Posts Tagged ‘inclusion’

Everyone has a place at the table

August 19, 2017

Pentecost 11 – 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

Marian Free

In the name of God whose goodness and mercy include all who seek it. Amen.

Movies/TV shows are a great way to learn about the culture of another country without having to go there. For example, there is a movie simply titled “Water”. It is set in India and follows the lives of two widows – one who appears to be only twelve years old and the other who seems to be in her twenties. In Hinduism widows are reviled; their husband’s assets revert to his family and any assets the woman might have had become the property of her family. As a result, widows find themselves destitute. At the same time they are considered to be bad luck – as if their husband’s untimely death has somehow tainted them. It is little wonder that, when it was legal, some widows willing threw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Those who choose life are confined to an Ashram in which they are expected to live a religious life and never to remarry. They are totally dependent on the charity of others and often live in quite impoverished circumstances.

The older of our two widows is very beautiful, even in her simple white garment. It is hard to imagine that she is an object of disgust who must be avoided at all costs, but this is her fate. One of the more confronting moments of the movie occurs when someone accidentally brushes up against the young woman, immediately recoils and hurls a string of abuse at the widow whose responsibility it seems is to remain invisible and to steer clear of those who do not share her despised status. (It is her job to ensure that she does not contaminate them, not theirs to avoid her.)

It is easy to cast judgement on what, to us, appears to be the inhuman and insensitive treatment of widows and indeed of the caste of “untouchables” within the Hindu religious and cultural system. But before we pat ourselves on the back for our “enlightened” attitudes it is important to remind ourselves of our own heritage. Most cultures and religions have holiness or purity laws that serve to distinguish and separate people and things into holy or profane. This was certainly true of the Old Testament people and of the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born. Some of these regulations are spelled out in the book of Leviticus that identifies the holy and profane, the clean and unclean. This was important in a religious sense because those who were contaminated by the unholy and unclean could not enter the Temple (the place in which God met with the people of Israel). In some instances that which was profane or unclean were considered to be in some way contagious – that is that contact with the person or item rendered the other profane or unclean[1].

Fear of contamination explains why, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and Levite avoid the injured man. If he is in fact dead, they will become unclean and will have to purify themselves before they enter the Temple (to which we presume they are walking). Gentiles (non-Jews) were considered to be unclean and to have unclean practices. This was the reason that their inclusion in the new community caused so much dissension (as is attested especially by Paul’s letters to Galatia and to Rome).

Purity and holiness laws served to set the Jews apart. By observing the rules and by engaging in prescribed behaviours and by avoiding those who did not observe them Jews in the first century could maintain their sense of difference and their belief in their own distinctiveness and holiness. When Jesus enters the picture he blows all those constructs apart and makes it clear that holiness is not a matter of external behaviours, but is entirely dependent on the state of one’s heart.

We can see this in the context of Matthew’s account of Jesus encounter with the Canaanite woman. Matthew places the story immediately after the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus with regard to what is clean and unclean. In response, Jesus redefines the concepts making it clear that it is not externals that make a person clean or unclean, but their acceptance of and faith in Jesus. That Matthew’s placement of the story is not accidental is suggested by the fact that Jesus (without any particular justification)– Jesus travels from wherever he is into what is very clearly Gentile territory – the region of Tyre and Sidon. The woman who approaches Jesus is clearly (from the Pharisaic perspective) an outsider who is also unclean. Jesus doesn’t recoil. Engaging with the woman will not contaminate him. Instead (after initially ignoring her) Jesus allows the woman to engage him in debate and then accedes to her request. The woman’s recognition of Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”, confirm to the reader that no matter how the Pharisees might view her, she is no longer an outsider and as such no longer unclean. Following this meeting, Jesus returns to Galilee (of the Gentiles) where he heals, without discrimination, all those who are brought to him. Like the woman they too make it clear that they are no longer outsiders by praising “the God of Israel”.

Through the way in which he has organized the material available to him, Matthew seems to be describing a progression from a ministry and mission that was directed solely to Israel (10: 6, 15:24) to a ministry and mission that is directed towards and fully inclusive of the Gentiles (28:19). An essential part of this programme is a re-framing of the concepts of clean and unclean, holy and profane. In the new economy, the barriers between the sacred and profane have no meaning and the divisions between Jew and Greek have been broken down.

