|46 - Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 20, 2008|
I have always assumed in this Gospel that the townspeople came out against Jesus because they were sore at him for the loss of their swine. But in the Greek there is no hint of anger or confrontation. The Greek carries the sense that the townspeople come out to present themselves to Jesus as though they were going out to meet a touring movie star performing at their local pig farm, i.e. their local night club. Indeed, the picture painted by the Greek reminds one of how so many Christians today go to Church on Sunday morning as to a show, to present themselves to their good friend, Jesus, to strum some nice tunes and to say a few words gushing about how nice and wonderful he is so that everyone leaves the show feeling all soft and gooey inside.
Now, the swine herders who had seen Jesus’ “show” fled, says St Matthew. Clearly, there was nothing soft and gooey about what they had seen. They were terrified. They fled to the city – as though wanting refuge in the sentimental religion they had grown up with. One can see them dashing into town, waving their arms breathlessly, terror etched on their faces, trying to give some sense of what they had seen to their friends and neighbors. But perhaps because the townspeople were so securely ensconced in their sentimental religiosity, they were not frightened but curious, and they all went out to meet this wonderworker. One sees them tripping along the lane, laughing and talking as they make their way out to the pig farms where the wonderworker Jesus is playing, perhaps in the hope of getting his autograph, maybe getting their picture taken standing next to him to show off to their friends. Perhaps they felt that since these were their pigs he had used for his show, he owed them at least an inspirational but short speech, thanking them for the use of their pigs and telling them what a great crowd they are.
When the townspeople come out and actually see Jesus, however, their manner changes suddenly and dramatically. St Matthew says, “When they saw him, they begged him to depart from their cities.” Something they saw so terrified them that they forgot all about autographs and pictures. They wanted only that he leave immediately and not just leave, but that he go far, far away. What did they see that filled them with such terror?
I suspect the townspeople were a lot like us: urbane, sophisticated, too cool to be anything more than casual about life, for whom reality is no more than what we can see in front of us. We live primarily to eat, to drink, to marry and to be merry, giving little if any thought to what might lie beyond our birth and death, whether there might not be something more to life than a large paycheck and a good pension, whether we might not be accountable to a reality greater than ourselves, or how we should be living so as to redeem the time of our life here on earth between our birth and our death. Our Jesus is as sappy and sentimental, sugary and nice as our religion is banal and shallow. We spout sappy religious platitudes as though we were wise and deep about a Christ whose chief religious purpose is to stroke our self-image, confirm us in our political views, give us what we want and to establish our lives in prosperity, comfort and social status. Obviously, this wasn’t the Jesus the townspeople saw or they would have begged him to stay. What did they see? I submit that they saw into the hard reality of the spiritual world for which their soft and gooey religiosity had left them altogether unprepared.
Understand that the demons about whom we read in this morning’s Gospel are cosmic powers: “cosmocrators” St Paul calls them in his epistle to the Ephesians. The name tells us that any one of them is as evil and powerful as the cosmos is vast, and that their evil is as thick and impenetrable as the cosmos is deep. Indeed, the holy fathers tell us that even the least of the demonic powers could destroy the world in a trice. What is even more disturbing, however, is that, according to St Paul, it is precisely against these forces, not ordinary flesh and blood, that those who would follow Jesus as the Christ to gain the Kingdom of Heaven must contend. Think on this, and see if you don’t feel a sudden impulse to flee like mad with the swine herders back to the safety of that soft and gooey religion and its sappy Jesus.
At the scene of the demoniacs’ cleansing, the townspeople saw no mere wonderworker fresh from his latest performance at the local pig farm – or rather, night club. They saw Jesus the Pantocrator, the “all-holy One who has power over the All,” i.e over the whole cosmos, stronger in his little finger than all the demonic legions of cosmic powers put together. The townspeople had the misfortune of coming upon Jesus fresh from his rout of the demons that had imprisoned the two men for so long. No doubt the terror of his pantocratic majesty that rendered the mighty demons into gibbering flibberty-gidgets was still etched on his countenance; and I dare say that the “pantocratic” fire of his wrath, mightier, as the Psalmist says, than the thunder of many waters, mightier than the waves of [ten thousand cosmic] seas, that so terrified the terrible demons that they had no power even over the swine and plunged with them, willy-nilly, over the precipice and into the sea, was still flashing from his eyes. Indeed, one wonders if this story of the demoniacs is a veiled allusion to another transfiguration of the Savior; and the townspeople, carrying in their mind and hearts the soft and gooey image of their sappy savior god, found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time – and they paid dearly for it. They were terrified out of their wits. They begged the Lord to leave; and he did.
But why did he leave? Peter, James and John, you’ll remember, were also terrified when they saw Jesus transfigured on the Mount. And, at another time, after seeing the Lord rebuke the wind and the waves, St Peter fell on his knees in terror and begged the Lord to depart. But Jesus did not depart from his disciples, even when they asked him to. What is different about the townspeople that Jesus departs from them when he did not depart from the disciples?
The manner of the townspeople suggests that they were like those Jews of whom St Paul speaks in his epistle we read this morning: “They have a zeal for God,” he writes; “but it is not a zeal of knowledge. They are ignorant of God’s righteousness, seeking rather to establish themselves in their own righteousness, which is not obedient to the righteousness of God.” And I suspect that in their self-righteousness, the townspeople saw Jesus as did the Pharisees: not as the Lord Pantocrator but as Beelzebub, a cosmocrator, the prince of demons, as we read in the Gospel of St Matthew this last Tuesday.
