Legion

Is there still such a thing as demon possession? A lot of Christians will give an automatic “nope!” And is this answer the result of solid theology or does it have more to do with fear? Is there anything in the Bible that tells us that demons have, for some inexplicable reason, decided to give up on the whole controlling people thing? Now, I could be wrong, but I cannot find any evidence that would support the whole demon possession thing has ended at some magical point. And here’s the thing, evil spirits are scary. And the thought that someone could be possessed by a demon is absolutely terrifying. Maybe our reticence is due to a misunderstanding of how demons work. All of the evidence suggests that demons are invited in. They cannot just swoop down and take over a person. If that were the case, the whole world would be possessed. No, they take over people who have enlisted the help of demons for often nefarious reasons. The truth we need to understand is that there is a spiritual battle raging complete with good and evil spiritual beings.

              Luke 8:26-39 is the amazing story of the confrontation of Jesus with a whole battalion of demons. After Jesus calmed the wind and the waves, they sailed down to the country of the Gerasenes. And here, we have a slight problem: The city of Gerasa is south of the Sea of Galilee and its region most likely didn’t reach the shores of the lake. It has been discovered that there was a small city near the eastern cliffs of the Sea of Galilee named Khersa (possibly Gersa in Greek). There is no way to be certain, but this is as likely as any other suggestion. Anyway, as they land, a naked, demon possessed, man meets them. And this meeting may just be the very reason Jesus said, “Hey, let’s get ourselves over to the other side of the lake.”

              Try to imagine this encounter. The man had been living in tombs. For the Jewish people this was absolute proof that he was a crazy person. And most cultures would agree. So, he is naked; he most likely smells awful; he is cut up (Mark 5:5); he is extremely strong; and he is wild looking. The disciples are probably thinking, “I knew we should have never come over to this accursed land.” The man falls down – most likely in fear – and cries out, “Jesus! Son of the Most High God! What to us and to you (we don’t expect anything good to come from this meeting)? I beg you, don’t torment us.” The word “torment” probably refers to judicial punishment. Because they are spiritual beings; because Jesus had already bound their master the Strong Man (Luke 4:1-13); they know who he is and they know they are in trouble.

              Jesus asked them their name. There is no evidence that this about gaining control of these demons. The Greeks believed that learning a spiritual beings name gave you authority over that being. Which is how they got themselves possessed. No, this is about Jesus emphasizing his authority. They are Legion. A legion was about 6,000 Roman soldiers; a force to be reckoned with. This group of demons is shaking in their spiritual boots; begging Jesus not to send them to the abyss. The abyss may represent the region where they came from; a shadowy realm devoid of corporeal bodies. They ask to be sent into a herd of pigs and surprisingly Jesus allows it. Why? Everything in the story points to his absolute authority over this gang of evil spirits. Some have suggested that it is not time for the final and complete judgment upon the demons. Jesus was not going to send them to the Abyss yet anyway. That comes later. But why the pigs? This herd represents somebody’s livelihood. I am not sure, but maybe the idea is to illustrate to everyone who is a witness that you cannot play with evil. Evil destroys; evil consumes; evil ruins.

              The herdsmen, who did witness the whole thing, run off and inform everyone they come into contact with. A group forms and they, with superstitious fear bubbling up out of the lot of them, ask Jesus to leave. This kind of power is frightening. The freed man begs to go with Jesus and Jesus sends him home with a mission. “Tell them what God has done for you.” Jesus is still asking us to do this. Go and tell.

              There are spiritual powers out there. A battle is raging. And that would be terrifying except for one thing: The one who is in us is more powerful than the one who is in the world. Jesus has absolute authority; he has bound the Strong Man; evil spirits cower before him – even a legion of demons. I believe that demons still roam this world with evil intentions. I believe they are still tricking humans into inviting them to help them with their nefarious intentions. But don’t despair. Jesus has already won the battle. Make sure you are on his side of the battle. And, for goodness sake, don’t play with evil. Grace and peace. Walter.

Calmed Chaos

Storms can be scary. They are unpredictable and wild. They are tempestuous, angry, rampaging forces. No matter how advanced our radars and equipment, we are still constantly surprised. No matter our efforts we cannot control them. All that we can do is to take shelter the best we can; to huddle in basements; to amass ourselves into hallways; to camp out on the rooftop until the rescuers come; to park under the overpass until the deluge passes. Yes, storms can be scary. Now, imagine facing a raging storm, not in the shelter of your home, but in a fishing boat out in open water. I’ve been told that parking lots alongside the Sea of Galilee, which is not a sea at all, but a freshwater lake, have signs warning drivers that the area is known for sudden squalls complete with huge waves that sweep over the parking lot. So, park your car here with an eye to the lake and a hand on your keys. Better yet, don’t park here at all because you won’t have time to save your car.

