Readings: Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Psalm 49; Matthew 8:28-34
Deus humanissimus - God most human - is a phrase associated with the theological work of the Belgian Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year. It comes to mind in thinking about today's readings which present us with various kinds of monstrous creatures, surreal activities and confusing human behaviour. In the midst of so much distortion and confusion stands one who is simply and wholly human, one with a heart of flesh, Jesus, radiating truth and compassion.
Away with solemnities and feasts, says Amos, with holocausts and oblations, with fattened cattle and noisy liturgies. Today's passage is a short summary of things Amos says frequently and more stridently throughout his book. Why not be simply human, he asks, showing your religious devotion and your faith in God by living justly and practising goodness? It is how you treat other people that is most important. Let justice and goodness guide your actions and characterise your personality: they are simple things but preferred by God in place of elaborate ceremonies accompanied by the distortions of corruption and injustice.
The gospel reading then takes us into a world that is like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, weird and wonderful, surreal and unsettling, dark and twisted. The demoniacs are human beings but possessed by evil spirits and so they are not in their right minds, they are not simply human. The demons themselves are not human either of course and their agenda is to distort and fragment, to disturb the balance of creation, and to distract people from justice and goodness. The ways and means of doing this are not important, they will try anything, and many things work. Neither are the unfortunate swine human, innocent victims in this tale, carrying the curse of being classified as unclean in earlier parts of sacred scripture.
The swineherds, like the disciples in yesterday's reading, are out of their minds with fear, running away to tell everything that had happened, including what happened to the demoniacs. It is a strange gloss: one would have thought that the main thing they had to tell was what had happened to the demoniacs. Instead we are told that they told the whole story, they reported everything ... including what happened to the demoniacs.
The whole story - how far back did they go in telling the story? The story they have to tell is about Jesus. Paradoxically, the figure in the story who is simplest and most straightforward is the one who is most terrifying. Having received a full report, the whole town set out to meet him and as soon as they saw him they implored him to leave the neighbourhood! One would have thought that a neighbourhood familiar with demons, demoniacs and swine would have been able to bear the presence among them of one who is simply and wholly human. But it is not so. He is, it seems, the most fear provoking character in the story and they ask him to leave them alone. Whatever it is about him.
Among the strange and startling creatures that appear in these pages of the gospel, screaming demons and demented pigs, the would-be followers, the doubting disciples, the terrified townspeople - there is one who is fulfilling the plan of creation with integrity and clarity. His, in the words of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, is 'the right human face' and humankind cannot bear very much of that simple reality, of the judgment implied in it, of the holiness it reveals. Edwin Muir's poem is cool spring water compared with the distortions recounted in the scripture readings:
Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face. / I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true, / Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong / Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste, / A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that's honest and good, an eye / That makes the whole world bright. Your open heart,
Simple with giving, gives the primal deed, / The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed,
The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea, / Not beautiful or rare in every part,
But like yourself, as they were meant to be.
- Edwin Muir, 'The Confirmation', published in The Narrow Place, 1943