The herd of pigs rushing down the steep bank into the Sea of Galilee is usually where my attention goes when reading the account in Luke 8:26-48. The other day a different aspect to the story stopped me in my tracks, and verse 37 struck me as one of the saddest verses in the New Testament.
When Jesus sailed across the sea and reached the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a demon-possessed man was there to meet him. This man was so tortured by the many demons who inhabited him that he had not worn clothes or lived in a house for a long time. Instead he had been chained hand and foot and kept under guard though he often broke the chains and sought refuge among the tombs.
When the demoniac sees Jesus, he recognizes him as the “Son of the Most High God” and begs Jesus not to torture him. The many demons dwelling within him beg repeatedly not to be cast into the Abyss and request to go into the herd of pigs feeding on the hillside instead. Jesus complies.
I’ve stood at the high point on the eastern shore where tradition holds this scene most likely occurred. Today there is a barbed wire fence at the top of the hill and signs warning of land mines buried on the hillside hang on the wires, so it takes work to envision the rest of the scene as it unfolded 2000 years ago.
The shocked herdsmen run off to tell what they had seen to people in the town and surrounding countryside. To this I can totally relate – pigs rushing down a hillside to drown in the lake would have been quite an event to witness. But when the people arrive on the scene and see the demoniac sitting at Jesus feet dressed and behaving like a normal man, they are afraid. This reaction is harder for me to understand. I like to think I would have been thrilled to see the local “crazy” healed, been excited for him and wanted to meet the man who made all this happen.
Luke’s next words are a very sad; “Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he go into the boat and left.”
As Leon Morris comments in the Tyndale Commentary on Luke, “With all the evidence before them that a great miracle had been wrought, these people proceeded to reject the greatest opportunity of their lives.” Perhaps the material loss caused the fear, perhaps the supernatural power made them afraid. Either way, “they saw Jesus as a disturbing person, more interested in saving people than in material prosperity.” He had demonstrated power over spiritual forces and healed a man, but instead of being celebrated and worshiped, he was rejected. The people chose to allow fear to overcome them and muddle their thinking.
As I consider the scenario, the words “afraid” and “fear” pop out, as does the realization the people had sent the God of the universe packing when he was right there among them. While it’s easy for me to think I would have behaved differently, how many times have words or a response motivated by fear been one I later regretted? How many times has fear kept me from pursuing a relationship with God or others? More times than I would like to admit.
Next time I recognize fear has overtaken me, I want to realize my thinking is very likely muddled and I might be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. I truly don’t want to see the back of Jesus as his boat pulls away from the shore and know I was the one who asked him to leave.
When have you seen the back of Jesus?