              Luke 8:22-25 is a tale of a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee. But really it is a tale of faith and faltering faith; a tale of chaos and calm. It happened on one of those days – one of the days that Jesus was traveling around preaching about the kingdom of God – Jesus and his disciples got into a boat. The group is made up of the Twelve and possibly also the women who were traveling with Jesus during this time. Surprisingly, Jesus said, “Let’s go over to the other side.” This was surprising, because the other side of the lake was comprised mostly of Gentiles. There may be a hint here of Jesus preparing his followers for the idea of an expanding kingdom; a kingdom whose doors are opening for Gentiles as well as Jews. They may not have thought of this at the time. Maybe they thought Jesus wanted to find a quiet place. But there is also a concept of crossing over the Lake. Water was often considered to be chaos or even an abyss. And it doesn’t take much imagination to understand the connection. The open water was dangerous. Crossing the Lake of Galilee could be extremely dangerous.

              But hey, Jesus said “Let’s go” so they went. They are his followers after all. And Jesus? Well, Jesus falls off into sleep, which is kind of an emphatic way of saying it. And as it was known to happen on Lake Galilee, a fierce gust of wind descended on the lake. Luke’s phraseology is descriptive. The wind would rush down the face of the hills surrounding the lake and assault the water and anything unlucky enough to be on its surface. The ship began to take in water and everyone was in danger. Some of these disciples were seasoned fishermen. Maybe Peter told Luke about how near disaster they really were. This is a real danger. This is not merely a boat full of superstitious scaredy cats. Sure, they were terrified, but this was a justified, about to die, terror.

              They woke Jesus up with a panicked, “Master, master we are being destroyed!” My guess is that they didn’t wake him up so that he could do anything about the problem. Their reaction to what Jesus did seems to negate that motive. We seem to want to share our distress. And who better to share their distress with than the one they have given their allegiance to? This is a very human response. They love Jesus. They believe that they are all about to die and they want to share this final moment with their master.

              I picture Jesus bolting awake, standing against the wind, and shouting with force and authority, “Calm down wind! Stop it waves! Now!” And like that, the wind and the waves become calm. Chaos is averted; death is thwarted. Jesus speaks peace and the winds and the waves obey. Wait a minute! Do we grasp the significance here? Only God has authority over the storm. Jesus asked them, “Where then is your faith?” Where do you place your trust? Is it in the power of the storm or in the power of the one who commands the storm? And their response? They were overwhelmed with fear and awe. They were stunned. Who could this be? Psalm 107:25 tells us about God speaking up a raging storm. They should have known that no matter what happens, God holds all things in his control.

              Storms can be scary. And I mean more than wind, waves, and boats taking on water. Life sometimes whips up spiritual storms. The winds tear at our souls; the waves crash against our faith; the chaos threatens our lives. Where do you put your trust? In the power of the storm? Or, do you put your trust in the God of Creation? I don’t know if God will speak peace into our storms. I do know that no matter what, I want to have faith in the one who commands the winds and the waves; who can calm the chaos. Peace.

Shared Experience

What makes family family? Accidents of birth? The father who runs away as soon as he discovers that his child is severely handicapped; is he still a father? And what about the mother who decided that she loved a lifestyle and another man more than her babies? Still a mother? The brother who bitterly denounces his siblings and refuses all contact? A brother? Have you ever heard someone say, “She was more of a mother to me than my mother” or “They are more like sisters than my sisters”? We know what that means don’t we. Somebody stepped up and stepped in and acted like family. It had nothing to do with genetics. It was a choice to encourage, to love, to be family. It is all about shared experiences.

              Luke places the account of Jesus’ family coming for a visit, or a friendly lock up the crazy son moment, in a different time than does Mark. Luke is emphasizing something different with this story than Mark, who seems to make the story about Jesus’ family trying to interject themselves into his life (the “his people” who thought he was crazy of verse 21 is most likely Jesus’ family). In Mark, there may also be a thought of Mary imperiously sending in word to Jesus, “Your Mother is here now. Break up what you are doing and come see me.” In Luke, we merely see Mary and the brothers, which may include the sisters as well (the masculine plural, both in Hebrew and Greek, can refer to males and females), arriving and attempting to get close to him. But the crowd is too crowdy and they are not able to get close to him.

