… because I don’t see it.
Every people with a common text will, wittingly or no, perpetuate certain interpretations alongside the stories they tell. How many times, for example, have you heard that the reason God didn’t want the Israelites to eat pig was for health reasons? That really has absolutely nothing to do with how Israel’s purity laws work, but it gives us an explanation that makes sense, vindicates God as the caretaker of Israel, and allows us to find reason to eat BLTs for lunch.
Another interpretation that is deeply ingrained in the English-speaking interpretive psyche is attached to the story of the Gerasene demoniac.
In this story, a demon-possessed man confronts Jesus. The demons are cast out into a herd of pigs nearby. The demons drive the pigs off the cliff to their drowning death in the waters below.
And, the story culminates with the townspeople asking Jesus to leave and the healed demoniac, who had wanted to follow, going out to proclaim the good news.
Why, then, did the people ask Jesus to leave?
Not so much.
Here’s what Luke has to say: “The came out to see what had happened… the saw the man clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet–and they were afraid.” “They asked him to leave… because a great fear had gripped them” (Luke 8:35, 37).
Mark tells us once: they saw the man clothed and in his right mind, “and they were afraid” (Mark 5:15). And, when the story ends, the man goes out to tell the tale, and all who hear it are amazed (Mark 5:20)–remember that, we’ll come back to it in a second.
Matthew recounts the story with much more brevity, and gives no explanation as to why they ask Jesus to leave.
Mark and Luke both tell us exactly why they want Jesus to leave. Why won’t we listen?
They don’t ask him to leave because they loved money rather than God. They don’t ask Jesus to leave because they miss their beloved pigs. They don’t ask him to leave because their profit margins for the year literally sank to the bottom of a lake.
They ask Jesus to leave because they are afraid.
The story goes out of its way to show us that the encounter between Jesus and the demoniac is a confrontation of power. Tremendous power.
The demon calls itself “Legion” (for we are many).
The man had been shackled by the people–they had attempted to control him with their means and powers–but he burst the chains!
The demon, when commanded to exit, didn’t even come out right away, but put up a fight and had the power to negotiate the terms of its release with Jesus.
The whole story is set up as a power confrontation between these great forces. The people of the town are depicted as lacking the power to control this mighty force.
And when they come upon the scene at the end, what is described is not only the transformation of this man, but his posture before Jesus: seated at his feet. Tamed. Controlled. Freed.
Why is this peaceful scene terrifying? Why are they afraid?
Because they know the power that Jesus was up against, and they have seen and heard that Jesus conquered that power. They are in the presence of someone who controlled with a word what they all were powerless to control with their chains.
No wonder those who heard the man’s story were amazed.
And no wonder the townspeople were afraid.
Can we please get over the idea that the absolute worst thing you could ever confront someone with is that their business investment has tanked? Can we please get over the idea that the whole town had a financial stake in this one flock of swine?
Reading through the larger narrative (I’ll stick to Luke for now) highlights the concerns with power that are being explored here. What happens before the demoniac episode? Jesus and his disciples are on a boat, the winds come up, the disciples panic, Jesus silences everything. And they are afraid and amazed–who is this that the winds obey?! Power. Authority over the uncontrollable.
Then the story of the demoniac that generates a parallel response: fear. Power. Authority over the uncontrollable.
On the other side is the sandwiched story of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood. When the woman touches Jesus’ robe. No one could stop her flow of blood (as no one could control the demoniac?). And Jesus stops, knowing that power has gone out from him. What the disciples lacked in the first story (faith) she shows in spades–and Jairus, too, will have to believe so that his own daughter can be saved. Which she is–raised from the dead.
The story sequence which began with Jesus exercising his power to still the winds of the sea, and then went to Jesus exercising power over the heretofore uncontrollable spirits, ends with the Jesus restoring the spirit to the dead girl and raising her to new life.
It’s about power. And maybe it’s worth asking why we are so slow to see it; or, perhaps better, why we don’t find that the power of Jesus is a sufficient, or applicable, lesson to be drawn from the story.