Clotile and Boudreaux are having one of their regular arguments. But this time, the shouting gets louder and louder until Clotile just can’t take it anymore. She screams at Boudreaux, “That’s it. Go! Get out of this house right now. I can’t stand the sight of you anymore.”
The truth is, Boudreaux was quite happy to obey. He starts to walk towards the front door. But as he does Clotile shouts at him an insult that one day she would no doubt regret, “I hope you experience a long, slow and excruciatingly painful death.”
Boudreaux stops in his tracks, turns around, looks at Clotile, and says, “For crying out loud, make up your mind already. So now you want me to stay?”
You will have to be a fan of 80s music (the only truly great music) to know of the punk rock band The Clash and to further know that in 1981 they had a great song: Should I stay or should I go now? The chorus:
“Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?”
If you are a fan of 80s music, that song is now stuck in your head for the rest of the day, but I think ol’ Boudreaux would have also been singing it as he waited for Clotile’s answer on whether he should stay or go.
Today, in our Gospel, we have Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee and coming to the land of the Gerasenes on the northeast shore of the Sea. This is a land of Gentiles. We know this because of the region and by the fact that there are herds of pigs roaming around (in the eyes’ of the Jewish people, the pig is a filthy animal). There, Jesus and the disciples encounter the demon-possessed man. There are many demons within him, thus the “spokesdemon” refers to them all as Legion. In the time of Jesus, a legion was a military term and consisted of 6,826 soldiers, so it is safe to assume that there were more than just a few demons possessing the man. These demons recognize Jesus for who he is and are terrified of what they know he can do to them: cast them back into the abyss (FYI: that should tell us something about the abyss if the demons don’t even want to return to it), so Jesus has compassion—for lack of a better word—on them and does as they request: he casts them out of the man and sends them into a large herd of pigs. The pigs go crazy and fling themselves off a nearby cliff and were drowned in the sea. When the swine herders saw this, they became afraid, ran back to town, and reported what they had seen. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.”
The demons were terrified of Jesus which is understandable, but what is not understandable is why the people from the nearby town were “seized with great fear” and asked Jesus to leave.
Most commentators note that there would have been a certain amount of fear from the people because Jesus had brought about the death of the pigs, which would have been a large loss of income, but that was perhaps not the more significant reason.
John Calvin, who I’m not always a big fan of writes, “Power strikes men with terror, makes them fly from the presence of God, and drives them to a distance from Him: but goodness draws them gently, and makes them feel that nothing is more desirable than to be united to God.” The townspeople knew nothing of the teachings of Jesus and his goodness. They had only witnessed the power of God and it was this power that they were afraid of.
Commenting on this same incident, R.C. Sproul writes, “When the Holy One is manifest in the midst of unholy people, the only appropriate human response is dread.” Even those who worshipped pagan gods knew that it was always best to keep the gods at a distance and they likely thought of Jesus as one of these gods, but the gods can be unpredictable and they are never safe, so do you really want one meddling in your life. It is best for them to stay away. That is until you need them. Consider our Psalm for today.
Today, we began with verse 18, but we are all familiar with the opening lines of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress.” We know these as the words that Jesus cried out from the Cross, but it was David who originally penned them. In writing them, David was feeling pinned down by his enemies and there are indications that he was in physical pain as well. As we read today, David says,
Be not far away, O Lord;
you are my strength; hasten to help me.
Save me from the sword, my life from the power of the dog.
Save me from the lion’s mouth, my wretched body from the horns of wild bulls.
These are the words of someone who wants God to come to them and to stay with them. To save them from all their troubles. Amidst an unholy people, the power of God brings on dread, but amongst a people that are holy, it is the goodness and nearness of God that are most desired.
The holy and the unholy. The goodness and the dread. Two very opposing positions and I can assure you that I stand firmly in one of those categories… depending on the circumstances. And please don’t pretend that I’m alone.
For each of us, there are circumstances when we want God firmly on our side, guiding, protecting, loving, merciful, etc., and then there are circumstances when we would prefer it if He would just “go away”. There are days when we desire his goodness and there are days when we dread His eyes upon us and so on those latter days, like the Gerasenes, we invite Him to leave—at least for a little while. Until we need Him again.
When we ask him to go, it would make things easier if he would just slap us on the back of the head and say, “Don’t be stupid, John”, but Jesus will allow us to make the decision. Remember, when the Gerasenes were afraid and asked Jesus to leave, he got back in the boat he arrived on and went back home. He allowed them free will and he will do the same for us. Instead of slapping us on the back of the head, he says, “Should I stay or should I go? It’s your call.”
St. Paul said to us in his letter to the Galatians, “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian… the law was the slap on the back of the head, the dread of God’s power… until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Through our faith and our baptism, we have clothed ourselves in Christ Jesus. Let’s not be fickle like those who change clothes according to our circumstances or those things that suit their desires, but instead, let us stay firmly wrapped in the clothing of Christ, always desiring to be the holy ones who live in his goodness and mercy.
Let us pray: Breathe in us, Holy Spirit, that our thoughts may all be holy. Act in us, Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy. Draw our hearts, Holy Spirit, that we love only that which is holy. Strengthen us, Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard us, then, Holy Spirit, that we always may be holy. Amen.