SERMON: WHY DID JESUS PERMIT THE DEMONS TO ENTER THE HERD OF SWINE? (Matthew 8:28-9:1)
In the Bible, in the book of Sirach, Joshua ben Sirach writes, “The Lord’s compassion extends to everyone.” Does that mean that His compassion extends to demons as well? In this morning’s Gospel we heard demons, asking Jesus, to be permitted to enter into a herd of swine. They were being cast out of human beings, but they asked that they not to be sent into torments “before the time.” And how did Jesus react to them? He said “Go!” Is Jesus somehow showing mercy to demons, the same demons who had tormented the two men so viciously for so long? No, that is not what is happening. Let me share with you the full quote from Sirach: “Human compassion extends to neighbours, but the Lord's compassion extends to everyone; rebuking, correcting and teaching, bringing them back as a shepherd brings his flock. He has compassion on those who accept correction, and who fervently search for his judgments” (Sirach 18: 13-14). This means that the Lord’s compassion includes rebuking, correcting, and teaching, and this requires that those receiving it will embrace the correction. The demons will not, ever, receive correction or rebukes. They will never repent. So why does Jesus seem to acquiesce to their pleas? The answer is simple, He wants us to learn something about our spiritual enemies, the demons. So...what do we need to learn today?
#1 The demons want us dead. I’ve told you this many times, but it bears repeating: they want us to die. Suicide, like the pigs, is best. But any death that comes without grace is their goal. And what is a death without grace? A death without Communion, a death especially without confession. A death unconfessed, with many sins clinging to our souls is a demon’s delight! A death separated from the Church is another thing they love. As St Cyprian of Carthage wrote in about the year 250, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus,” meaning “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Spiritual death is another thing that makes them happy. Even if people are baptized, even if they go to church, if they have no spiritual life, if they do not truly love God and their life is totally guided by this world and not the world to come, they are spiritually dead. Such dead people will not be soldiers for Christ. They will not defeat the enemy, but will instead be utterly defeated by them.
#2 They want us to be arrogant, filled with pride, just like they are. Did you notice that the demons in today’s Gospel not only recognized the divinity of Christ, but they also knew there was a divinely-appointed time for their judgment and that He would be their judge! This tells us that they knew the truth, but refused to be effected by it. People who imitate the demons also easily exchange the truth for lies, as St Paul says in Romans 1:25, because they worship themselves rather than God. This is pure pride and pure arrogance that will guarantee that the human being will have no power at all against the demons!
#3 They want us to resemble swine. For the demons, the pigs weren’t all that different from the humans they were tormenting. They hate us. They regard us as swine, smart but filthy, ritually and physically unclean. The demons want us this way, morally corrupt, breakers of God’s Law. Who were the people raising these pigs after all? If the pigs’ owners were Jews, Jesus could have been rebuking them for violating Mosaic law which forbids Jews from eating or keeping unclean animals such as swine (Leviticus 11:7). The demons in their delusion think that they will defeat God and His armies of angels. They believe that they will inherit the earth. God, on the contrary, says that He is preparing a new heaven and a new earth, and that we, His people, will inherit it.
#4 Jesus wants to assure us that He is infinitely more powerful than the demons. The Holy Apostle John the Theologian wrote in his first epistle: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome (the evil spirits), for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (i.e. “Satan”). Jesus didn’t simply “allow” the demons to enter the pigs, but He sent them to their destruction. Please recall the words of the second exorcism prayer at a Baptism which the priest directs to Satan: “Depart! Acknowledge the vainness of thy might, which hath not power even over swine. Call to mind Him Who, at thy request, commanded thee to enter into the herd of swine.” So Christ commanded, He did not accede to their request. But what about the owners of those pigs? What do we learn from them? The Gospel says that they were so terrified to be in the presence of such spiritual power that they made no demand for restitution for the loss of their property and simply begged Jesus to leave their area. The locals were awe-struck but unrepentant—they wanted no more of Jesus Christ. This shows the hardness of their hearts and their desire to remain in sin.
Brothers and Sisters, children of God, I’m going to conclude with three stanzas, three prayers, from the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete which reflect almost perfectly on the lessons that the Lord wanted us to learn today:
I have sinned, I know, O merciful Lord, and outraged the vessel of my flesh, but accept me in penitence and recall me to awareness of Thee. May I never be the possession or food of the enemy. O Savior, have compassion on me.
I am become my own idol, and have injured my soul with passions, O merciful Lord, but accept me in penitence and recall me to awareness of Thee. May I never be the possession or food of the enemy. O Savior, have compassion on me.
I have not listened to Thy voice, I have disobeyed Thy Scripture, O Lawgiver, but accept me in penitence and recall me to awareness of Thee. May I never be the possession or food of the enemy. O Savior, have compassion on me!
(Ode 4, Thursday of the 5th Week of Great Lent)