I submit that the townspeople were like so many of us who style ourselves Christians. Our Christ is not the Christ of the bible but the reflected image of our own zealous self-righteousness. We are so convinced that we know Christ, that he is our friend, even our lord, when in fact our zeal is for the sentimental god that our smug, self-righteous conceit has produced. If we take the bible seriously and its Gospel, we should be very much afraid that we are like the townspeople in this morning’s Gospel. Tell me: when you hear the Gospel command against sexual immorality, or when you hear the Church’s stern admonitions against practices, behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to your own views, do you find yourself secretly scoffing and sneering at the Church, as though the Church is silly, old-fashioned and unenlightened compared to your own sophisticated understanding? Do you not show yourself in this to be established in a zeal for your own righteousness that is not obedient to the righteousness of God, which is Christ? The Lord Jesus Christ is incarnate, embodied, in his holy commandments and in his holy Church, for she is his very body, and when you dismiss the Church or scoff at her words, you dismiss and scoff at Christ. In this, are you not saying, like the self-righteous Pharisees, that he is for you Beelzebub, the prince of demons?
You see, the one who is established in the zeal of his own righteousness cannot see or love Christ, who is himself the Righteousness of God, because he deifies the wisdom of his own opinions on social, moral and religious issues and submits to that as though it was the Wisdom of God. Such a one becomes blind to the spiritual world and has no ability to discern the spirits, to see if they are from God. If he is granted suddenly to see into the spiritual world, he will tend to identify as good those dark spirits which are most like himself, an enemy of God in the conceit of self-righteous zeal, who follows after his own will instead of seeking to do the will of God. Conversely, he will see as evil those good spirits which are unlike himself; those spirits that submit to God in the fear of God and in love for God. In other words, he will see the evil cosmocrators, as good, and he will see the good Pantocrator, Christ, as Beelzebub, the prince of demons.
So it was that when the townspeople came upon the Pantocrator fresh from his rout of the demons, they must have thought in their self-righteous stupidity that they had come upon the terrible aftermath of a cosmic spat between cosmic demonic powers in which Jesus was the one demon left standing and a fortiori the mightiest of the demons. Unable to discern the spirits in their self-righteousness, they must have mistook the Pantocrator for the cosmocrator, Beelzebub, prince of all the cosmic demonic powers, and so they begged Jesus to leave, thinking they were chasing away the mighty Beelzebub.
And the Pantocrator leaves them at their request when he did not leave St Peter at his request not because he didn’t love the townspeople and he loved his disciples but because their request was the demand of their self-righteousness; for, they did not say as did St Peter and the disciples, “Depart from us for we are sinners.” So the Lord Pantocrator left them, because he is love, and as powerful as he is, he will not force himself on those who do not love him or want him and the freedom of immortality that he gives.
Beloved faithful, in the teaching and prayers of the Church, you have received the Word of God, the very Word of God that raised the heavens and the earth into being from nothing. In the sacraments of the Church you have received into your mouth and into your body as your food and drink the sacred, all-holy and all-powerful Word of the Christ Pantocrator, who is mightier in his little finger than all the cosmic powers of evil combined. You have received him into your mouth and into your body. Have you received him into your heart, your mind and your soul? What do you live for? What are you zealous for? The Pantocrator is all-powerful, but he will not force us to receive him, and if we ask him to leave as did the townspeople in this morning’s Gospel, he will leave – unless we plead like the holy disciples, not out of self-righteousness but because we see in his all-holy presence that we are the first of all sinners and that we are not worthy to be made partakers of his holy mysteries, or even to be in his presence. For, this is not the plea of self-righteousness wanting nothing to do with the Righteousness of God; it is the plea of a broken and contrite heart that the Lord does not despise, a plea spoken in that holy fear of God that is the mother of faith and love, the beginning of that Wisdom which is the Righteousness of God, Christ the Lord Pantocrator. It is in the attitude of humility’s holy fear that we should be approaching the chalice, understanding that we approach the all-holy Pantocrator, the all-holy Word of God who is himself the Righteousness of God by whom the heavens and the earth were created and that has power over the devil and all his hosts, all his works, all his service, and all his pride. It is the fear of God that becomes obedience in faith to the will of God, which is that the wicked should not perish but that he should turn from his wickedness and live. And, beloved faithful, it is in this fear of God that we should leave the Divine Liturgy and return to our life in the world not in the conceit of self-righteousness but in humble thanksgiving, eucharistia, in the desire to redeem the time God has given to us, in the prayer that Christ our God, the Pantocrator, would illumine our hearts with the pure light of his divine knowledge; that he would open our minds to the understanding of his gospel teachings; that he would implant in us the fear of his blessed commandments, so that trampling down all carnal desires, we, born from above as children of God in the Heavenly Spirit of Christ Pantocrator, might enter upon a spiritual manner of living – that manner of living that is in accordance with the Resurrection of Christ our Savior – both thinking and doing from this day, from this hour, from this moment, such things as are well-pleasing to the Lord Pantocrator who loved us and gave himself for us, who delivered us from bondage to the cosmocrators, the cosmic powers of evil, and who by his holy Pascha made us to “pass over” with Him into his Kingdom of Light that our bodies and our souls may no longer be darkened but illumined in the uncreated light and life of Christ our God, the Pantocrator, to whom be glory forever, together with his Father who is from everlasting and his all-holy, good and life-creating Spirit. Amen.