by Peter Law
In Mark 5, we read the story of Jesus healing a man with many demons. In the introduction to the story, we’re informed that the man lives in the Garasenes, Gentile land that would be considered unclean, in the tombs (unclean) that he cut himself with stones (open soars are unclean!) that he lives near a huge herd of pigs (unclean, unclean!) and is host to evil spirits (UNCLEAN!!!). This man represents the kind of person, a good, religious first century Jew would do his very best to avoid. In our modern context, we might envision Jesus venturing into an unlicensed casino on skid row to rescue a lone crack-addicted prostitute.
What does Jesus do to this most unclean of men? In the previous chapter Jesus calms the storm, so it might not seem terribly surprising that Jesus is able to heal the man. Jesus commands the evil spirits to leave the man, and, not surprisingly, the do. But at what cost? Jesus allows the pigs to escape into a very large herd of pigs nearby. “No kingdom divided against itself will stand,” (Jesus’ words from 3:24) so when the unclean spirits try to hijack unclean pigs you might say the whole thing goes sideways for them in a hurry: The pigs rush into the sea to their deaths.
A herd of 2,000 pigs represents a huge investment of money for the villagers. The pigs may have represented a significant portion of the villagers’ livelihood. This explains why they witness the healing of the man— a man whose existence likely caused them so much worry— their overriding emotion isn’t one of thanksgiving, but dread. They’re afraid Jesus’ continued presence with them will cost them more than the unbearable price they’ve already been forced to pay. They must get him out of there. Their stuff was far more important to them than the man who was healed.
This is a place where the values of God’s Kingdom are at odds with the values of the kingdom of this world. Jesus is calling these people to accept a tremendous inconvenience, a huge economic loss, in order to have something more valuable: the return of a man who was tormented by severe mental health issues back to their community. They’re not sure that’s a good deal. Truthfully, they’d prefer to have the pigs.
This story is a reminder to us that God’s values aren’t always our values. That when it comes to weighing costs against benefits, God’s tally sheet looks different than ours. People are supremely important. Stuff, is less so. We might affirm these values when asked, but then live the opposite. I have to ask myself: what price am I willing to pay, what sacrifice can I obediently make in order to see people come to freedom in Jesus? Are my pigs, whatever they may be, worth more to me?
Image by Hernán Piñera. Used according to Creative Commons License.
Jesus Can Be So Inconvenient
We may be too pious to say it, but Jesus’ demands on our lives can often seem very inconvenient. Jesus serves as the ultimate disruptor, challenging us to do things in ways that, at our core, we might find unreasonable. He seems to be a God who specializes in inconveniencing his followers. In an age where everything is marketed and packaged for ease of consumption, Jesus’ words cut against the grain. It’s almost like he’s making life harder for us.
It seems that Jesus loves placing burdens on people. He tells a pious rich man that if he wants treasure in heaven, he needs to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and then follow Jesus (Matthew 19:21). Hitting a little closer to home, He tells me that rather than hating my enemies, I’m supposed to love and pray for them (Matthew 5:44-48). On top of this, he disrupts my agenda in life, saying that I’m supposed to be part of a global discipling movement (Matthew 28:19-20). Now rather than just trying to lead my life as a good person, he’s subverted my whole agenda saying that making disciples (something I hadn’t been planning to do) is more important.
Why Jesus Inconveniences Us?
Why do Jesus’ demands seem so inconvenient? I would suggest that inconvenience grows out of places where my obligations don’t line up with my values. I don’t complain about the inconvenience of showering in the morning, because I see hygiene as valuable, so I’m willing to spend 15 minutes to make myself feel clean and smell fresh. But when someone imposes obligations on me, I might not value the end goal that that obligation is trying to achieve. For example, If I’m really busy at work and my boss tells me to write up reports that will get filed somewhere and never read, I might resent the extra work. I’ve got better things to do with my time. The benefit doesn’t seem to justify the effort, so the obligation seems inconvenient.
So what should we make of the inconveniences that Jesus seems to impose upon us? Obligations typically arise out of values. Jesus doesn’t call me to pick up my cross and follow him because crosses are cool, rather he sees value in it. He knows that it is only as as I learn to serve the other in God’s name, that the other will see what God’s really like. Moreover, learning to turn aside from what seems good for me to invest others will help me shed the selfishness that keeps me isolated. The values that God places on people knowing his love and being transformed justifies the obligation of commanding me to take up my cross and follow Jesus.