From the genealogy, through the coming of the magi, Matthew has been making it clear that through Jesus the rules have changed – the definitions of holy and profane have been recast. Holiness no longer refers solely to those who were born Jews, to those who observed the purity laws and maintained a comfortable distance from the unclean and the profane. In the new economy, holiness/purity knows no boundaries. Inclusion is no longer determined by race or gender, class or skin colour. Everyone who recognises Jesus as Lord has a place at the table.

[1] (The use of iron tools to cut a stone altar made it unfit or unholy – Exodus 20:22, contact a corpse would exclude a person from the Temple until they had purified themselves and so on.)

Advertisements

Exposed for all to see

August 29, 2015

Pentecost 14 – 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free

 

Lord our God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, we ask you to cleanse us from all hypocrisy, to unite us to our fellow men and women by the bonds of peace and love, and to confirm us in holiness now and forever. Amen.

Last week we looked – in a rather light-hearted way – at a number of the reasons people give for not inviting others to church. As I reflected on some of those reasons, it occurred to me that not one of us mentioned that the church was perceived as hypocritical. In the latter half of the last century if not before, the accusation of hypocrisy was often leveled at the church and used to justify non-attendance. If the subject of church attendance was raised, we were as likely as not to be told: “I don’t go to church, the church is full of hypocrites”. Those who made the accusation felt that the lives of churchgoers did not match the values and morals that they proclaimed to uphold. To be fair, this statement was made in an age in which the church had set itself up as the moral guardian of society at large and not only did many people feel burdened by the sometimes harsh demands placed on them, but on more than one occasion the church or its members had spectacularly fallen from grace. Issues such as fraud, adultery and underage sex all made front-page headlines and demonstrated that even members of the church were unable to achieve the high standards that they set for others.

The reputation of the church was seriously eroded long before the more recent revelations of the prevalence of child sex abuse in the church and its agencies.

It has been a long time since I have heard the hypocrisy of the church used as a reason for someone not to come to worship or as a justification for abandoning the faith. The reason for this is simple. Over the last decade or so the human frailty of the church has been laid bare for all to see. In the light of catastrophic failures such as child sex abuse it has become impossible for the church to continue to claim the high moral ground and difficult for us to impose on others standards of behaviour that we ourselves cannot consistently achieve. Collectively, we have been forced to concede that we cannot always live out what we preach.

I don’t know about you, but I find this new situation strangely liberating. It means is that we no longer have to pretend. Instead of trying to present a perfect face to the world, we can now be honest about our brokenness and frailty. Instead of standing apart from (dare I say above) society as a whole, we can admit our common humanity. Instead of constantly striving to be what we are not, we can finally relax and let people see us as we really are – imperfect, struggling human beings, set apart only by virtue of our belief in the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

While the exterior of the church may be tarnished and our failures laid bare for all to see, we have been set free from the unnecessary burden of pretence. Now that there is no longer anything left to hide, now that it is impossible to pretend that we are something that we are not, we can concentrate on our true vocation – being in a relationship with the God who accepts us as we are, frees us from guilt and fear and challenges us to strive for wholeness and peace – for ourselves and for others.

Our gospel this morning warns us against giving priority to rules in the belief that somehow we can achieve a degree of godliness simply by our own efforts. It is a reminder that it is what we try to be, not what we pretend to be that really matters. Authentic living, the gospel suggests, means that we should not elevate our public image at the expense of an honest and authentic engagement with and identification with the world at large.

These are lessons that for today’s church have been hard-won but, thanks to the failures of the past, it is much clearer now that the church (the Christian faith) is less about codes of behaviour and more about love, less about being good and more about being with God, less about judgement and more about forgiveness, less about guilt and more about acceptance, less about anxiety and more about confidence, less about exclusion and more about inclusion and most importantly that it is less about putting on a face and more about being real.

We come to church, not because we believe that we are better than everyone else, but because we know that we are not. We come to church as we are – broken and lost – knowing that we are assured of a welcome from the God who forgives the sinner, seeks the lost, embraces the prodigal, lifts the fallen and who longs to heal, forgive and restore a humanity that has lost its way.