              In Luke, it is the crowd who report to Jesus the presence of his family. In Mark, the family sends word in. It is a subtle difference, but one that may have significance to each of the gospel writers. The news surfs the crowd until it reaches Jesus: “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wishing to see you.” When Jesus begins his ministry, there is no longer a mention of Joseph. The most likely reason for this is that sometime after the incident at the temple when Jesus was twelve and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Joseph died. Mary is, of course, a key figure in the birth narrative. She is not a major character in the ministry of Jesus. She attends the same wedding feast as Jesus in Cana. She is here and she is present at the death and burial of Jesus. She is with the disciples in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension. The brothers mentioned here are most likely Jesus’ half-brothers, children of Mary and Joseph.

              What is important here, is that the family’s appearance creates a teaching moment. The crowd relayed the news of Jesus’ mother and brothers standing outside trying to come near and being unable. Jesus responded to this situation with “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” And now we know why Luke places this story after the parable of the sower and the parable of the lamp when Mark places it before. This is still about hearing. Specifically, this is about those who hear with an honorable heart; the good soil; the lamp that is lit and put in its proper place. The good soil – the lamp – not only hears the word, but does the word. How else will others be able to see the mysteries of the house? How else will they learn the language and customs of the kingdom? Hearing has never been enough.

              And those who hear and put into practice the word of God are Jesus’ family. Family is about the common bond. In a healthy family, the family members are going to honor the connection of family; they are going to understand that the family is more important than their individual wants. In a spiritual family, it is the same. It is about working together in the Kingdom; it is about hearing and doing; it is about putting others before yourself.               What makes a family family? It is more than genetic connection; than similar physical characteristics. It is shared experience. So, if you hear and do the word of God, you have shared experience with Jesus. Sure, he did it more perfectly than you, but it is shared experience all the same. And have you ever noticed that close families have so much more than shared eye color. They share a similar language; a way of reacting; a way of being. The shared experience has given them a common language. Your shared experience with Jesus – the hearing and doing – gives you a common language with him as well. So, you may have physical family members who act like less than family, who discard every resemblance of family responsibility like a coat that has caught fire. And that is sad. But don’t despair. You have a fellow hearer and doer brother. You have shared experience with the Messiah. Let that one sink.

Simply Serving

There once was this woman who was deathly ill. If something didn’t change soon, she was going to die. She knew it; she could feel it. Along came this traveling man. He walked into her village and he calmly said, with a smile on his face, “Rise up!” And all of a sudden, she felt better. Strength and wellness surged through her and she leapt to her feet. She went to the man and fell at his feet and cried out, “Sir, please let me do something for you! Let me show my gratitude!” The traveling man said, “Well, I am pretty hungry.” Does the woman shake her head and say, “I was thinking of something more significant; something that will wow others with how grateful I can be.”? Or, does she thankfully get busy and make the traveling man who just healed her the best meal she has ever made? Oh, and this story works for men as well.

              Some will want to use Luke 8:1-3 in support of feminism. Others will want to use it in support of the opposite. It is neither. It is, pure and simple, the story of grateful service. Luke begins the passage with, “And it happened, afterwards . . .” The emphasis is not that this took place soon after, but that he is telling the story in order like he promised in 1:3 where he used the same word. So, sometime after the incident in Simon’s house Jesus toured Galilee announcing and preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. He went to the cities and the villages. I like that. He didn’t consider the small villages as beneath him or his work. His mission was to let people know the good news that the kingdom of God was breaking into their reality. This was a message for the poor and the rich alike; the farmer and the statesman; the fisherman and the tax collector. He was the quintessential itinerant preacher. And his disciples were traveling with him, learning what ministry ought to look like.

              Oh, and there were these women; woman who had been healed. The word “healed” is the word from which we get our word “therapeutic”. It can mean to cure through serving or taking care of a person. Some of these women had been plagued with evil spirits and others with an illness that left them weak or incapable. Some people confuse these two things and name them as the same thing. They are often mentioned together, but they always seem to be distinguished one from the other. The most likely way people became demon possessed was by playing with magic. There are many ancient magic books all full of instructions on how to get a demon to serve you. There was this belief that if you could discover a demon’s true name, you could control it. Yeah, I’m thinking that was the bait. And the hook? You don’t control a demon – it controls you.

              The first named lady was Mary of Magdala. Many sources will tell you exactly where Magdala was, but the truth is, we really don’t know. It most likely was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, Mary has been given an unfounded reputation. There is absolutely no evidence that she was punished with seven demons because she was a prostitute or immoral woman. Again, demon possession didn’t work that way. There is also no connection between Mary and the unnamed lady who came into Simon’s house. All that we know about her is that she had been healed of seven demons. The number seven often represents completeness. It is possible that Luke is saying that Mary was WAY demon possessed. Or she might have had literally seven demons possessing her. Either way, can you imagine being set free from that kind of control? Can you imagine the gratitude?