Hope when Jesus Inconveniences Us
When my heart chafes at the obligations God has placed on me, it’s a sure sign that my heart has places where it still holds up values from my parent culture above the values that God has in mind. To use an analogy, if I start a job as a ditch digger and find that, at the end of the first day, my back is killing me, then the pain helps me to clearly understand what part of my body is weakest with respect to the task I’m trying to carry out. But the pain doesn’t just point out where I’m weak, it also carries with it a promise: If I stick to ditch-digging, then eventually my back will grow stronger, probably seeing a greater gain in strength and stamina than the parts of my body that weren’t challenged by this heavy labour. In the same way, inconvenience shows me the places where my heart belongs to the world, rather than to God, but if I follow God’s instructions to love and serve others, even in ways I find inconvenient, he promises that it is precisely in this place of weakness that I will see the greatest transformation. When God calls me to inconvenience, he’s inviting me into a place where he deals with my greatest shortcomings as a Christian. Inconvenience is God’s discipline. We can take comfort then in the words of the author of Hebrews: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 NIV). That pain I’m feeling is the sensation of transformation. If I accept it, it is a good gift from God that shapes me into the person he’s always intended for me to be.
Everyone (Who Counts) Is Just Like Me
In our culture its easy to fence ourselves off from people who aren’t like us. Chances are we live in a neighbourhood where people are from a similar socio-economic background. The people we work with are often like us. We worship at churches where there is very little diversity. All of our contacts reinforce the idea that the way we live is “normal.” Sure, there are other people out there who don’t fit into my concept for normalcy, but they must be an anomaly, an exception to the rule. Most people must live like me. We begin to create an understanding of reality that places my experiences and preferences at the normal centre and looks at deviation from them as an aberration. We have two ways of dealing with those who aren’t like us, we either pretend they don’t exist (or at least not in significant enough numbers that they should discredit my ordering of reality) or we construct a stereotype with which we paint them all. We do this politically when conservatives look at liberals as a bunch of bleeding hearts and liberals look at conservatives as universally greedy and uncaring. We can do this socioeconomically when we look at those with more than us as fat cats who are exploiting us or when we look at those with less as lazy and unmotivated. In each case, our understanding of the other is built from ideology and not from real experience. Perhaps we have a hard time distinguishing reality vs. stereotype.
Understanding the Tension: Reality vs. Stereotype
In my time at nightlight, I’ve come to understand that there are no shortcuts in getting to know people. No political ideology or stereotype is sufficient to understand whole groups of people. I had ideas about what people at the margins were like, but it wasn’t until I met and interacted with quite a few of them, that I started to understand something about the lives of the particular people I’d met. I can make some more informed generalizations, but even there, I simply risk making a more informed stereotype. All people aren’t the same, even those who share certain characteristics.
Breaking down this sort of stereotyping is an important goal. After all, beliefs that whole groups of people are the same (always in some undesirable way) have we have seen such evils in history as chattel slavery or genocide. Stereotypes about certain racial, ethnic, socio-economic or political groups allow us to dehumanize them, to blame them for what we believe is wrong with the world and to absolve ourselves to any responsibility to them. Like Cain, we refuse to be our brothers’ keeper.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus challenges our categorization of others. A Samaritan, reviled by Jews for his ethnicity, showed kindness that religious Jews would not. It’s fair to say that part of what Jesus is saying is that people can surprise you. The people who are like you aren’t necessarily your friends, and the people unlike you don’t have to be your enemies.
What Would Jesus Do?
How has the church done? There’s evidence that many of us haven’t done well (forgive me painting with such a broad brush). Perhaps we’re guilty of disowning our brothers and sisters in Christ because they interpret certain passages of scripture differently than we do. We’ve vilified those whose political leanings aren’t the same as ours. We’ve written off people from other Christian denominations: what do we think of Evangelicals? Mainline Protestants? Catholics? Orthodox?
Outside of the church, how do we view the poor? Are they all a group of people who deserve their place because they’re lazy and immoral, or does our view of reality allow for more nuance? Do we understand that there isn’t always a clear line between victim and perpetrator? Do we understand the difficulty of those in poverty getting out of it? Might some be victims of circumstances outside of our control? The existence of people who are other than me might seem inconvenient to me, but it’s only as I interact with that inconvenient other, that I see them for who they are, not as an abstraction, but as a human being for whom Christ died. A human with hopes and dreams and talents whatever their flaws.
The next time you’re tempted to write off a whole group of people because you believe they’re all the same, resist the temptation. If you don’t like the poor, make a point to meet some of them. If you don’t like people form a certain denomination, meet of some of them. After all, Jesus could always have said, “human beings. They’re all the same. They’re not worth the effort to save. Let ’em burn.” Instead, Jesus sought and saved wayward people like you and me. It’s our job to do the same.