This is what we (the church) have to offer the world – not a false image of perfection, but an assurance that God who loved us enough to die for us, is waiting with outstretched arms until each of us finds our way home.

 

As Rowan Williams said in his enthronement sermon: “The one great purpose of the Church’s existence is to share that bread of life, to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus – You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from God’s fullness and set others free from fear and guilt.”

 

God does not discriminate

September 20, 2014

Pentecost 15 – 2014
Matthew 20:1-16
Marian Free

In the name of God who values each one of us equally and desires only that we allow ourselves to be loved. Amen.

One of my favorite movies (and books) is The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It tells the story of five Chinese women and their daughters. The mothers have all fled traumatic experiences in their homeland and have made a new home in America where, like many Chinese women, they want their children to excel. This desire puts a great deal of pressure on the daughters who, not surprisingly, find that while they are like cousins to each other they are also each other’s competitors.

One of the daughters Jing-Mei doesn’t fit the competitive mold. She is quiet and unassuming, always blending into the background rather than drawing attention to herself. At social functions, it is Jing-Mei (June) who hovers around the older women ensuring that they have what they need – drinks, snacks and so on. It is June who takes the worst piece of crab at a dinner party and who can be found in the kitchen washing the dishes when the meal is finished.

Though June has happily and willingly taken on the role of nurturer, there are times when she cannot help but feel that she is unappreciated and unseen.

On one occasion, when June is clearing up yet again after a dinner party, all her pent up frustration bursts out. She says to her mother:

Jing-Mei: I’m just sorry that you got stuck with such a loser, that I’ve always been so disappointing.
Suyuan: What you mean disappoint? Piano?
Jing-Mei: Everything: my grades, my job, not getting married, everything you expected of me.
Suyuan: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope.
Jing-Mei: No? Well, it hurts, because every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt. It hurt me, Mommy. And no matter what you hope for, I’ll never be more than what I am. And you never see that, what I really am.

But her mother has seen, her mother knows her and loves her. She does not want June to be like her friend’s daughters but to be herself. She responds (referring to that night’s meal):

Suyuan: That bad crab, only you tried to take it. Everybody else want best quality. You, you’re thinking different. Waverley took best quality crab. You took worst because you have best quality heart. You have style no one can teach. Must be born this way. I see you.

All this time, June had thought that she had to work hard to be noticed and that if she only did enough she would stand out from the others and her mother would see and value her. All that time, she hadn’t realised that who she was was enough. Her mother did not compare her with her friends, but valued her for herself. June did not have to earn her mother’ love, it was already hers.

It has been said that the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is “the gospel in a nutshell” and while June’s story is not an exact parallel it does illustrate the point that we do not have compete for love and certainly not for God’s love. God’s love is not something that we have to earn – it is already ours. If it is ours, it is others also. It doesn’t matter if a person recognises God’s love at the eleventh hour – like the thief who is crucified with Jesus – or whether – like many of us – one has known God’s love since birth. It is not a competition. God’s love is given in equal measure to each one of us no matter who we are or what we do.

In first century Galilee, many of the small land holdings had been consolidated. This meant that there were many men who had no means of support and who had to hire themselves out on a daily basis. These men would gather in the market place every day in the hope that they would be offered work. Landowners would come to the market place to hire day-labourers. (Even if they could afford slaves it was cheaper to pay a daily rate, than to expend money on slaves who had to be fed and kept even if they were sick and unable to work.)

What is unusual in the parable is that the landowner comes out at dawn and at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour and even the eleventh hour. He agrees with those hired at dawn to pay them a denarius for the day. Those hired at the third, sixth and ninth hour are simply told that they will be paid what is just – no amount is specified. Those told to work at the eleventh hour are not made any offer of pay.

Our attention is caught by two details: first that the landowner should take on anyone so late in the day and second that the landowner has not specified any recompense for the latecomers. The tension is heightened when we discover that those who arrived last are paid a denarius – the same amount that was offered to those hired first. We, the audience expect that those who have worked all day will receive more – despite their initial agreement with the landowner. We join the gasp of surprise and resentment when they receive only what was promised. After all, those who were hired first have worked so much longer and have born the burden of the day. In human terms the landowner’s action is simply unjust.

