FIFTH SUNDAY OF MATTHEW, Matthew 8: 28-34 – 9:1
“Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town.” (Mt. 9:1)
This is, indeed, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, a puzzling reference, for which city or town could be considered “His own” when only a few verses earlier He himself said that “foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Mt. 8:20)?
So, He comes “to his own town,” yet, we are reminded of the Prologue of the Gospel of St John when so succinctly affirmed that “he came to that which was his own, but his own did not received him” (Jn. 1:11). So, even if He is not received—and the Gergesenes end up doing precisely this—He comes nevertheless to that which, in one sense, is His own, for everything that was made was made through Him and for His sake, and yet, in another sense, it is not His own, namely, this place, our world, which God formed in its creation, man deformed in his Fall, and Christ came to transform.
Thus, when we read in today’s passage that “Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town” we are given to understand that the place where the encounter of our Lord and the two possessed men was, by implication, not his own. Matthew names it as “the land of Geresenes” (or Gergesenes, as other manuscripts have it). I believe that this land of Geresenes is a metaphor for our world and for our condition in the world.
For notice, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that about this land the evangelist gives only two indications, only two images through which one can think of it: tombs and pigs. The two men our Lord encounters in this land “came from the tombs” (8:28). We wonder if there is anything else other than tombs in this allegorical land that is ruled by death. Two other indications bespeak of the unusual location of the land: that is situated “εἰς τὸ πέραν” (8:28), as the Greek original has it, that is, at the utmost end, and that, on account of the two possessed men, “one could not pass that way” (8:29), that is, the land itself is not only “at the end,” but is itself a “dead-end,” an impasse from which one can have no escape, where there is “no exit”. These are appropriate pointers to the true character of the land of Geresenes, that is, of a land defined by the inescapability of one’s mortality.
The second image, that of the herd of the swine to which the evil spirits will soon flee, reminds us of that distant land from the parable of the Prodigal Son. There too the only living creature that was mention was pigs—the pigs which had their husks while the son who had abandoned his paternal house was going hungry. The pigs, on the other hand, in the land of Geresenes do not eat or live much, for as soon as they are mentioned they become associated with death, for “the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water” (8:32).
In that strange land demarcated by tombs and pigs, Christ encounters humanity as it is represented by the two possessed men—for all humanity in its state of separation from God can be understood, in one way or another, as possessed. The evangelist gives us the dialogue that took place during that brief encounter: “What do you want with us, Son of God?” [the possessed men] shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (8:29)
The first startling element in this exchange, my dear brothers and sisters, is the confession/profession of Christ’s divinity by the two demoniacs: “Son of God.” Only a few days ago, on the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul we read again in the Gospel of St Matthew how it was precisely this same confession that made Peter the rock upon which Christ was to build His Church and it was this very confession that merited the extraordinary honour of giving to Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” so whatever he binds on earth is bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth is loosed in heaven (Mt. 16:17-19).
How is it possible that the two possessed men and the chief of the Apostles share the same profession of faith? And how is it possible that this recognition of Christ’s divinity is for the one the reason of his blessings (“blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…”), while for the others the cause of their damnation?
It is at this point and by positing precisely this question that the crucial difference between faith and knowledge can be illuminated. Christ’s divinity, His identity as the “Son of God” is for the possessed a matter of knowledge: they, indeed, know that, and one could argue that as far as such knowledge is concerned it surpasses in certitude that of any believer, even that of Peter, whose profession of faith was not the affirmation of a matter-of-fact statement (“you are the Messiah, the Son of God”) but precisely a profession of faith, that is, a belief that he held to be true and to which he saw himself bound with the promise of salvation (“you are the Messiah”). On the other hand, the possessed men’s knowledge not only does not imply any relationship but, on the contrary, it excludes it in the most emphatic way: “What do you want with us?” “What is it between us and you?” Yes, for them too, Christ is the Son of God, but this fact, as fact and nothing more but a mere fact, is something indifferent to them. While Peter’s confession—and after Peter, for each one of us—who Christ is makes the whole difference.
And yet, within the realm of in-difference the possibility of at least one relationship is foreshadowed even for the demoniacs: “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” What for Peter was a blessing, that very same thing is here for the possessed men the cause of their suffering. Christ Himself, Christ’s presence, His parousia is also what we usually refer to as “the last judgment,” which, in many senses, goes on continuously and therefore it is not “last” but in the sense of an ultimate judgment. Christ will judge the world—and the “prince of the world”—not by appealing to the violations of the Law or by taking into account the transgressions of any moral system, but He will judge the world by revealing Himself and by doing so, revealing at the same time our attitude toward Him. The very event of His parousia will be perceived either as the fulfillment of our expectations and thus as the highest blessing or, alternatively, as an unbearable and most painful experience—the torture of which the possessed men spoke and which is, it should now be understood, only a self-torture and for that reason inescapable, for not even God can save me from myself.
The event—the criterion—is one and the same in either case: Christ, the Son of God. The experience of that reality is, however, dramatically different depending on whose experience it is. I hope that for all of us it will be the culmination of our hopes, the fulfillment of our desires, a pleasure that, as has been promised, will have no end. Amen.
Very Rev. Panteleimon Manoussakis, Ph.D, OMHKSEA