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Matthew VIII 28 ff

September 19, 2016

Matthew VIII 28 ff

Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions.
Love, as you call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.

We have deep faith in prosperity.
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross product, the practice of charity
Is palpably inessential.

It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.

We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If you cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather you shoved off.

–Richard Wilbur 1961

COMMENTARY: In the Bible story of the Gadarenes and the swine, Jesus meets a man from Gadara who is possessed by a legion of demons. After exorcising the demons, he allows them to go into the swine grazing by the side of a cliff. The entire possessed herd then rushes off the edge and drowns in the sea. The symbolic meaning of the exorcism is a rebuke of the impious pursuit of wealth. Swine were an unclean animal in the Levitical law and so not to be bred as livestock. After seeing their demoniacs healed and their swine destroyed, the rest of the Gadarenes plead with Jesus to leave their town.

Here Wilbur recasts the parable for a contemporary society of money-first, productive, proactive, professionals whose real possession is not supernatural visitation but of superficial values. The language of the poem is deliberately rotund, in the way of business talk (“in light of our gross product/ the practice of charity is palpably inessential”). The hinge turns with the slangy last sentence “We’d rather you shoved off.”

I love the lines, “We shall not, however, resign/ Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough:” a perfect indictment of an age in which, despite every material comfort effortlessly attainable and every whim effortlessly gratifiable, so many of the beneficiaries of wealthy western democracies are unhappy, sick, and desperate.


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