Homily 5th Sunday after Pentecost: The Gergesene Swine

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!

          I am reminded of a story a fellow priest told me about a parish he attended as a layman.  Every year, about this time of year, his parish priest would take a vacation; and every year the parish would get the same retired Priest from Russia to cover for him.  The Retired priest was well liked even though he could be something of a curmudgeon….perhaps that’s why they liked him.  Somehow by some coincidence (or maybe not) every year that the old priest came to visit it was the Sunday in which the story of the Demon-possessed men and the pigs…today’s Gospel…was read.   One year he came out to give the homily and he sighed…. “Again, with the pigs already!  Always it’s the pigs!”….and that was the extent of his homily that year.  He had run out of things to say after coming to that same church year after year. He must have given as many different spins on that story as there are ways to cook pork.  As we know in the South…that’s a lot of sermons!

          It is an important reading, though.  The events are recounted in three of the four Gospels.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all give a version of this story.  It made  it into the regular lectionary of the Church, and that means we should pay careful attention to what we hear in this story. 

          One of the first things that we hear in this story is who Jesus Christ is.  Without any kind of ambiguity, the demons say right out “What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of God?”  If we look at the chapter in Matthew (and for that matter in Mark and Luke) the immediately preceding verses have Jesus calm the waters of the sea and those with Him ask, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?”  Even His disciples are at times a bit confused as to Who it is that Christ is.  Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God will come later in the other Gospels.  Now they are simply wondering in awe as to what manner of man this is that can calm the seas at a word.  The demons know, though, and they fear Him.   The Fathers say that it is important to note that they showed fear of Christ, so that those who were against Jesus could not say that the words the demons spoke was some sort of flattery.  Their fear shows that they have enmity with Christ.  They are not his friends or followers.

          Next we notice their actual lack of any real power.  Many people wonder what the pigs have to do with anything.  Why were the pigs involved and why were they destroyed…poor little pigs.  The incident with the pigs actually shows the powerlessness of the demons.  Yes, the pigs are driven by the demons into the sea and destroyed, but, you will note, the men are not.   The Fathers point out that the destruction of the pigs shows how mad for destruction the demons are.  They will even try to destroy a herd of pigs if given the chance.  Note that the demons had to ask for Christ’s permission to enter into the pigs.  Confronted with Christ they ask to be allowed to go into the pigs and Christ tells them “go.”  This shows us that everything happens because of God’s providence.  St. John Chrysostom says, “His providence is not only over all in common, but also over each in particular…”  By this St. John means that God pays attention to the minutest details.  As Christ told His disciples….even the hairs of their head are numbered.  Even though He permits the demons to act, one will also note that God has limited the extent of their ability to harm man.  Even for the unbeliever and the sinner, the Lord restrains the hand of the devil.  God’s good providence is extended to all.  The demons could not destroy the men, though the pigs did not enjoy the same degree of protection that humans get.  Animals are not made in the image of God.  Men are and we are more precious to God than anything else.

           Now, saying that God allows something to happen is not, of course, the same as saying He causes things to happen.  God does not cause evil.  He permits things to happen because He loves us, because He has given us free will.  We are permitted to choose good as well as evil.  This is shown, again, by the fact that even the demons ask permission to go into the swine.  The free will of God’s rational creatures is also shown, though, by the reaction of the people of that region to Christ.

          Do they marvel at the wonder He has just performed?  Yes.  Do they welcome the Messiah into their midst, ask for forgiveness for raising swine in the first place (an occupation that was forbidden to Jews), and repent?  No.  They tell Christ to leave.   Actually they beg Christ to leave them.  Perhaps they were afraid He was going to destroy their whole livelihood right then and there!  Their greed for monetary gain, selling pigs to the gentiles, blinded them to the treasure that stood before them.  Here was the Pearl of Great Price and they desired the swine instead.  Later when Christ would send His disciples out into the countryside to preach to the villages he would tell them that when they came to a household or village that was worthy to let their peace (Christ’s peace) come upon it.  If they were unworthy and did not accept them, then the disciples’ peace would return to them and they were to shake the dust from their sandals as a sign against that place. “Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.” says the Lord concerning the cities that reject Him and His disciples.  Pig farming in Palestine doesn’t seem to have been such a good idea back then…especially if it meant losing salvation.  The people made their free choice, though….as we all must do in our lifetimes.

          Those who choose the things of this world over Christ, those who would choose money and comfort or esteem over following Christ are, as the Fathers say, like the demoniacs in this story.  They may be clothed and in society and seem to be in their right mind, but in actuality they are stripped naked of the true glory, the glory of the Lord, and they cut themselves, not with stones as in the accounts of Mark and Luke, but with sins which are worse than stones.

          This is, perhaps, the greatest of the lessons to be learned from the Gergesene Pigs.  Christ will not stay where He is not wanted.  At the behest of the townspeople, Christ leaves them.  He leaves them to their pigs.       He does not leave them without some hope, though.  In the versions of this story in Mark and Luke only one demoniac is mentioned.  The Fathers say that this does not contradict the passage here in Matthew, but that the one mentioned in the other versions is the fiercer of the two, the one who made more of an impression.  In those versions of the story, the demoniac asks to stay with Christ.  He did not want to be separated from the source of his salvation.  Jesus does not allow him to follow with the disciples.  Instead Our Lord plants the man in the midst of those who had rejected him and says in Mark’s Gospel, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” (Mark 5:19).  And in Luke’s Gospel we learn that the man “went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.”  The Lord made the man a missionary.

          We too, each one of us, has a similar story to tell of something wonderful that Christ has done for us.  We are surrounded by many unbelievers as well.  Let us take this story of God’s providence and take heart and confess the goodness of God to our neighbors.  Let us proclaim the great things and even the small things that Jesus has done for us.  We live in a hungry world…and there is more to eat than just swine!

          In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!


©2009 Fr. Philip Kontos