Thirty-First Day of Lent

Luke 8:26-39
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!’ 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30 Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’

‘Legion,’ he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over the town how much Jesus had done for him.

This is a story in which Jesus confronts violence head on.

The region of the Gerasenes was a border area, a fringe of the Roman Empire. It was a place where Rome granted land to retired legionnaires in the expectation that they would act as a buffer against the enemy. Some scholars make the case that this man was a former soldier, a man schooled in the work of death and violence. I wonder had this man seen war and its aftermath? Were the enduring scars of those experiences impossible to hide in peacetime, so much so that to calm his mind he had to live naked among the tombs. His is a profoundly disordered life, nobody can control him, even with chains, and In this sense he is possessed by the spirits of war and aggression and cruelty.

And it also helps makes sense of another element of the story. The man spies Jesus and runs towards him and throws himself at Jesus feet (Luke 6:28). We could be forgiven for imagining that this is an act of worship and honour, but I think it’s more likely an act born of terror (a common emotion in the story). Jesus makes a play to bind this strong spirit and heal the man, and the man reveals his understanding of the world he has been conditioned into. “Please don’t torture me!” he says. For this is how victories are won in his world, through the application of cruel and unusual treatment, more harsh and more violent.

Jesus is confronted by the terrible impact of violence. To see what torture and aggression and war had done to the spirit of this man; a man so traumatised by violence that he can only imagine that everyone uses the same weapons that he had once wielded…even Jesus. Weapons that depended, ultimately, on the ability to imagine that the person in your rifle sight, or the person lying on the ground in front of you is not a real person.

How appropriate then that instead of actions that rely on the ability to dehumanise the individual before him, to strip him of all personality before inflicting violence, Jesus does the most subversive thing and  asks him his name.

To Jesus he is not just a man who lives among the tombs, crying with rage and pain and confusion, chained until he can find the strength and determination to break them, inflicting damage on himself.

He has a name, albeit one that reflects his life choices and his previous role in the world, until his violence could not be controlled and directed, and his handlers had abandoned him to the tombs.

There was, perhaps, no more powerful statement than this, that Jesus was not here to torture. That his kingdom was to be won not by the traditional means of might and power but by something far more grace-full.

Some things to say.
1. Violence is never neutral in its effects, it is always negative. Nobody escapes unhurt, not the victim, not the perpetrator and not the community who witness it and live with it.
2. Violence is wholly inadequate to the maintaining of peace. It makes everyone afraid, both the rulers and the oppressed.
3. Violence changes us, and perhaps the infliction of violence changes us most, and not in a good way.
4. Violence though, is ill-prepared to confront non-violence. But that takes great faith and great courage to believe. We think violence is powerful but it’s not near as powerful in its effects as non-violence.
5. One of the most subversive things we can do is to put a name and a face to the individuals who suffer. We should not label people simply as victim or perpetrator. Jesus puts a name to it. What would that mean for us?

Today, I encourage you to pray for communities and nations who are under the power of oppressive regimes. Check out the Freedom in the World Report 2019 using this link,

This report records that in 2018 a total of 68 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties with only 50 registering gains. Check out the map and pray for countries whose peoples are desperate for freedom.

Twenty-Second Day of Lent

Luke 22:47-53
47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.’

Most scholars treat yesterday’s miracle of the healing of the blind man as the closing miracle of Luke’s Gospel, but then this appears. It’s an odd one. But would you believe this story is related in all four Gospels, though only in John are the characters named (Simon Peter chops off Malchus’ ear). And only Luke relates the healing.

It is also a miracle that I remember from when I was a young child. I don’t know why it should have captured my attention, other than perhaps the prospect of Jesus searching the ground by torchlight looking for a stray ear.

But as I read it today, I am struck by crowds and violence. Jesus remarks that they have come with swords and clubs (Luke 22:52). When the disciples discern that Jesus is to be arrested their initial reaction is to draw swords and though they look to Jesus for advice, before Jesus says a word someone strikes and a man is wounded.

This whole journey through Lent with the book of Luke is a journey of discipleship. Along the way we are encountering the wonder and the strangeness of Jesus, we marvel at his power and compassion, particularly for those who are on the margins. Again and again we are confronted with the challenge of following him and with question of just what will I surrender to join him on the Way.

The pressure has been building on Jesus and his followers for some time now. Many thought going to Jerusalem was a foolish thing but he was insistent. And now, following a meal which was full of all manner of hints of endings, they are in this garden in the dead of night where he has spent a long time in intense prayer. Luke records that in his anguish his sweat was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

And now this. A big crowd with swords and clubs and a kiss of betrayal.

I understand the impulse of the disciple. Under the shock of betrayal this is a common form of response. Meet the violence of betrayal with another form of violence. Perhaps it is even more true if it is a loved one who is betrayed and I must stand by. I want to strike out on their behalf to find some answer to the anger and sense of helplessness I feel.

But there is a Gospel message here. Meeting violence with violence is not the way of Jesus. His urgent command “No more of this!” speaks to the moment, but also for all time. No more of this. Ever.

No more to seeking God’s imprimatur on our national adventures of war.

No more to matching an eye with an eye or a tooth with a tooth. Nor here, an ear for a kiss.

No more to blind rage and vengeful aggression. No more to hard words which injure and maim the spirit of a person.

I dare say this poor servant didn’t have much control over what he was doing that night. After all, he was a servant, and he did as he was commanded. And he lost an ear. There is something symbolic here in a member of the high priest’s household lacking an ear. He stood in for a religious institution that couldn’t hear the truth of what was being said in the ministry of this man from God.

So Jesus in his grace and humility refuses to be vengeful or to take comfort in the suffering of his accusers, and instead he heals. There is still time for healing even after striking out in anger, frustration and revenge.

And so I ask myself after having reflected on this story. Which is the worst betrayal here? The kiss or the sword?

As I write this March 29th remains the day we exit the EU. So today is the day when the nation might be taking stock. Whatever happens a sizeable proportion of the country is going to feel betrayed, the question is what will be done with that sense of betrayal? Will we strike out at our betrayers? Or will we seek advantage through a lying kiss? Take some time today to pray for our political leaders and for those who feel betrayed by recent events.