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- PART 2.

The demon-possessed man in the Gadarene region has terrified all who have come into contact with him and lives as a wretched but wild outcast on the hills alongside the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus enters the scene, however, it is the demons who are fearful as they recognise the divine authority of Jesus. Significantly they beg to be allowed to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs. Pigs were unclean animals according to Jewish kosher laws. In that sense they were natural hosts for unclean spirits. The Gadarenes, however, had no scruples with regard to pigs. The towns of the Decapolis were prosperous trade centres and, for them, the herd of pigs would simply have represented a valuable asset. So there is implicit in the pigs a significant difference of culture.

Jesus’ entry into their territory, then, has an immediate cultural and, for them more importantly, economic impact. He may bring remarkable healing and deliverance, but the Gadarenes also recognise that there is a cost involved in having him around. They are confronted with a decision. Whereas the Samaritans eagerly welcomed Jesus into their village and, presumably, also accepted the cost to their lifestyle of receiving and following him as Messiah, the Gadarenes ask him to leave their territory. Their culture and their economic preoccupations made the cost of welcoming him look too high.
In each of these two instances, Jesus’ arrival quickly becomes a highly visible public event, with all the townsfolk coming out to see what has happened. In each instance they are faced with irrefutable evidence of personal transformation in the life of someone well known to them. They are able to see the miraculous inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. The coming of the Kingdom always provokes the crisis of decision. The Samaritans rejoiced and wanted to hear more, the Gadarenes were afraid and moved to create a protective distance between them and Jesus.

This shows me that resistance to the gospel of Jesus is often occasioned by fear. Unless we recognise that often lies behind people’s refusal of the offer of grace, we won’t properly grasp the dynamics that are at work in the context. Strikingly, the opposite of fear is at work in the man who is delivered of the legion of demons. This once tortured soul emerges “clothed and in his right mind”. He has been powerfully impacted by grace and knows himself to be delivered, healed and transformed.

In this context, the man’s racial and cultural constraints become irrelevant to him. Of all those in the Gerasene territory it is he who sees most clearly and, as such, he begs to go with Jesus. The grace of the gospel of the Kingdom has formed a deep bond; so deep that he is willing to leave his people and his cultural and step into the alien world of Jewish society, such is his desire to be with Jesus!

Is this not what has often happened in missionary contexts? The liberating grace of the gospel is so powerful that people are willing, for the sake of Christ, to identify with and espouse the culture of those who have brought the message of Christian salvation. It is telling, therefore, that Jesus refuses the man’s request. Jesus knows that what is needed is for him to re-enter his own cultural group as an authentic evangelist. Jesus instructs him, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
So, this once uncontrollable, demon-possessed man becomes a very effective evangelist whose words, backed by the visible evidence of his life, caused amazement among the people of his community. There is historical evidence for the early establishment of Christian churches in the Gadarene region, and there is every likelihood that it all grew from the founding evangelistic ministry of this man.

The Gadarene community, which was resistant to Jesus and his Jewish companions, was more open to hearing the gospel coming to them through one of their own, and in terms that they are able to understand. Mission in many, many contexts down the ages would have been freed from unhelpful enculturation if heralding the gospel of the Kingdom had been more completely entrusted to those who were first impacted by it and who were able to share it in a shape that would be more understandable to their own people.

In our South African context, centuries after the coming of the first missionaries, there is still, often legitimate, resentment about the way the gospel came wrapped in British culture, and with acceptance of the saving message of Jesus carrying with it the requirement that people cut themselves off from their culture and adopt Western practices. Western culture was identified with “Christendom” and commended, while African culture was denigrated. This is a violation of the way of Jesus and has not borne the good fruit that could have resulted had the gospel been free to find its place in African culture.

Rob Taylor, 07/09/2020

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- PART 1.

Mark here gives us another account of Jesus deliberately choosing to go into non-Jewish territory. This time he instructs his disciples to take their boat across the lake to the far shore, which was the region of the Decapolis. Jewish relations with the people of the Decapolis don’t seem to have been as tense and conflicted as those with the Samaritans, probably because the history between the two communities was less fraught. But because the cities of the Decapolis had a strong Greek influence, having been established in the reign of Alexander the Great, their way of life and cultural assumptions were very offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Though the Sea of Galilee is never wider that 13Kms, the Galilean Jews kept their distance from the people on the other side of the lake.

Jesus, however, chooses to go there, and, just as with the Samaritan woman at the well, he seems to have a “divine appointment” with a specific person. Just as with the woman at the well, this single interpersonal engagement has the effect of unlocking an apparently resistant community to the message of the Kingdom of God. This is even more surprising given that both these people for whom Jesus came were marginalized and outcast members of their respective communities. At the same time, they were well known to their fellow townsfolk, so that the dramatic change in them would have been unmistakably apparent and their testimony to Jesus as the source of their transformation would be listened to with attention.

Why did Jesus choose these people on the fringes of their cultural groups? Perhaps because people on the margins don’t have the luxury of being too heavily invested in social divisions or clinging too tightly to prejudice. Their position of humility within their own group makes them less protective and assertive of their cultural distinctiveness and more open to simple, direct human encounter.

So we come to the scene where Jesus and his disciples step onto the shore and are immediately confronted with this wild out-of-control man rushing towards them. It pictures the sense of threat that so often comes with stepping onto culturally foreign territory. What is strikingly apparent, however, is the calmness of Jesus. He is secure in his authority within the Kingdom of God and no threat from the devil has any power to shake him.

