Man from the Gerasenes (1) – Healing

The man from the GerasenesHaving arrived in the country of the Gerasenes after a stormy trip across Lake Galilee, Jesus is faced with a challenging situation. There’s a man who’s ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’… and there’s no time for a risk assessment. (Please be aware this entry considers the sensitive topic of deliverance ministry.)

Please read Mark 5:2-9

This man was somebody’s son. He’d been a child who sat on his mother’s knee. A boy who splashed in the waters on the Western shores of Lake Galilee. And now look at him. He didn’t live with the living: he lived with the dead. Whatever happened? Whatever went wrong?

Today, we’d have a name for ‘people like him’. A nice, politically correct name:

Excluded    Marginalised    Vulnerable

He’s named by his situation not by who he is. The anonymous outcast becomes known by the name of that which possessed him: Legion.

Demon possession is not just the stuff of horror films and ancient history. Exorcism isn’t about spiritually cauterising the victim until they writhe on the floor, screaming unintelligent sounds and foaming at the mouth. Deliverance ministry is highly specialised. It’s to be undertaken only by people who have been specifically trained and who operate under the authority of and accountable to a recognised and well-established church. Carried out in the context of prayer, with no publicity, in collaboration with appropriate healthcare support, and with continuing pastoral care for the person concerned.

The role of deliverance ministry, which is how Jesus’ encounter with the man from the Gerasenes could be described, is essentially one of providing a cure not a punishment (those who are possessed are never described as sinful). In Biblical times, there was a belief that demons would be free to roam the earth until the Judgment Day came and they did this by taking possession of people.

This possession was often associated with disease, because in those times – note, in those times – disease was often seen as the consequence of sin and a sign of being in Satan’s power. Thankfully our understanding of disease has changed and improved considerably but this also helps explain why when Jesus expels a demon there is often a cure as well. This is healing is for the whole person.

The man from the Gerasenes was an outcast – literally cast out of the city.

Abused    Ostracised    Rejected

So used was he to being badly treated by other people, when he sees Jesus coming towards him he is frightened: ‘What have you to do with me… do not torment me.’ Yet, in his running towards and bowing down before the Lord, he grasped the opportunity to get the help he knew he needed. Like so many people before and since, he reached out to Jesus – even though he was afraid of doing so.

Jesus deals with the fears too. Before stepping ashore in to the Gentile-inhabited land of the Gerasenes on the Western shore of Lake Galilee, he had been asleep in a boat with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41). A storm blew up and, woken by frightened followers, he calmed the storm and in doing so calmed their fears also. And now (and yes, it’s a pity about the pigs) Jesus uses that same power to calm the storm that is the life of this man from the country of the Gerasenes.

Think back to a time in your life when you felt as if you were ‘living in the tombs’. A time when life was tough. Perhaps due to illness, difficulties in home or at work, estrangement from family, the ending of a relationship, for example. In what ways did you run towards Jesus? How did he calm your fears and bring healing and wholeness?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Man from the Gerasenes (2) – Wholeness

The man from the Gerasenes - mental illness & recoveryPlease read Mark 5:14b-20

After Jesus’ intervention, the man from the Gerasenes is described as being ‘in his right mind’. (Please be aware this entry considers the sensitive topic of mental ill health.)

Many have described the man from the Gerasenes as being mentally ill. He may well have been: Mark’s account does include a reference to self-harm (verse 5). Whereas demon possession is one of spiritual distress, mental ill health is often more affected and influenced by psychological, sociological and biological factors.

Today, we’d have names for ‘people like that’ too.

Nutter   Psycho   Loony

Stigma about mental illness has always existed: we can read that in to the attitude of the crowd in the country of the Gerasenes. Perhaps that was why the man was ostracised and, even when healed, why he was still afraid and wanted to go with Jesus in the boat? (v18).

Thankfully, attitudes towards mental illness have improved considerably – in particular over the last two decades. Many more people now speak openly about their experience of depression, anxiety or other more severe and enduring conditions such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. But there are still difficulties for those who experience mental ill health, not least, alas, in some areas of the church.

Although misunderstandings still exist, with one in four of us seeking help from a doctor about a mental health problem at some point in life, it is encouraging to see the increased recognition of the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing.

Being mentally unwell is not a weakness. In fact, it is often those who are the most conscientious and dedicated who experience such difficulties. Depression, for example, has been called ‘the curse of the strong’. Yes, the word ‘stress’ can be used too lightly but there are times when the pressures we all face, both in work and outside of work, outweigh our ability to cope with them – and everyone copes with stress differently.

Feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. We’re bound to feel anxious if we’re facing an important exam or a relative is in hospital, for example. It’s natural to feel down or low, say, after a bereavement or the break up of a relationship. Indeed, those emotions and responses are a necessary part of who we are as human beings – and integral to our ability to cope with difficult situations.

But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When work, sleep, family life and other everyday matters are increasingly affected, help needs to be sought.

As a general guide, if someone is experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety most of the day, every day for a fortnight then that’s the time to go to the doctor. Talk early, don’t let it get worse.