              The second woman mentioned is Joanna. What we know about her is found here in this verse. She was the wife of Chuza who happened to be a steward in the employ of Herod. She was a woman of means. Some have tried to connect Chuza with the nobleman whose son was healed by Jesus in John 4:46-54. And that would be a pure guess. All that we need to know is that Joanna, a woman of some standing, became a supporter of Jesus. The third lady mentioned is Susanna. We know her name.

              These ladies are said to have served Jesus with their own possessions. Did they provide and make meals? Don’t know. They served Jesus because he had healed them. However they served him, I’m guessing they didn’t complain about their role. Service is not about getting noticed. It is not about people acknowledging how significant your contribution is. Service is about love and gratitude. These women traveled around serving Jesus because they loved him; because they owed him their very lives, in more ways than one. Fully realize what Jesus has done for you and serve. Even when no one notices, serve!

Question of Love

Years ago, a Christian was telling me about another group of Christians who excitedly raised their hands and said “Praise Jesus!” This person’s assessment of the situation was that this was somehow fake and over the top, as if this kind of excitement must be staged. After all people don’t really get excited about Jesus. They respectfully sing their hymns and quietly and reservedly bow their heads in prayer. Shouting out a “Praise God!” must, by nature, be fake. Maybe the problem was not a staged excitement, but an inability to feel excited. Maybe this person grew up going to church feeling for all the world like they had always done what is good and right. Maybe they had never felt forgiveness on the same level as others or at all. Maybe their love response was reserved because it didn’t bubble up out of a sense of overwhelming gratitude over being rescued from the depths of Hell. You know, maybe.

              Luke 7:40-50 is the discussion of love and forgiveness. The setting scene, which we have already looked at, is a woman of questionable character who did all manner of over the top things in her attempt to honor Jesus. This all took place in the house of Simon the Pharisee who silently questioned Jesus’ character because he let this woman “gasp!” touch him. The whole scene was probably extremely embarrassing to Simon. Even though Simon didn’t utter a word of his displeasure, Jesus knew exactly what was running through his mind. So, having gained permission to speak, Jesus confronts Simon with a little parable.

              A moneylender – the word implies lending money at interest – had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. A denarius was a common laborer’s daily wage. So, for the common laborer, this debt would have been felt. Both of the debtors are unable to pay and the moneylender surprisingly and graciously forgives them their debts. End of story, but not the end of Jesus’ lesson. He asked Simon which of the debtors would love the moneylender more. Simon’s answer is non-committal: “Well, I assume the one he forgave the more.” Jesus verified his answer as correct: “Hey good job Simon, your judgment is sound.”

              Then Jesus turned his attention to the woman and asked “Do you see this woman?” And maybe Simon’s problem is that he didn’t see the woman at all. He saw sin; he saw unclean. Then Jesus mentions a series of things that Simon neglected to do that were basically covered by the woman’s actions. One source said that everything Jesus’ brings up is a serious affront. Another source states that they were amenities of respect, but not required. No water was offered for his feet, which, if not exactly required, does seem to be expected. No kiss of greeting. The kiss of greeting was a way of saying “You are welcome here.” No anointing of the head, which was done to express hospitality and protection as long as the guest was in the house of the host. It seems likely that neglecting to do all of these things would have been an insult. I don’t believe that the woman did what she did in an attempt to show Jesus the respect that was lacking. For her, it was a way to pour out her love.

              Jesus’ point is that the woman did these things because her sins, which were many, had been forgiven. The word “many” can refer to a great number or a great degree. Her sins had been a great debt; crushing the life out of her. But now, because of the coming of the Kingdom of God, her weight had been lifted. And she knows the person who is due her love and gratitude. Simon’s problem was that he didn’t feel the weight of his sin; he didn’t feel as if he needed to be forgiven. Therefore, he was more reserved, to the point of disrespect, in his approach to Jesus. Jesus again assured the woman of what she already felt – her sins had been forgiven. The other guests marvel and ask who this person was who could forgive sins. They seem to be more open to the concept than had been the scribes and Pharisees in 5:21 who called this blasphemy. Jesus tells the woman that her faith had saved her – her faith brought her into the presence of the savior – and told her to go in peace – experience the shalom of the Kingdom.

              So, how much have you been forgiven? It is important to note that in the parable, neither debtor could repay the loan. It doesn’t matter if you had lived a relatively clean life, you cannot pay the debt. You may be tempted to pat yourself on the back and think “I’m not a murderer; I’m not an addict.” But that is not the concern. How much have you been forgiven? Praise the Lord! Careful, you might even dance.

