30 January 2011

"And When they Saw Him they Begged Him to. . ." (Adapted)

I have to say that tomorrow's Gospel always suprises and delights me. It is first the story of Jesus' sending the demons which possess a man into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the man from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars his life; secondly, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised every time I hear that Jesus is being begged to leave the district and its residents without troubling them further.

Now granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's (and presuming Jesus was approaching Jews, it is a livelihood which contravened the Law as well). Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. More, Jesus has healed a man whose condition had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that -- this man will now need to be genuinely accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as a wild animal or alien of some sort who can be chained or otherwise held apart from the community. So, even though there was the recovery of the region and freedom from the man's violence, I begin to have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, voices beseeching Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps in the "back of my mind" I want a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world or for a Gospel whose heart is the cross. Am I really much different than most of us in this?

But of course the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way and tomorrow's pericope from Mark highlights this for us. Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He makes whole and holy, feeds the hungry on a profound and lasting level, frees from every kind of dehumanizing bondage, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of the Most High God (a title Mark has on the lips of the demons in tomorrow's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Garasenes in tomorrow's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him --- just as the Scribes and Pharisees understand him all-too-well and reject him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in and from them! How familiar this pattern is for us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. Afterall, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved -- with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to be coddled and cajoled? The same is true with regard to choosing to love. How many of us choose not so much to love as Christ, but limit our giving to relatively painless charities which both keep the needy at arm's length and salves our consciences in one relatively undemanding motion? In other words, how many of us buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, tomorrow's Gospel both surprises and delights me. It does both because of its honesty and because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without challenge, empowerment, and commission. Such a Christ will never be really popular, I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not --- though perhaps not as openly. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset each and all of us as well as our society and world is an awesome and demanding reality; unfortunately, our hearts are more often ambivalent, ambiguous, and resistant than pure, single, and open in its regard. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives. With that and Mark's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer in light of this Gospel passage.