There have been two bible stories that have recaptured my attention recently. The first is a story at the end of Matthew chapter 8 about pigs, demons, and money (how could this not be interesting?). I remember putting together a sermon on this passage for a homiletics (preaching) class in College. I – cleverly, in my humble opinion – called it “Get Your Eyes Off the Pigs.” I suppose I still see much of the same truth in this passage as I did back then, but perhaps on a deeper and more nuanced level.
It’s not a long story – only seven verses – but it packs a punch. Jesus enters the region of the Gadarenes, which was a very Gentile (non-Jewish) place, and sees two demon-possessed guys coming out of a tomb. Pause. There wasn’t much that was more horrifying and unclean to a good Jew than people who lived in tombs. Oh, and they were demon-possessed and “so violent that no one could pass that way” (v.28). They were, in other words, extremely tormented individuals, maybe not unlike a person who might talk frightening non-sense while banging their head against a wall in a mental institution. The kind of people you are afraid to walk by but are to someone else; a son or brother. Jesus, with a single word (Go!), tells the demons to leave the men alone and the men become well. They are free from the incredible darkness that held them as prisoners for a long time. But, there’s a detail in the story that everything hinges on and it’s the fact that the demons begged Jesus to send them into the herd of pigs. Pause again. A good kosher Jew in Jesus’ day would have loved this detail. Pigs were very much unclean and there was something wonderful about the demons being sent into them. Jesus didn’t seem to mind either. So into the pigs the demons go which sends the pigs running off into the lake. The pigs drown. The people who are tending the pigs go into the town and tell everyone two things: 1) The violent guys who live in tombs are miraculously free and are now normal upstanding citizens, and 2) The pig business is bankrupt. The entire town comes out to meet Jesus and they beg him to leave. He complies.
The second story is equally interesting. Paul and Silas were making their daily trip to the place of prayer when a fortune-telling women, also demon possessed, kept calling out “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (v.17). Curiously, she was telling the truth. For several days she kept this up and it was annoying Paul (v. 18). Frankly, I find Paul’s annoyance to be of great comfort. Even though what the woman was saying was factually correct, something was off. After a few days of this Paul turns around and suddenly commands the demon to come out of her. It does. The woman is free. But, things get interesting here. The darkness of the woman’s soul made some people’s pockets very deep. So, “her owners” (v.19) – because this is how we view people that we use to make money – were livid. Not unlike the last story, a great crowd from the city gathers, but this time Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten with rods, and put in prison where they are “severely flogged.”
Do you see a pattern in these two stories? Both stories are about individuals who become radically free from inner darkness. Imagine your son has been in a mental ward for years and you, along with everyone else, are at a loss as to how to help him. His life seems so troubling and dark and then one day, it isn’t. Imagine your daughter has been forced into some kind of dark trade. Sex trafficking, maybe. She has been making money for her owners for years and something dark has happened to her soul in the process. But suddenly, she’s free. Just like that, she’s your little girl again. Now imagine that your son or daughter’s freedom has caused a riot in the city. Why? Because people love money.
These stories disturb me. They are stories about an individual’s freedom being juxtaposed with a money making system of power. The irony here is that Paul, in the book of Ephesians, says that we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. What he’s saying is that there are dark and demonic powers that operate through the powerful systems of the world. In these stories you see these dark forces at work against the Kingdom of God. So, on the one hand a person is delivered from a demon, but on the other hand the system is still possessed. Jesus is concerned with both. We should be too. I’m concerned, however, that in the American church we’ve been concerned with freeing individuals but remain quite afraid of the powerful systems that keep them (and sometimes us) bound. If the American way of consumerism (which makes money off of the backs of afflicted people we cannot see), wealth, and power (dido to both of these categories) is challenged through preaching or public witness, you can be certain that the angry crowd will come against you full force. This demon needs to be exorcised.
Interestingly, the story of Paul and Silas ends with the prison being shaken so violently that all of the doors open and everyone’s chains fall off (God continues to delivers people from oppressive systems!). When the jailor sees that everyone is about to be free he realizes that it will cost him his own life and becomes suicidal. Paul, though, yells at the man before he can harm himself and tells him that everyone has stayed. This is a picture of what it means to be a free person in the Kingdom of God: you become willing to take the punishment of the system upon yourself to see people, like the jailor (an agent of the system), freed. The jailor, we are told, was baptized. In the Church, baptism symbolizes two things: death and resurrection. People like Paul and Silas – and now the jailor – learned that they did not have to be a slave to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15) because of the power of the resurrection. The threat of the system is violence and death. Jesus met the threat of the system on a cross. But death was not the final word. Resurrection was the final word. It still is. For this reason we can continue to demonstrate and preach God’s freedom to people and remain unafraid when that freedom opposes the money making systems of our world. We don’t oppose those systems the way that they oppose us – through violence – but through the power of the cross and resurrection.