Respond

Who is worthy of salvation? I was talking to a group of young people in a correction facility. I wanted to emphasize the concept of forgiveness. You see, we were dealing with the parable of the Prodigal Son and I was attempting to explain the brother’s reaction. His younger brother was not worthy of forgiveness, of being accepted back to the family. His rebellious traipsing off to the far country and wasting the money that should have been used for the family estate was too much. I told them about Jeffery Dahmer and how he was baptized. One of the young men blurted out “Serial killers don’t deserve salvation!” I don’t know what this young man was locked up for, but can you feel the irony? Where do you draw the line? Your mistakes are surely not as bad as multiple murders and various other nefarious deeds. But for someone else, the mistakes you have stumbled over, may be their line. Do you deserve salvation?

              Luke 7:36-39 is the setting scene. Jesus was invited to the house of a Pharisee, whom we later discover is named Simon. Because Simon’s outrageous lack of hospitality, some have suggested that he invited Jesus purposefully to ridicule him. We don’t know, but there is an obvious lack of respect here. Picture Jesus entering the house and noticing that the usual amenities of water for washing feet are nowhere to be seen. He could have made a fuss. This was a pretty serious oversight, or, even an intentional disrespect. Jesus could have walked out in a huff. He would have been within his rights. Instead, he apparently just quietly reclines at table. Was he denying Simon the satisfaction of a wounded response?

              And behold, there was a woman! The word “behold” which is suspiciously absent from my translation, calls attention to something unexpected or new. You can be sure that this woman was not on the guest list. Since they were reclining, this was considered a formal meal. But even a formal meal may have people who just wander in off the street. They were not nearly as private as we are in observing meals. It was common to have people come in and visit with the host and the guests. But this woman must have known that she would not be welcome in the house of Simon. And suddenly, there she is! This sinner in the city. This phrase most likely means she was a well-known sinner in the city and she may very well have been a prostitute. That would fit the story. She is there because she had discovered that Jesus was there. It was most likely the talk of the city.

              She stands behind Jesus at his feet and begins to weep. This word can refer to a wailing. Much time has been spent trying to determine the source of her tears. Did she weep because of her reputation in the city? Did she weep tears of joy having heard words of grace and forgiveness? Maybe it was a mixture of these two. Some will suggest at this point that her weeping has to do with how poorly Jesus is being treated and that the wiping of and anointing of his feet were an attempt to rectify this abysmal treatment; to honor in the face of disgrace. Later, Jesus will ascribe this meaning to her actions, but it doesn’t seem likely that she came prepared with anointing oil to rectify what she could have no way of knowing would happen. She came prepared with perfume. The weeping and the wiping of his feet was most likely a serendipitous act that Jesus was able to teach a lesson with (more on that next time).

              She stands behind him and prepares to anoint his feet because to try to anoint his head (which in Jewish custom would be the normal thing to do) would be too intrusive. So, as she stoops over to anoint his feet, she is overwhelmed with emotion. Her tears fall on his feet. She has nothing to wipe them dry, so she lets down her hair, which was a societal taboo, and dries them as best she can. In this moment she is again overwhelmed and she begins to kiss his feet. Then she does what she came to do and she anoints him. Jesus respectfully remains passive through all of this. There is a lesson here, isn’t there. Sometimes we need to passively let people express themselves. And Simon denounces Jesus. There is no way that “this one” (which can be a term of dismissal) can be a prophet. Not if he lets such a woman touch him. Simon fully expects that a prophet of God would be just like himself – a safe distance from all unclean sinners.

                Isn’t it sad that Simon didn’t say, “Wow, God can forgive sinners! There is hope for me after all.”? I want to be more like the woman. I want to respond to the Savior with tears of grief and joy; of mourning and dancing. I want to be so overwhelmed with emotion that convention takes a back seat to honoring my Lord. I want to be more concerned about God’s honor than my own. Honor the Savior! Peace, Walter

Wail and Dance

Part of the years of my youth were spent on a farm up in the mountains of Washington State. Some of my cousins lived in Downey, California, which is basically a Los Angeles suburb. You couldn’t get much different. I can remember one of my cousins asking us what we did for fun. Are you kidding me? We swam in the river; we divided up into teams and played army in the woods; we built hay forts; we played baseball in the pasture, using cow pies as bases; we even had cow-pie fights (when they’re dry you can fling those things like a frisbee – well, almost). My cousin was not at all impressed. But for us, it was like we had our own secret fun that she could not understand. You might say we played the flute and she refused to dance. And there was also this thing called chores, which had to be done before we could play anything. She didn’t join in and help with those either. And that was also a secret she couldn’t grasp. You might say we sang a dirge and she refused to wail. We were children of the country.

