Today we hear in the Gospel of Matthew the account of Jesus’ healing the Gergesene Demoniacs. When we read this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, what do we see? We see our Saviour Jesus Christ, Who is God become Man, the Word of God Who created the universe; and Who rules the whole world by His wisdom. And yet suddenly here, as we often see Christ do in the Gospel accounts, He forgets everything around Him and with determined resolve, Christ focuses on these two suffering men – men inflicted with unclean spirits and driven to live an inhuman life amidst the tombs. The suffering of these lowly men are enough for Christ to turn all of His attention to them.
This is made all the more remarkable in contrast to the neglect shown to these suffering men by those around them. These men are left to roam wildly amongst tombs and swine, driven by the cruel mercy of the demons, and all those around them shun them in fear.
It is possible that a lack of respect for their own persons drove these men towards this lowly state. As the Holy Fathers attest, a life of sin and self-neglect of the soul can very well lead a man towards a spiritual position in which one is left open to demonic attack, and thus may have lead to the imprisonment by forces of evil of these two men.
Yet into this dark and seemingly hopeless situation comes the God-man Christ, who, says St. Gregory Palamas, purposely landed for mercy’s sake on that shore where these possessed men lived. Christ did not simply land here randomly or by chance, but with foresight and mercy He came of His own accord to help these men who had been so terribly harassed by demons for so long.
In seeing Christ, the demons, torn between two wicked passions, cry out in haughtiness and fear: “What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?” Even in the demons’ pride and wrath, they cowered at the sight of Christ, and addressed Him as the Son of God. The Lord tolerated this witness that the demons bore of Him for the instruction of His disciples. For it was just moments before that His disciples marveled at the miracle they witnessed with Christ on the lake when they cried out to each other in amazement: “What manner of man is this, for He commandeth even the winds and water and they obey Him?” Now it has become clearer Who He is. And thus the providence of God in this scene begins to unfold. For, as St. Gregory Palamas explains: “Even the devil always works in co-operation with God’s will, without wishing or intending to do so, which is why one of the God-bearing Fathers [St. Macarius the Great] said that ‘evil assists good, while intending what is bad.” Regardless of whether or not the possessed men were at fault for their condition and their subjection to the demons, Christ permits this to happen so that the glory of God may be made manifest. Even in casting the demons into the swine, Christ allows that the demons remain on Earth. The Lord permits this, Blessed Theophylact says, in order for the demons to fight and contend with men and thus make men tested veterans. For if man had no adversaries, there would be no struggles and contests; and if there be no contests, there would be no crowns of victory.
In His love for these suffering men, Christ casts the legion of demons out into a nearby herd of swine which, immediately driven mad, rush headlong into the lake and are destroyed. The men, meanwhile, are brought back to their senses and are cured.
One would think that the local people, witnessing such a miracle, would be overjoyed at the release of these men from their terrible state. But no! Instead we see the same sense of fear and pride in their reaction that we saw exhibited in the demons’ words to Christ. The people are afraid, and unhappy at the loss of their property – the swine, and fearing that they might lose more, they ask Jesus to leave.
It is very easy to judge the Gergesenes here for their rejection of Christ in their attachment to swine and material possessions. But who are we to judge, here? What sins so we secretly cherish? What passions do we want to be healed from, but yet we ask Christ to go away, saying: “Not now. Not just yet. Let me indulge just a little longer.” St. Nikolai Velimirovich explains:
Let us not be in a hurry to condemn these Gergesenes love for their swine before we consider the society of our day, and count up all our swine-loving fellow-townsfolk, who would, just like the Gergesenes, have more concern for their pigs than the lives of their neighbors. Just think how few there are today, even among those who cross themselves and confess Christ with their tongues, who would not quickly make up their minds to kill two men if this would give them two thousand pigs. Or think if there are many among you who would sacrifice two thousand pigs to save the lives of two madmen. Let those who condemn the Gadarenes before first condemning themselves be filled with deep shame. Were the Gergesenes to rise up today from their graves, and begin to count, they would arrive at a vast number of like-minded people today! The Gergesenes at least “begged” Christ to leave them, while the people of today drive Him out. And why? In order to be left alone with their pigs and their masters, the demons.
Looking at our own situation, are we perhaps afraid, like the Gergesenes, (and if even so slightly!) that if we give ourselves totally and completely to Christ, then we will risk forfeiting something of ourselves and of our freedom? As in the case of the Gergesenes, this could be outward, worldly possessions onto which our heart has latched. Business, money, property, position, power, worldly ambitions and so on. Perhaps we are happy with our possessions, our worldly kingdom and the status quo, and we, in our own pride and fear, ask Christ to kindly leave us be.
Or, more often the case for monastics who have “left the world”, are we like unto the possessed men? Demonic possession is quite extreme and dramatic, and the possession of these men was not allegorical – it was very real. Yet the Holy Fathers of the Faith teach us that slavery to our passions is even worse than demonic possession, since it is something willfully chosen. Whereas the demons can attack us from “the outside”, it is only these willfully chosen passions that can take root in the deepest part of our soul and the hidden chambers of our heart. As St. John Chrysostom says: “A demon certainly will not deprive us of heaven… but sin will assuredly cast us out. For this is a demon we willingly receive, a self-chosen madness.”
What demons, then, do we harbor in our own soul, and in the deepest parts of our own hearts that, when they meet Christ, the Living God, cower in fear and in prideful impunity, and cry out: What have you to do with me, Jesus? Torment me not! Leave me alone! What hidden lusts, envy, anger, resentment, jealousies, pride have we hidden away and let take root in our souls. Hidden passions that we cling to – almost in a strange and perverted sense of comfort and familiarity. Passions that we have harbored so long that we even begin to identify with them – thinking of them as part of “who I am”?
Yet Christ, as in this story of the Gergesene demoniacs, comes to us all individually in complete love and compassion to break these self-imposed chains of our own passions and hidden attachments and sins. Christ desires nothing more than our own salvation, our own healing, and even when the world has shunned us, and even when we find ourselves outcast, in strange places, Christ will rush out to meet us where we are in order to heal us, even amidst the tombs and the swine, which are symbols for death and sin in this fallen world.
In the seemingly hopeless situation of these possessed men, only Christ has the power to release them, and he does release them, not only for their own healing, but for the edification of all who see it. In the Gospel of Luke account of this event, Christ instructs these men, as they are sent away, to “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
We must not be afraid to give ourselves totally and completely to Christ. We have nothing to lose but our chains – the chains of our sins and passions and our slavery to the prince of this world. And we have everything to gain, because Christ gives us everything.
Our true freedom, our true happiness and our true joy are in Christ alone. Like the image of Christ on the Resurrectional icon reaching out to Adam in Hades, Christ reaches out to each and every one of us in order to pull us out of the prison of our passions and sins and into the Kingdom of God. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20) If only we soften our hearts with love and humility – towards God and towards our brothers - we will meet Christ with joy, and through our own life, we can, like the healed demoniac, declare to the world what great things the Lord has done for us.