Become more aware and open to what we are about to reflect on today
As we enter into this fourth session of our Lent retreat, take some time now to become still. To still whatever emotions are in you at the moment: anger, fear, contentment, happiness, or a mixture of them all: and become more aware and open to what we are about to reflect on today. Notice the feelings and emotions inside you now. Simply name them, notice them, and then let them go.
Then, when you have stilled yourself, at least for a while, turn to God, and say ‘Here I am; speak, Lord - your servant is listening’. Or you can adopt any other formula that for you will mark a transition into prayer.
What kind of a person is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?
This story of Jesus casting out demons in the land of the Gadarenes does not immediately follow the story of our last session, that of the mother-in-law; Matthew has placed in between that story and our present one an encounter with two potential disciples, neither of whom is given much encouragement by Jesus. The first is told that ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, while the second makes a reasonable request, to ‘go and bury my father’. He is smartly told ‘let the dead bury their dead’. This is followed by the calming of the storm, and the rebuke to the disciples for being such cowards, and we hear their awed comment, ‘What kind of a person is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?' Can you ask that question yourself? What kind of person is this? Now the story proper begins, as Jesus goes immediately into the ‘land of the Gadarenes’.
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. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ 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 lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.
Pope Francis has chosen this as the Year of Mercy that we might also bring God’s healing mercy to those around us
- We notice that unlike Mark there are two people possessed by demons, not one. Matthew does this again with Mark’s blind, possibly because in the Old Testament you need two people for witnessing purposes. Does it make a difference to the story that Matthew has two people possessed by demons?
- These two people come from ‘tombs’: that is where demons live, and they represent a threat to ordinary humanity. Matthew describes them as ‘very difficult’ and comments that ‘no one could go through that way’. What is the significance of the ‘tombs’ and that ‘no one could pass that way’, do you think?
- Surprisingly, however, the demons address Jesus correctly, calling him ‘Son of God’. Are the demons right to call Jesus ‘Son of God’? How did they know?
- They also ask him ‘what have we got to do with each other?’, echoing what the widow of Sarepta said to the prophet Elijah when her son died, in 1Kings. The demons accuse Jesus: ‘you have come before the right time (or it might be a question: ‘have you come before time?’) to torment us’. That is what demons do, of course: they torment human beings, and God’s task, Jesus’ task is to bring healing mercy, and an end to the torment. Is it Jesus’ task to torment demons do you think? And what, we wonder, do they mean by ‘the right time’? Pope Francis has chosen this as the Year of Mercy that we might also bring God’s healing mercy to those around us. Are there any demons stopping you from being part of ‘God’s task’?
Talk to God
Can you ask God for whatever you might need to continue your journey?
- Matthew now offers an unexpected narrative detail: ‘a big herd of many pigs feeding’. These were, of course, unclean animals in Jewish culture, but they were just going about their ordinary business. Then, unexpectedly, comes a request from the demons; clearly they know that they have lost the battle and the war, and they try to do a deal: ‘if you are expelling us, send us into the pigs’. Why do the demons choose pigs do you think?
- Jesus is unmistakably in charge, and tells them ‘Off you go’. Then Matthew tells us that ‘they went out and went into the pigs. And look! The whole herd rushed down the cliff into the sea. And they died in the waters’. Now it is no good calling the Society for the Protection of Pigs to complain about this, for it means the end of the demons. Has there been a moment in your life when you have experienced Jesus as being ‘unmistakeably in charge’ of a situation?
- Even though you may not think it funny to see all the pigs going into the Sea of Galilee, a Jewish audience would see only humour in the pigs plunging into the water, and (presumably) destroying the demons in the process. The story invites us to think of the present state of the two who had been possessed by the demons. How do you think they would have felt? Exhausted? Shocked? Relieved? Freed?
- Now look at the reaction: ‘the whole city went out to meet Jesus’, which sounds all right. They are not, however, coming out in order to applaud him, for the evangelist tells us that ‘they saw him and begged him to go to a different place, away from their frontiers’. Why were the inhabitants of Gadara so uncomfortable with Jesus that they wanted to get him out of their territory? Do you ever feel like that?
- Reflect on anything you might be feeling as you have considered these questions. Bring any feelings you have to the Lord; perhaps these might be uncomfortable or unsteady. Now we are over halfway through our Lenten Retreat, can you ask God for whatever you might need to continue your journey?