The difficulty is that a lot of people don’t seek help that quickly. We feel we ‘ought’ or ‘should’ be able to cope. We might tell ourselves ‘not to be so stupid’. Others might tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’. We might hope that if we ‘bury our head in the sand’ it’ll go away – the only thing that happens when we bury our head in the sand is we can’t breathe… we become ‘suffocated’ by whatever is causing the difficulties. Talk early, don’t let it get worse.

Asking for help is not a sign of failure. But, like with the man from the Gerasenes, paradoxically, although not unusually, the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help may feel a bit frightening at first. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or concerned about what other people will think (especially in some church circles, sadly).

Asking for help is a sign of strength. But it is important to be realistic. If things have become difficult, it may get tougher before it’s gets easier. It’s easy to slip in to a pattern of negative thinking – and it takes time to change one’s thoughts. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort.

The good news is that people do get better. Recovery can and does happen. Unlike many physical health conditions, recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning.

What do you do to look after your mental wellbeing?

Mary Magdalene (1) – Fiction

Mary MagdaleneAfter considering Judas’ lasting reputation, we now turn to another of Jesus’ followers whose story has been embellished and fabricated long after they lived: Mary Magdalene.

Please read Luke 8:1-3

Coming from the fishing village of Magdala Tarichaea on the western shore of Lake Galilee, for centuries after her death she has been called a prostitute, depicted in art as semi-naked and as an isolated hermit repenting her sins in the wilderness – and even portrayed as Jesus’ wife.

This alternative story began 591, when Pope Gregory the Great declared in a sermon that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman described in Luke 7:36-50 were the same person. It was not until 1969, nearly 1400 years later, that the Roman Catholic Church decided Mary Magdalene was not, in fact, Luke’s penitent sinner. Further to that, in 2016, Pope Francis declared a major feast day for her (22 June) effectively placing her on a par with the male apostles. But even so, the reputation still lingers.

The second most mentioned woman in the Bible (the most being Mary, the mother of Jesus) and unlike any of the other women, she is not described in relation to someone else. She is not someone’s wife, mother or sister. She is Mary. Mary from Magdala. She has her own identity. She knows who she is. And she knows God knows who she is. And, as we will see, God calls her by name.

As with Mary Magdalene, history has a long record of other people making up all sorts of things or attributing words or actions incorrectly. The manipulation of information has existed since time immemorial. Even the Gospel writers wrote and edited the accounts and stories they heard from their sources to suit their own interpretation and the audience they wished to reach (e.g. Matthew wrote primarily to a Jewish readership; Luke for Gentiles). Governments throughout the centuries have conveyed the ‘facts’ in ways to support their manifesto and policy promises. The political ‘spin doctors’ of recent decades play a prominent role and, more recently, the rapid rise to prominence of ‘fake news’ has provided an alternative and even less palatable version of misrepresentation. From its origins in social media (presenting false stories as if they we true) the term ‘fake news’ soon found its way in to the language as a way of quickly dismissing criticism and other inconvenient truths. Society betraying itself perhaps.

On an individual level, probably all of us have felt misrepresented at times or that others have not understood our intentions and actions. “No, I didn’t mean it like that!” “What I meant to say was…” “Do you really think I would think that?” Times when the resulting hurt is immense. When lies that people tell become the perceived truth. When arguments tear everyone apart. When anger and bitterness becomes etched in the faces of the aggrieved. When no one believes we are the person we know ourselves to be.

History has presented us with a false image of Mary Magdalene and yet she has such a story to tell from her true self. Sometimes, we are not the ones responsible for the false image that is portrayed. Others may have made comments or spread rumours causing division and hurt, misunderstanding and pain. Colouring views, opinions and prejudices. Sometimes we can base our thoughts about others on such matters too.

Have your views of someone else been influenced by misunderstanding and rumour?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

NEW: The Uncondemned Woman – (1) Accused *

As with the woman from Samaria, here we have another unnamed woman. Another woman facing the judgement and prejudices of others. A woman forever remembered by something she was caught doing.

Please read John 7:53-8:11

This encounter is one that has puzzled many over the years. Indeed, its very place in the Gospels has been subject to debate. Some have said it wasn’t written by John because it doesn’t reflect his style of writing. Some have said it should be in one of the synoptic gospels (particularly thinking of Luke). Some manuscripts exclude the incident completely and it’s not even part of the lectionary of Sunday readings used week by week in the Church of England. But the fact we have this account at all would seem to indicate that the event actually took place and is a story handed down for us to learn from.

Once again, Jesus crosses cultural boundaries – and this time it happens in the busyness of a town, and not just that, but in the Temple itself. Not unusually, Jesus had been teaching the crowds. Bearing in mind, the cultural protocols, the Pharisees bring a woman to him. A woman caught in the act of adultery. From their perspective it was another attempt to trick Jesus and they quote Mosaic law which, echoing the Seventh Commandment (Do not commit adultery), dictated stoning to death as a punishment for sexual misdemeanours (Deut 22:13-30 – see also Lev 20:10).

