Fifth Sunday after Pentecost / Fifth Sunday of Matthew, July 12, 2020
Romans 10:1-10; Matthew 8:28-9:1
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today we hear one of the more memorable exorcism passages in the Gospels, the casting out of the demons into the pigs in the country of the Gergesenes (or, in the other two Synoptic Gospels, the Gadarenes). Gergesa was on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, in what we now call the Golan Heights, identified today as a town called Kursi, where there are the ruins of a Byzantine monastery commemorating the place of this miracle.
The account itself in Matthew’s Gospel is pretty straightforward in its particulars: Two men, who were possessed by demons, were living among the tombs of the dead, and they were so fearsome that everyone avoided the place. Jesus came to the place, and these demoniacs said to Him, “What have we to do to Thee, O Son of God? Art Thou come here to torment us before the time?”
A herd of swine was feeding nearby, and so the demons asked, if they were going to be cast out, to be sent into the pigs. Jesus obliged them, casting the demons out from the two men and into the pigs, who then ran down a steep bank into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.
So let’s look more closely at what happens here to figure out what’s going on, especially this reference that the demons make to being tormented “before the time.” What I’m about to tell you will probably seem very weird, but bear with me here.
In ancient Israel, as attested to in the Scriptures, it was understood that numerous angels had rebelled against God and were afflicting mankind. A number of them came to be closely associated with certain people, who were granted power and influence and were referred to as “giants.”
Today we think of giants as huge human beings we find only in fairy tales, but the term in the ancient world, while including that idea of enormous physical size, more broadly referred to powerful people, and the powerful were always associated with divine spirits. So giant is basically a synonym for strongman, but with a distinctly “spiritual” side to it.
Whether they were physically large or not is not the point, but they were certainly “large” in a number of ways, being powerful leaders of certain tribes who often attacked Israel and warred against them. A series of battles were fought against these giant-led tribes, and the final defeat was of a giant named Goliath and his clan by a young man named David, who later became King of Israel.
Ancient peoples had direct experience with evil spirits, and since the giants and their associated giant clans were known to Israel, it was normal for them to regard demons as the disembodied spirits of dead giants.
After the final defeat of Goliath’s tribe by David, the evil spirits – the demons – associated with these giants were cast out by God from this earth and into the abyss, the place of death. So this presents us with a problem as to how Israel still experienced demonic activity and even how we still experience it today. Why are there still demons around on earth if God sent them all to the abyss?
The explanation for this is found in a text from ancient Israel called The Book of Jubilees. This text is not part of the Biblical canon, but it was very popular and influential in the first century when the New Testament was written.
In Jubilees is found an account of one of the giant-spirits named Mastema, who makes a proposal to God, asking Him to allow Mastema and one tenth of the demons to remain on earth to afflict mankind, promising to afflict only the unrepentant. And then at the end of time, Mastema and his cronies would have to join the rest of the demons in the abyss. In the Jubilees account, God agrees to the deal for His own reasons—demonic affliction may bring people to repentance.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “I have never even heard of this ‘Mastema’! Is this even Christian teaching?” It’s a good question. The name Mastema comes from a Hebrew word referring to hatred, hostility, enmity or persecution. He is thus the demonic embodiment of that concept.
There is an adversarial demonic figure whose name might be more familiar to us—the Satan. Satan is a name coming from Hebrew shaitan, which means “the adversary.” And there is another name we may know—the Devil. This name comes from Greek diavolos, which means “the divider.”
These and other names in ancient texts are sometimes mixed and matched, possibly referring to multiple figures, but sometimes referring to the same one in certain ways. It would be convenient if there were a clear hierarchy and distinction of names here, but these are lying, chaotic spirits trying to lead us to destruction.
In any event, all this is to say that the idea of a leader of demons who torments human beings should not be unknown to us Christians, even if the name Mastema is new to you. And there are references in the New Testament to rebellious angels being cast into the abyss (Jude 6), including at the time of the great flood (2 Peter 2:4-5).
So this brings us back to the demons at Gergesa. They ask if they are going to be cast out “before the time.” What “time” is that? It is the time agreed upon when their presence on earth will be over, a time explained by the deal with Mastema in Jubilees.
And now the other weird detail in this Gospel passage should be easily explainable to you. Why do these pigs dive down into the Sea of Galilee and drown? It is the abyss they are being sent into, and the waters were closely associated with the abyss and with death. The underworld was often conceived as a place deep within the waters which ran underneath the earth.
So what does this odd tale have to do with us?
However you want to understand why there are demons on the earth even now, it is true that they are real and they are present. It is true that the suffering of this world is closely associated with their activity. It would be completely reasonable to say that even our present global pandemic is caught up in the action of demons.
Why would God allow them to remain and to afflict humanity? It is not because God is on their side. The demons have their own agenda, which is to hurt mankind, but God’s agenda is to save us. He allows them to bring suffering upon us so that we might repent.
In our suffering, we can cry out to God for help, turn to Him in love and sorrow for our sins, embrace or renew the life of prayer and worship and self-sacrifice. This is our proper response to suffering.
We often spend a lot of time either demanding that suffering go away or trying to find merely human, systemic solutions to it, but the ultimate response is repentance. Even as we try to make our human systems more just, we should be aiming them to encourage repentance. And most of all, we should be repenting ourselves.
Often when people ask why there is suffering in the world, they either blame it all on mankind or all on God. Or they might ask why God would allow it, if He really is good and all-knowing and all-powerful. But this model does not take into account the presence of these fallen angels, the demonic powers. They are real, and they are here.
And they are here with God’s permission, too. But He has His own purpose for permitting them among us, and that purpose is not for our destruction but for our repentance. His casting out of demons—reclaiming this world which is His—is also for our repentance, encouraging us by bringing us healing and peace.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.