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PS. nighltight is a multi-denominational drop-in centre allowing Christians from many different denominations to serve people at the Margins. We’re currently open in Belleville and Kingston Ontario. it’s a great place to meet people who are differen than you are, whether they be the poor, the lonely, the needy or Christians from a different denomination. Find out more about volunteering at one of our drop-in centres,
by Peter Law
Autonomy versus Interdependence
It’s easy to think that pain, suffering and disappointment would keep us from knowing God. We might conclude that an all-loving, all-powerful God should make all my problems go away, so the presence of struggle in my life might serve as evidence that God isn’t among us. Yet it seems the opposite is actually the case. It is in the place of need and discomfort that people cry out to God for help, for comfort and for guidance.
Our culture has taught us that autonomy is something we should long after. I should have enough money that I don’t need to rely on others. On a family level, my family should be able to take care of my needs without taxing the community. Autonomy means that my options are open, the possibilities are limitless. But is autonomy really what we need? Does it fulfill us, or does it merely numb the pain of life in a fallen world?
In the book of Revelation, the author records instructions from Jesus seven church. In the letter to the church at Laodicea, Jesus confronts the complacency that the church’s material abundance has produced: “you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17 NRSV). It seems the people of that church were satisfied with the status quo, but Jesus tells them they’ve set the bar far too low. They had become satisfied with the best that the kingdom of this world and had lost sight of the greater kingdom to which God was calling them—his kingdom. Their relative comfort had led them to forget that there is something beyond what they can see, hear, taste and touch. They became like a toddler so caught up with playing with the box, that they miss the wonderful gift their parents have given them.
We can fall for the same trap. On January 14 of this year, the american lottery Powerball, offered a 1.5 billion dollar jackpot. Even people from Canada were heading in droves to the US to buy tickets. The allure of having more money than you could ever spend is powerful. Even though your odds of winning were astronomically slim —1 in 292 million—the rush of so many people to buy tickets should cause us to ask a fundamental question: would winning that much money really enhance my life, or merely blind me to the blessed reality of my need for God and his church? It comes down to competing values autonomy versus interdependence.
Learning to rely on one another
God created humans to live in relationship to himself and with each other. Humanity’s choice to sin alienated us from God and that alienation flows out into human relationships (We see this dynamic in place in Genesis 3, where God confronts Adam about his sin and he throws Eve under the bus, blaming her for it all in order to avoid personal responsibility). Through Jesus, we are invited into the Kingdom of God, a place where we have been reconciled to God and the power of that reconciliation overflows to our human relationships.
The kingdom of God is not merely one where everyone lives as an island unto themselves in a private, blessed, relationship with God. Rather, in God’s kingdom, God has chosen to make us dependent not just on him, but also on one another. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul talks about how God made the members of the church different so that we might meet one another’s need, ” God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be” (I Cor. 12:18-19 NRSV). We’ve all been given abilities and shortcomings that allow us to be a blessing to one another, but also allow us to be blessed by others. This is because interdependence, not autonomy is a value of God’s Kingdom. It is relationship with the other, specifically the different other, that enriches my life.
at nightlight we seek to build bridges between the the church and “the other” those who are unlike the people we tend to see in our Sunday morning gatherings, because it’s in these relationships that I finally find the gift that God had been hiding inside the box that has so mesmerized me. Riches and unending good fortune allow me to forget that I have needs for God and need for others. In life’s more humbling circumstances, when I realize my needs I can’t meet myself, that I discover the true wealth of community.
What is Coldest Night of the Year?
Coldest Night of the Year is nightlight’s biggest fundraising event of the year. It’s a nation wide walk on February 20th to raise funds for charities that work with the hungry, the homeless and the hurting. In Belleville and Kingston, nightlight is the partner charity. We’re aiming to raise about $50,000 between the two cities, this is money that helps us pay rent and utilities to keep our drop in centres open.
How does it work? People sign up on teams with friends, family coworkers, or people who go to your church and they walk, 2 km, 5 km or 10 km both to raise money and to experience a little of what the poor often endure during the cold winter months. After the walk, we gather at the starting point for a hot meal and a time to visit.
The event registration begins at 4:00 pm while things get officially underway at 5:00 and wrap up about 8:00 pm
How Can I Help?
There are 3 main ways you can help:
Register to Walk
We’re looking to recruit 160 walkers in each city, so if you’d like to help us raise money, you can sign up at coldestnightoftheyear.org/register. Join an existing team or start your own (which really isn’t much more work than joining one). recruit your friends, family and coworkers to walk with you and make it a fun, social occasion.
Running an event like this requires a lot of volunteer help. We need a welcome team, registration, food service, and route marshals. If you’d like to help, you can sign up at coldestnightoftheyear.org/volunteer
Each of our walkers will be looking for donors to help them meet their fundraising target. Perhaps you can’t participate, but you feel this is something worthwhile supporting. You can ask a walker to sponsor them with a pledge form, or you can make a donation online at coldestnightoftheyear.org/donate
WIth your help we can have a great event, raising money for the work we’re doing and help us spread the word about nightlight.