               In Luke 7:29-35 there is a comparison between those who get the breaking-in Kingdom of God and those who do not. Luke sets the scene in verse 29-30. The people, the common rabble, and the tax collectors heard Jesus’ words and submitted to obeying God’s justice. They had been prepared for this by listening to John and being baptized by him. They sang a dirge of need and submission. And because of that when Jesus came and announced that the humble have the gospel preached to them; that the least in the kingdom are greater than John, they rejoiced with the news. Lamenting followed by celebration. This is Kingdom of God stuff, boys and girls. But the Pharisees and the experts in the Torah renounced this order. They didn’t need to lament or sing a dirge. They were the religious leaders; the elite. And they would have none of the kind of feasting that Jesus did – eating with sinners and tax collectors. Therefore, they pronounced God’s plan as null and void in their lives.

              Into this situation Jesus interjects a parable. Well, first he asked a question to set up the parable: “What can the men of this generation be compared to? What are they like?” They are like little children playing games in the market place. A common sight that probably brought a smile to the common folk. Also, the words here have the feel of a set chant. So, maybe children could be heard chanting these words: “We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance; we sang a funeral song, and you refused to wail.” Maybe they skipped through the market place chanting. And as the adults chuckled or frowned, did they feel as if they were participating in a secret game? I think that was Jesus’ point. Those who refuse to dance or wail, are dismissing the game as if it had no value – ah, but they are the ones missing out.

              John came preaching repentance, forgiveness and judgment. He held to the strict dietary rules of the Nazarite vow (Luke 1:15; Deuteronomy 29:5), and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6). He called the people (Pharisees and Sadducees according to Matthew) who came out to be baptized by him a brood of vipers. Anyone who acts like that must be demon possessed. It was almost as if he came singing a dirge and expected them to wail. Can you repent without remorse; without a humble crying out your need? But the Son of Man, possibly referring to the prophecy in Daniel 7:13, came partying and they accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard. It was almost as if he played to flute and expected them to dance. But that would mean dancing with sinners and tax collectors. They would not be caught dead dancing with the rabble. They refused to understand the game. They didn’t want to admit that they needed to repent. And so, they couldn’t join the dancing, which they rejected anyway. They were left out of the secret game of the Kingdom of God. And Jesus’ words may sound as if they refer to every human without verses 29-30 and verse 35. But, thankfully, there are children of Wisdom. It was common to personalize Wisdom in the Old Testament (see especially Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-9:6). The children of Wisdom would be those who didn’t reject the plan of God as did the Pharisees and the Lawyers. Keeping the message of Wisdom (the plan of God) justifies Wisdom. In their actions they vindicate the message; the plan.

              If you sing a funeral dirge with John, you will be able to party with Jesus. That is how God’s kingdom works. And only those who are in the party get it. It is as if we are part of a secret society; like we are sharing a secret game. Others will refuse to dance with us. That’s okay. Keep inviting and keep dancing. You belong in the Kingdom. You are children of the plan. Wail and dance! Peace, Walter

Greatness

Have you ever longed to be great; rising above average; seeking to outshine the dross that surrounds you? You leap for the stars and barely leave the ground. It may be easy to blame your life-situation, pointing at your neighborhood or your family or your school, but others seem to be able to rocket above their circumstances. Maybe what weighs you down is something more elemental or maybe it is a combination of things. Oh, sure, it takes hard work, but you have come to realize that it involves other things as well. Things like natural ability, charisma, and just plain stupid luck. Sometimes, people are noticed simply because they were in the right place at the right time. So, where does that leave the rest of us? Are we meant to spend our life wishing and longing for what is out of our reach? Maybe we need to reboot our definition of greatness.

              In Luke 7:24-28 Jesus answers the question, “Who is greater in the kingdom of God?” The two messengers of John, who had been sent to ask Jesus a question, have gone their merry way. Jesus addresses the crowd and asks them what they went out into the wilderness to see. Was it a reed shaken by the wind? Is Jesus asking, “Did you go out to see a wishy-washy man out there in the desert?” And the obvious answer would have been “No!” Many seem to think this is the point. But maybe the point was how common place reeds in the desert were. Sure, you can find many a reed out there, but is that why you went? Either way, John was neither wishy-washy nor common. How about a man dressed in soft indulgent clothing? Now that is rare, but are you likely to find such a one out in the wasteland, getting his luxuriant garments all dusty and sweaty? No, if they had wanted to see someone so dressed, they would have gone to the royal palace where they would have most likely been turned away.

              No, they went out to see a prophet – a proclaimer of a divine message. We hear the word “prophet” and we think “a proclaimer of future events.” But the Hebrew word for “prophet” simply means “proclaimer.” The Greek word has the idea of “one who stands before to proclaim.” It is used in the Bible for a man or woman who is standing before the people to deliver a message from God, whether that message be about what is about to take place or an interpretation of what has already happened. So, the crowd went out to the desert to see John stand before them and proclaim a divine message. But John was more than a prophet; he was the one sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Other prophets may have announced his future coming, but John was the one who was chosen to make his road ready, and that would make John the prophesied coming of Elijah (Malachi 3:1; 4:5).

