A great shift in theological thinking is to be observed between the Old and the New Testaments. For much of the Old Testament, God is conceived in ethnic or tribal terms; God is our God, meaning, the God with whom Abraham and his descendants have entered into an agreement. God agrees to show the Israelites special favour and protection, and in return, Israelites promise to worship God in the right way. When they don’t, retribution is certain to ensue. That is almost always what calls forth prophetic warnings.
Here and there in the book of the prophet Isaiah (three different prophets, probably) we catch glimpses of a less ethnic conception of God, but in this week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah clearly re-affirms the old restrictions, and condemns “a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good. . . sacrificing in gardens, offering incense on bricks . . . eating swine's flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels”. “I will repay their iniquities and their ancestors' iniquities”, Isaiah hears God say. Punishment always falls short of outright destruction, however, because just as wine can be made from a small cluster of grapes, so God can “bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains”.
It is here we find the radical theological innovation of the New Testament. Paul, himself a Jew of the deepest dye, comes to see that the God we find in Christ Jesus transcends all ethnic and social divisions. “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now . . . we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God . . . there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring”.
This is the central topic of the first two readings, but it is not obvious how the Gospel is related to it. Yet the connections are there. “The country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee” takes Jesus into Gentile territory, and thus beyond the world of the Jews. This echoes Isaiah: “I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that did not call on my name”. Symbolically, the demons from which Legion is freed take up residence in pigs, traditionally categorized by Judaism as ‘unclean’. Yet that location cannot save them. Their final destination has to be the abyss in which all evil is destroyed.
The message is clear: God transcends the tribe that first discerned his purposes. Salvation is open to all. Yet, in an intriguing twist, Luke tells us that the presence of Jesus proves too alarming for the local Gentiles, and they ask him to leave their neighborhood. It is not only the Israelites, plainly, who can turn a deaf ear to God saying "Here I am, here I am”.
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