Another surprising thing is that, though he is on a foreign shore, the demons within the man recognise him as “Son of the Most High God”. I get the impression that their recognition of Jesus translated to the understanding of the afflicted man. Just as the woman at the well was the unlikely one who first recognised Jesus as Messiah, so something similar is happening here. Equally, there is a sense that, just as Jesus completely knew that woman and saw the true longing of her heart, so he does with this man. In seeing each of them with compassion and recognition of their inherent value, Jesus has the potential to free them from what holds them in bondage and heal and transform their lives. That is the power of grace that comes with seeing people through the eyes of Jesus.

Rob Taylor, 03/09/2020

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- PART 3.

Jesus keeps this conversation at the well focussed on thirst. He begins with physical thirst, but quickly moves to the inner thirst of the soul. He is spiritually alert to the inner thirst that is beginning to stir within this Samaritan woman. I am intrigued that Jesus was aware of something about this woman that had nothing to do with her race, social standing or moral track record. The thing that weighed in the scales above everything else for Jesus was spiritual thirst and readiness to respond to God. We place value on so many other things that have to do with human pride, but the Lord places his value on this, “How blessed are those who know their need of God”. The telling thing is that in Jesus’ context, and in our own, this hunger and thirst is frequently most in evidence among those at the ragged edge of society, the marginalized, the poor, and the morally broken.

So Jesus alerts this woman to her thirst, above all the other social factors inhibiting her from engaging with him. “If you knew the gift on offer, you would have asked for it”, in other words, nothing would have held you back from entering into this interaction. I wonder how many gifts of God I have failed to receive because I have allowed external factors, and my own preconceptions, to prevent me from pressing in and asking.

There is a gift of God to be had here, the gift of his grace – amazing grace! In this account we see how the gift of grace frees this woman from the guilt of her choices and all that caused her to feel shame and inferiority. Even beyond that, we see the power of grace to bridge the Jew/Samaritan divide and welcome her into the fulfilment of the promises of God. Yet the grace on offer is not cheap grace. There is a doorway through which she must walk and that involves facing and acknowledging the mess of sin that is blocking up the well of her heart.

Sin is a complex thing and it is formed from a mixture of what has been done to us and what we have done. It has its roots in our moral choices, our economic preoccupations, our cultural influences, our pride and our shame. Somehow we have to let God bring it all to the surface and lay before him all these forces that block up our hearts.

Repentance is hard, and it is complex. There are all sorts of reasons, from shame to self-righteousness, that make us resist owning our poverty before God and calling on his grace. It wasn’t easy for this woman, she tried all sorts of ploys to head the conversation in other directions. It took the prophetic directness of Jesus to open her brokenness and sin and bring it into the light. All of us stand in need of Jesus’ action in revealing our sin to us. All of us have sins we try to hide and others that we are blind to.

I find it interesting that, just as the expert in the law tried to use his skill in biblical interpretation to hide from the lack of compassion in his heart, so this woman, though she is no expert theologian, also seeks to use questions of belief and styles of worship as a means of holding Jesus at arm’s length. It is both instructive and disturbing to see how we use these elements of religion and faith as screens to hide behind and as ways of avoiding the need to honestly face our need of cleansing and grace. It challenges me to ask where I use my systems of biblical interpretation and my assumptions about the practice of my faith to actually protect sin in my heart and to keep Jesus at a safe distance.

This woman is seeking to assert the historical divergence between Samaritans and Jews to legitimise and perpetuate the ongoing barrier between the two groups, and its application, specifically, to this uncomfortable conversation. How often has theology been trotted out to legitimise various expressions of human apartheid? How much do you and I still function according to these assumptions in terms of who I relate to and how I do so?

It is not that Jesus is naive or simplistic about these differences, nor does he minimise questions of right belief, he acknowledges that salvation is from the Jews as God’s covenant people, but his perspective is that right understanding and knowledge isn’t the defining or limiting factor when it comes to how far the gospel’s invitation stretches. We as church folk can so easily put our theological convictions in the way of simply engaging with people. We make too much of the outward customs of other religious or cultural groups and become blind to the gospel possibilities that exist there. Just as when Jesus swept aside the kosher laws and took away a major impediment to the inclusion of Gentiles within the table fellowship of the Church, so here he sweeps aside all entrenched questions of modes of worship and keeps his focus on the essential thirst of the heart and the call for each person to engage personally and directly “in spirit”.

This whole account is about the richness of heaven reaching through layers of social, conceptual and personal sin to quench the soul thirst of this woman and then her village. It is a dramatic conversion story, as unlikely, in its way, as that of Saul of Tarsus. He too needed the Spirit of Christ to cut through his social, conceptual and personal misconceptions and sin to dramatically transform him. He too, in his way, was immediately compelled to rush back and “tell his village”. As the change in him was dramatic, so it seems to have been with this woman. People knew her and her lifestyle, and now she appears before them radiant, excited, confident and free of shame.

When she went out to the well that day, she did not know how thirsty she was! But having had the living water that only Jesus can give pour into her soul, it irresistibly flows out of her. Do I really know how thirsty I am? Do I truly come to the One who offers me the water of life? Does its transforming power flow out from me and bear powerful witness to all I encounter that I have been in the presence of the Lord of life? Jesus kept this woman focussed on the primacy of spiritual thirst, that needs to be our first focus as well.

Rob Taylor, 27/08/2020

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Christ Church Kenilworth  |  Cnr Summerley & Richmond Road  |  Tel: +27 (021) 797 6332  | E-mail: reception@cck.org.za
Service Times: Sunday Worship  8.00am, 10.00am & 6.30pm  |  Wednesday Service: 10am   | Tuesday Quiet Service: 6.30pm (fortnightly)

Taryn Galloway, 06/05/2015