Commentators have speculated that the particular piece of law which applies to this incident says: ‘If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife.’ (Deut 22:23-24)

We can immediately think of another virgin engaged to be married, can’t we? And how the gospel accounts are at pains to tell us that ‘(Joseph) had no marital relations with (Mary) until she had borne a son.’ (Matt 1:25) Sitting alongside the clarity of their calling is the punishment of the day. Just think what would have not happened had either of them ‘lapsed’…

Note also how John’s account doesn’t tell us about the man involved. According to the law, he too should have been stoned to death. Where was he in all this? He’d been caught in the act of adultery too. Was he at the gate of the town meeting his fate or had he escaped the clutches of his accusers? And neither do we know anything about the woman’s betrothed or fiancé as we would call him nowadays. What about him? Did he know? Did he subsequently call off the engagement? Was he even one of the men stood ready to throw stones?

Betrayal in love produces all sorts of reactions and responses. Whether or not it was as ‘significant’ as the encounter we are considering in this story, if it’s ever happened to you in some form then you may have some understanding and empathy with the players in this particular scene. Perhaps you were ready to ‘throw stones’. Or carried the embarrassment of being made a ‘cuckold’. The shame of being caught in the act. Or hearing about it from others.

And as for the Pharisees:  ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,’ Jesus said. Reminiscent perhaps for his hearers of his own teaching on the subject: ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Matt 5.28) And which among us has never done that….

And to bring a contemporary parallel, Daniel Maurer writes ‘Where else do we see (primarily) men shaming and using women for purposes of making themselves look better? You don’t have to look far to begin to understand the recent phenomenon of #MeToo and how much Jesus would have been behind it.’

As the woman stood there, her accusers gathered ready to condemn and Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. The 4th Century bishop and hymn writer, St Ambrose speculates that Jesus wrote ‘Why do you point out the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the beam in your own?’

What thoughts does this story provoke in you about your own attitudes and responses to those who have done wrong in your eyes?

Was there a time when you were ‘condemned’ for something?

 

 

When you are ready move on to Part 2 of this story.

Woman from Samaria (1) – Prejudice

Woman from SamariaWhile the story of Nicodemus tells us that his initial encounter was deliberate, planned and at night, the woman from Samaria meets Jesus by chance (or so she thinks) in the heat of the day. Two encounters with the Lord. One a well-schooled and respected pillar of the community. The other, possibly, poorly educated and, seemingly, socially ostracised. What can they possibly have in common?

Please read John 4:3-7a

This wasn’t Jesus’ only encounter with people from Samaria. He was turned away from a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56) and out of ten people with leprosy who he healed, the only one to say thank you was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16).

In John’s lengthy account (the whole passage is John 4:1-42), we initially observe a very ordinary, domestic scene. Fetching water was normally done in cool of the morning or the evening. It was a community event where local women would gather to talk and to be together. Yet, this unnamed woman comes alone to the well in the heat of the midday sun. She meets a man who, much to her surprise, crosses all the normal social and human barriers of the time. In this encounter, Jesus challenges prejudices against foreigners, people of other beliefs, and women.

Firstly, he is in Samaria – a ‘no-go’ area for Galileans to travel through. Undeterred, Jesus crosses a barrier to reach out to a foreigner. Secondly, while the faith of the Samaritans has its origins in Judaism it rejects much of the Hebrew Bible and their worship takes place on nearby Mount Gerizim rather than in the Judean Temple in Jerusalem, some 40 miles away from where this encounter takes place. Here at the well, Jesus crosses the barrier to those with a different set of beliefs. Thirdly, Jesus crossed the gender barrier. Rabbis were forbidden from talking to women in public – let alone teaching them and a woman could find herself being divorced if she was seen speaking to a strange man. Jesus’ love not only crosses barriers but it also reaches far beyond those surface issues upon which such prejudicial attitudes are built.

Just like Nicodemus, whose position of respectability hid an inner confusion and need for direction, behind these outward barriers the woman from Samaria is unaccepted and has a deep need to be loved. She is a moral outcast. She has had five husbands and is now with a man who is not her husband. Whether she was repeatedly widowed or divorced (or a combination), we don’t know but there is something about her which means she keeps herself safe from ridicule by walking alone at a different time of day. She feels ashamed. She has no sense of pride.

The woman at the well is a victim of prejudice. But in her encounter with Jesus, she encounters the love of God which crosses barriers and challenges prejudices.

We all have prejudices. Opinions and views, sometimes favourably inclined but more often than not, not so. Prejudices are usually, if not always, based on very little evidence or actual experience. We judge people – indeed whole groups of people – based on a few ill-informed or unfortunate occurrences.

It can be helpful to recognise our own prejudices. Some may be quite innocuous and frivolous but others can be more deep seated. We may need to consider how we take down the barriers that have been erected between ourselves and other people.

What are your prejudices? Why not make a list of them.

How might you overcome the barriers they have created?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.