              And then Jesus wraps his comments up about John by saying that among those born of women there is no one greater than John. What? Jesus was born of a woman. Is he saying that John is greater than himself? And shouldn’t we avoid all of these making comparisons? Jesus just goes on and makes another comparison: even though no one is greater than John, the littlest or least, which can refer to age or importance, in the kingdom of God is greater than John. What? Will John not be in the kingdom? Back it up a minute. What if Jesus is speaking of roles and position? What did they flock out into the desert to see? The one who was preparing the way for the Messiah. That is what made John great. His role. Not royal status or ability. He was chosen to proclaim the divine message to get people ready for the Coming One. And that role, given to him by God, is what made him greater. And who is he preparing the way for? Jesus, the Messiah, the Coming One. And the least, the normally discarded and dismissed, who are in the kingdom, will be doing kingdom work. That makes them greater than John.

              There may be some who will disparage you and your contribution. You may feel as if your life is little, mundane, insignificant. But if you belong to the king, he makes you great. You are doing kingdom work. Will people discuss your greatness in coffee shops? Will your face be seen in newspapers or on the TV? Will you outshine the dross of mundane life? If your definition of greatness is recognition, you may never achieve it. But if your definition of greatness is the gift of kingdom existence, kingdom ministry, well then, you can and will be great. And this is the shame of the gospel. It is not about your ability; your intelligence; your charisma; your luck. It is about the greatness of the Giver. He has a kingdom and kingdom work for you. Enter in and be great my friend. Peace, Walter

Mother Reflection

Will this be the last Mother’s Day that my Mom will be here for? Will Sunday be the last Mother’s Day call I make? I don’t know. The truth is, we never know. Do we? But there are times, like now, when the reality of death is more pressing; more present, I guess. My Mom’s health is failing, you see. She can no longer get out of bed by herself. When she tries, she injures herself. She cries a lot these days. She also forgets a lot. She is scared that she will forget her children and/or her grandchildren. She also has this fear that she will be forgotten and these fears bring about even more crying. She is with my Dad and that is good because his health is also failing.

              One of my earliest memories is going with my Mom to the welfare office. I believe that my brothers and sisters were in school. I remember these times as being extremely tense. She hated them. She always felt that the young ladies behind the window or sitting at the desks were treating her as if she were stupid or lazy or scamming the government. And maybe some of them were. My dad had been laid off and life demands money, doesn’t it? So, she endured these moments of embarrassment because she had four babies to feed. I can remember times when the only food in the house was dry cereal. I can remember eating some pretty weird things. We had cow tongue because it was a cheap meat. Mom didn’t know you are supposed to skin it. I wasn’t fond of the chewy leathery consistency, but I chewed on it. If you asked Mom what something was and she merely said, “It’s meat,” you knew it was something you were not going to like. Most of the time we ate it anyway. Food is food when you don’t have much. We had a lot of ham hock and beans. It is kind of a comfort food for me now.

              I can remember many a Momism. “If your friends all jumped off of a cliff would you jump with them?” “Do you think money grows on trees?” “Walter must have a tape worm – he eats and eats and never gains any weight.” (Yeah, wish that one was still true.) “You’re a cool head, but who wants a drafty toilet?” “You’re no Adonis, so quit expecting an Aphrodite.” “Are you trying to heat up the whole out-doors?”

              My mother is not perfect, but I love her very much. She made some pretty glaring mistakes, but I respect her more than I have words. As with all of us, she is a product, in some ways, of her culture; of the way that she was raised. There were things she was not allowed to talk about. She was not very good at dealing with problems. She was more likely to sweep it all under the rug and pretend nothing ever happened. I was punished for telling a horrible truth once. It pains me to write these words, but they need to be said. I love and respect my Mom. She is not perfect, but she did her best to serve her God and her family. And if we will only honor those who haven’t hurt us, our list of honorees will shrivel away to nothingness and we will be left with a bitterness that will burn us up inside.

              I guess I’m being reflective a lot lately. But this article is not simply about me walking the shadowy realm of memory. It is more than honoring a terrific, yet flawed, mother. It is about obeying the fifth commandment; the first directed toward our human relationships. It is about honoring our father and mother. And there is no caveat here. There is something fundamental about respecting your parents. There is something in us that wants to love our Moms no matter the circumstances; no matter the pain; no matter the disappointments. You have permission to love your Mother, no matter what she may have done.

