, the storm was uncontrollable, and the demons the most formidable.  Facing one would be enough for most people, never mind facing a lot of them at the same time. Each of those categories would make us afraid. I think we can deduce from this incident that Jesus wanted them to deal with their fears by letting him deal with their fears by his gracious power, and by extension he can do the same for us.

Grasping the competency of Jesus
The various encounters highlight the competence of Jesus. If we had a notebook and were among his followers we would tick off one by one the various situations that did not prevent his power being displayed. He could heal diseases, whether longstanding like the leper or recent like Peter’s mother-in-law; he could heal from a distance or heal a crowd on his doorstep; he could control the elements with a word and cause his disciples to be full of wonder; he could help the prominent and the outcast without a word. Now he was about to deal with individuals whom everyone else would regard as very dangerous and would not wish to be near on any occasion.

The deduction that can be made is that Jesus can handle all kinds of situations, that there is no set of events that would show any incompetency in his ability to deal with whatever kind of challenge came his way, or in the path of the disciples when they were engaged in following his commandments.

Learning the priorities of Jesus
What are the priorities of Jesus that comes across in this set of incidents? Is it to know people of influence, such as the centurion whose servant was healed or the would-be disciple (the scribe) who indicated that he wanted to follow Jesus wherever he would go? Or is it popularity that would come from curing a large crowd of suffering people? I would say that it is obvious from the passage that a priority of Jesus was to help needy people.

In this incident, Jesus was prepared to take his disciples through a storm in order that he would come to a place where two very needy individuals needed his help. Is it not the case that we find ourselves being used by Jesus after we have come through a storm? It is possible that the spot where they landed was not a place that the disciples would have liked because it was Gentile territory, out of their comfort zones. In the storms that come our way we may find ourselves somewhere we do not like, where we may be tested in unexpected ways, but I suspect when that happens Jesus has taken us to a place where we can see his amazing grace in action bringing mercy to those in need of it.

It is interesting Jesus did not stay there any longer than he had to. He wanted to get back across the lake and be in Capernaum when the next incident, described in chapter 9, took place. I think this tells us not to waste time. Jesus could have allowed his disciples to have some rest – after all they had just spent the night trying to cross the sea. Now he tells them to make the return journey, without them getting much rest. Jesus was not being cruel, but he was reminding his disciples that sometimes there will be spiritual priorities that take precedence over our own comfort.

Jesus is interested in Gentiles
The place where the boat landed was Gentile country. We can see that is the case because there was a herd of many pigs there. Indeed, it may have been very close to an encampment of Roman soldiers because it has been suggested that the pigs were a source of food for them. As far as Gentiles were concerned, we should recall how Matthew began his Gospel – he referred to Jesus as the son of Abraham. He was the descendant of Abraham in the sense that he would fulfil the divine promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. So here is Jesus about to bring blessing to members of another nation, to individuals who were not Jews.

We should observe who it was from this Gentile community that Jesus wanted to meet. Whatever else we make of the choice, the contact points to the compassion of Jesus. He obviously cared deeply about those demoniacs. And as we look at them coming out of the tombs we are to remind ourselves that these two individuals had been part of the discussion and plans between the members of the Trinity before the universe was made. Jesus would have observed their approach towards him in a very different manner than his disciples probably did. They would have seen a threat, but Jesus saw triumphs of grace. Truly, the Lord’s ways are not our ways.

I suppose we are to view these two men as extreme sinners – violent, demon-possessed and living in isolation. Yet we must remember that while they were born sinful they were not born in the state they now found themselves. They had become like this because they had lived sinful lives. Slowly over the years they descended into sin and this is where they are now. Who can say where starting a sinful practice will take us? Who can say where a life of sin will take us? But wherever it has taken us, Jesus can find us.

Powers of darkness flee from Jesus
There are three types of flight in this story. The first concerns those who ran away when they met the two demoniacs – no one could keep going towards them, but instead would flee from their presence. The second flight concerns the demons who tormented the two men. They fled from the presence of Jesus. And the third flight is seen in the response of the pigs to the presence of the demons.

We can see from the story that the powers of darkness recognised four things at least about the Saviour. First, it is obvious that they recognised who Jesus was because they called him by the title, the Son of God. Some have commented that here, from a surprising source, was the answer to the question asked by the disciples in verse 27 about the identity of Jesus after he calmed the storm. Second, the demons also recognised that there was a day coming when they would be tormented, which is a reference to what will happen to them in a lost eternity. Third, they recognised that Jesus would be the One who would inflict punishment on them, that he would be the final Judge of evil angels as well as of humans. Fourthly, the demons were aware of why Jesus had come to that location – he had come to set the two individuals free from the grip of the evil powers.

It looks that maybe the demons wanted to stay in that area, which would have been one reason for them wanting to enter the pigs. Perhaps the area was connected to evil practices. Nevertheless, they confessed a fifth aspect of their recognition of Jesus, which was that they could not go anywhere without his permission. The outcome was that the entire herd was lost, which may indicate that it was connected to inappropriate practices.

Why did Jesus allow the herd to be destroyed? I suspect it was to give an insight to the local people of the destruction and havoc the powers of darkness can cause. This story describes two extreme examples – the two demoniacs and the pigs, but the demons affecting them could easily destroy a herd of swine. Another reason would be to show that he had freed the two men from that awful bondage. And a third reason could be that he was punishing the owners for their sins, and Calvin comments that ‘While the reason of it is not known by us with certainty, it is proper for us to behold with reverence and to adore with devout humility, the hidden judgment of God.’ A fourth reason could have been to show to people what their real priorities were, and they revealed what they were when they came to see him and asked him to leave.

Confessing the power, but not the grace
It is surprising that neither the herdsmen or the inhabitants of the city were pleased about what had happened to the two men. Their spiritual deliverance meant nothing to them. They did realise that Jesus possessed real power, but they wanted nothing to do with him. Instead they preferred that he left. They did not see any personal need of his power in their lives.

Why did Jesus wait to hear this request? Perhaps he wanted his disciples to realise that winning souls in a community would not lead to the approval of the community. Or maybe he wanted them to note that displays of power in themselves would not bring people to faith.

Why did Matthew leave off his account at this point in the incident? I would suggest that he wants the readers to ask themselves what they want to experience from Jesus. Basically, the readers must side with the citizens or the disciples. And that is where we are as we come to the close of our time together. Will we ask Jesus to use his power to bring spiritual blessings into our lives or will we say to him to go away and not get involved in our lives? Each of us must answer that question just now.

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