After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew moves on to speak of a few stories that deserve mention in passing. The next story is the healing of a leper, followed by the demonstration of a Roman centurion’s faith. In keeping with Matthew’s emphasis on the mumzer, he points out the interactions of Jesus with people who are unclean and unacceptable to this hyper-religious region of “the Triangle” (the region of northern Galilee, where the religious and orthodox communities lived). In fact, the refrain will become quite recognizable throughout Matthew, as we see Jesus’s exclamation in Matthew 8:10 that He hasn’t found faith like this in all Israel. We will consistently see Matthew point out a mumzer who has faith, followed by a mumzer who has faith, followed by a mumzer who has faith — then a religious person or community who doesn’t have faith.
Eventually, toward the end of the chapter, Jesus tells His disciples to get into a boat and they depart for “the other side.” This game plan would have struck the disciples as a horrible idea. First, there’s the ultimate destination: the other side of the lake would be the land of the Decapolis. Standing in stark contrast to the region of the Triangle, this area is completely pagan. There are no synagogues and no Jews — nothing good happens on the other side of the lake. We even have ancient oral traditions mentioning the fact that even uttering the word “Decapolis” made you unclean for seven days. This is the kind of place where each one of these talmidim’s parents told them never to be found. You can hear them thinking, “My mom is going to KILL me!”
And second, the mode of transportation is bothersome, as well. Walking around the lake (the Sea of Galilee) isn’t so daunting a task. The Jewish people are not “water people.” They have been desert nomads for centuries. If you think about it, water is always a problem in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s the representation of the watery chaos in the story of Creation. It’s what destroys the earth in the Flood. It’s the Red Sea which needs to be crossed in the Exodus. It’s the Jordan River serving as a barrier between them and the Promised Land. Water is not their friend. Now, I have many students come to me and quickly point out that the disciples are fishermen. This does not point to them being water people. This was a job which people in the Galilee took because it was a dependable living — not one which was sought after since childhood. Furthermore, you would fish only a few yards off the shore in shallow water.
The Jews called the sea “the abyss,” which is used by Luke in his telling of this story. It was the home of evil and the gateway to the underworld. This is NOT their preferred mode of travel.
But take off across the lake they do and — of course — a storm comes up. They find Jesus sleeping on a cushion in the bottom of the boat and they wake Him in order to plead with Him to save their lives. He awakes and tells the storm to be still. The storm obeys and most of us miss the greater point. When was the last time we saw someone sleeping in the bottom of a boat?
And who was Jonah called to? The Gentiles.
And where is Jesus heading? The Gentiles.
Jesus is retelling the story of Jonah. I picture Him “sleeping” with one eye open to see if his talmidim are paying attention to the rabbinic lesson.
They land on the other side and Jesus gets out of the boat. Immediately, a demon-possessed man comes to Him on the beach and they begin having a colorful conversation. Again, none of this would surprise the disciples, who know they are messing with evil; coming across the abyss to the land of the Decapolis is asking for trouble.
Jesus casts the demonic legion out of the man and into a herd of pigs who run into the abyss and drown. The herdsmen run into town and the people come out to see a formerly possessed man sitting dressed and in his right mind. The response is not one of joy, but one of fear and frustration. This strange, tasseled visitor is disrupting their social order and just put a considerable dent in their economy. They want no part in the shalom Jesus has come to bring.
Jesus gets back into the boat and begins to leave. The newly-redeemed man begs to go with Him. Now, we all know what we want Jesus to do. This is the perfect candidate for a new disciple. He has no true home; no family or friends have claimed him for quite some time. He has no Godly community or local synagogue to take him in. There is no job tying him down. He would be the ideal companion to teach the disciples about humility. He is set up in every way to drop everything and follow Jesus.
But Jesus tells him no. Jesus says that he needs him to stay and tell his story.
Now, you can hear my entire teaching of this lesson here, but this story leads me to make a couple of observations.
Apparently, having an encounter with Jesus is enough. This guy has no education and no spiritual community. Unless Jesus gave him a cursory course in Theology 101 on the beach (very doubtful), he has no trying in the Scriptures. This man has nothing except his story and Jesus leaves him to change the Decapolis. What a crazy idea. But it seems to work. Jesus will come back to this area only once more in the gospels. He does not send His disciples here and we aren’t told of any interaction with anybody from the Decapolis elsewhere after this story. But when Jesus swings back through this region, He’s going to be met by “a great crowd” who comes out to greet Him and He’ll feed 4,000 of them.
You don’t suppose this guy actually went and did it, do you? It’s hard to explain otherwise. Not only this, but the Nicene Creed, one of the most influential creeds of the Christian faith will be penned (according to church tradition) by the Bishop of Susita, the same city the demoniac called home. This guy, armed only with his story, may have had quite an influence on Christian history.
But not only this, as one begins to study the gospel accounts more and more, we begin to notice that it doesn’t appear the disciples ever left the safety of their own boat. The gospel writers have no problem in their accounts using the term “they” or “Jesus and the disciples.” However, the disciples are mysteriously absent from the pronouns of this story. THEY get into the boat. THEY sail across the lake and battle the storm. THEY get to the other side. But it’s JESUS who gets out of the boat. JESUS talks to the demoniac. JESUS interacts with the townspeople. JESUS gets back in the boat. And it will be THEY who go back to the other side.
Not one gospel writer put a single sandal of a disciple on the shore of the Decapolis. The disciples never get out of the boat.
The problem with being a follower of Jesus is that at some point we actually have to FOLLOW Jesus. When we find Jesus in places that scare us to death — when Jesus orders us to sail across the lake — our life-altering call is to follow Him wherever He goes.
Jesus is going to be found in the Decapolis of our world. He’ll bring shalom to the chaos. But in order to impact the chaos, we’ll have to enter the chaos and run hard after Jesus.
Jesus is looking for partners; but those partners will have to get out of the boat.