              But it is more than that. It is about redemption. It is about God working in the midst of our flaws. Sometimes I may be maudlin in my reflection, but I am also filled with joy. It is not about whether this is the last Mother’s Day or not. It is about taking advantage of the time you have. We are not guaranteed a tomorrow. So, do all you can today. We have set aside a day to honor mothers and that seems to me to be a very good idea. But don’t wait until that day rolls around. It may not. Don’t pour out all of your thoughts of love and respect on that day. Take advantage of every moment you can.

              My Mom is a lovely lady. She is now living in a nursing home in a dementia wing so that she can be with my Dad. She is struggling with new issues and concerns. She loves her God; her family and her church family. She has done the best she could and has spent too much time worrying that she hasn’t done enough. We tend to do that. It is my prayer that you will love and respect your mother. I hope that you will be able to look beyond the mistakes. God does that for her and for you. Peace, Walter

Compassion

When my Grandpa died my Dad was in the military. My Granny was trying to take care of her younger children by herself. She had just lost her husband and several months earlier her oldest son was killed at Heart Break Ridge in the Korean War. Overwhelming grief seized her. Two neighbors and a doctor wrote to the military and requested that my Dad be relieved of duty and be sent home to help his mother. The military graciously complied. They could have said something like “Well, that is sad, but this kind of thing happens all the time. We need private Clark for the Korean conflict. Let her neighbors take care of her.” My Granny’s situation was not unique. She was one woman in the midst of many left to struggle with raising children on her own. And the military saw her situation and had compassion.

              Luke 7:11-17 is about a very common event and the compassion of the Lord. Jesus, his disciples and a large crowd walked themselves some twenty-five miles south to the city of Nain. This would not have been an easy hike. Nain was located on the southern border of Galilee in the midst of the mountains. This is the only place in the Bible where this city is even mentioned. Why Nain? Did Jesus go specifically for the ensuing encounter? Or was he on his way somewhere else? I cannot answer that question with any amount of confidence. Some, however, do posit the possibility that he made this twenty-five-mile trek purely to encounter a funeral procession. Some also suggest that he did this so that he could tell John in the next section that the dead have been raised. That seems unlikely to me. Whatever drew Jesus to Nain, the story is about compassion.

              As Jesus and his crowd approach the city gate, they encounter another large crowd coming out. Picture two large throngs converging on each other. The crowd exiting the city is carrying a dead man on a bier. The word for “carry” is a technical term for carrying a body. They are exiting the city, because a dead body is unclean and most of the time buried outside the city walls. In the crowd of mourners, who were most likely weeping and wailing, as was Jewish custom, was the mother of the dead man. She is what Paul would call a “widow indeed.” This is her only son and her husband is dead. In her world, she cannot go out and get a job to provide for herself. Does she have friends in the city who will make sure she has enough to eat? She has few options. So, on top of her grief, she is surely aware of how hard her life has just become.

              When Jesus sees her, he feels compassion for her. Her situation is not unique. Jesus didn’t have to travel all the way to Nain to encounter this situation. It was happening every day all around him. This woman was not the only recent “widow indeed” in the area. Does the common place rob us of compassion? Do we some times say, “Well, that is sad, but it happens all the time”? Can our compassion be minimized by the mundaneness of the situation? I don’t know why Jesus walked to Nain. I know that when he saw a very common event, he was filled with compassion. The word “compassion” is literally “bowels.” We might say, “he was deeply moved by what he saw.” And his compassion drove him to action. First, he told the woman to stop weeping. The word implies loud wailing. And doesn’t this seem like an odd command in the middle of a funeral procession? He then touched the funeral bier, which was a gentle plea for them to stop.

              The procession stopped and he said, “Young man, arise!” Up until now we didn’t know he was a young man. Young men die all the time, don’t they? This no-longer-dead young man sat up and began to speak. Can you imagine the reaction in both crowds? Well, we know they were gripped with fear and began to glorify God. They began excitedly talking about Jesus being a great prophet and that God visited or cared for his people. Fear, awe, excitement all swirled among the crowds of people. Jesus gave him back to his mother, which most likely echoes 1 Kings 17:23. It is not that Jesus was the eschatological Elijah. The echo is all about the powerful movement of God; the compassion of God. Just like God had compassion for the widow of Zarephath, he also had compassion for the widow of Nain. And the report of this spread all over the place.

              People are hurting. Their situation is common. Don’t let that steal your compassion. We believe in a God who is moved deeply by the plight of widows and the marginalized. It is not that they are rare. Their situation is far too common. And yet God is still deeply moved. Whatever pain you have, God is deeply moved. Whatever pain you witness in others, follow God’s example. Compassion in the common. Grace.