That is the point of course. The landowner is God, as the parable makes clear by calling him the “lord” of the vineyard. God is not just in human terms. God does not discriminate according to how long or how hard a person works. Everyone who responds to the call of God – whether early or late – is treated in the same way, because there is only one thing that God has to offer and that is salvation or eternal life. It would be nonsense for someone to be one third or one half saved or for God to give the late-comers only a representative proportion of eternal life depending on when they came to faith. Eternal life is eternal or it is not.

This is why the repentant thief is told: “today you will be with me in Paradise” and why those who come last receive the same as those who came first. There is no such thing as partial salvation or limited eternal life. One is saved or one is not, one belongs to the kingdom or one does not, one has eternal life or one does not. Those who work all day are no more saved than those who come in late.

At the heart of the gospel is God’s inclusive love. No one who accepts that love is excluded from the kingdom – not tax-collectors, not prostitutes, not even sinners. In God’s eyes we are all equal and all equally loved. If God chooses to love, who are we to begrudge that love to others? If God makes no distinction, who are we to compare ourselves favourably with others?

Who’s in and who’s out.

June 28, 2014

Pentecost 3 – 2014

Matthew 10:40-42

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves all that God has created. Amen.

On Tuesday evening at St John’s Cathedral the Archbishop consecrated Cameron Venables as Bishop of the Western Region. The service was wonderful but what has remained in my mind is not the liturgy but Cameron’s thanks and greetings. Needless to say there were people present from all parts of Cameron’s life – family, friends and those among whom he had served. The last of his greetings took me by surprise. Using an Arabic form of greeting, Cameron thanked two members of the Muslim community who had attended the service. In a world which seems to be increasingly fragmented along religious lines and in which groups like Boko Haran wreak terror among those who do not share their faith, Cameron’s greeting and the presence of his friends was a breath of fresh air and a reminder that possibilities other than suspicion and hatred are possible.

I am lucky, as the child of an academic I have been privileged to meet a wide range of people from different nations and different faiths. During my late teens our Parish hosted a service for the beginning of the academic year at which adherents of different faiths were present. I have attended multi-faith conferences and the Parliament of World Religions. My P.A. practices the Buddhist faith. All of which is to say that I haven’t led a sheltered or insular life. Perhaps what struck me and filled me with hope was hearing the Muslim greeting uttered in our Cathedral and knowing that it was addressed to people who, despite having different beliefs and practices, had chosen to spend two hours attending a very particular style of Christian worship for the sake of friendship.

Our news and other media sometimes seem intent on exaggerating difference and on trying to build fear of those who differ from us. For many Australians what they know of Islam comes from media reports of the actions of extremist groups and the political fear-mongering that is associated with asylum seekers or boat arrivals.

Of course, the reality is that religious conflict is based less on religion and more on politics, avarice and ethnicity, but the current unrest in the world has made a number of people anxious, suspicious and even afraid.

Today’s gospel is only three verses long, but in the context of religious difference and who is included and who is excluded, they are very significant. Jesus tells his disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That’s an extraordinary thing to say – that welcoming you or I is the same as welcoming God. In this instance at least, Jesus does not demand faith, adherence to the law or Temple worship but suggests a simple welcome, an openness to who he is is all that is required. Jesus’ gospel is inclusive. It is open to sinners and to Samaritans and Gentiles and is very undemanding a simple welcome (a not turning away) indicates a preparedness to get to know Jesus and hence to know God.

In the context of first century Judaism, this would have been a radical statement because, as best as we can make out, the Judaism of Jesus’ time had drawn in on itself – drawn up boundaries to determine who was in and who was out. As a people the Jews had been under foreign rule for most of the last few centuries which led them to exaggerate those things which made them distinct – circumcision, food laws and in particular an exclusive relationship with Yahweh. By identifying and building on what made them different, they were able to hold on to the idea that they were unique and that they would survive as a people.

First Jesus and then the early church challenged the idea that God related to/was concerned for only those of Jewish descent. Jesus told parables about “good” Samaritans, allowed himself to be persuaded by a Gentile woman and mixed with those whose lifestyle put them outside the boundaries of the Jewish faith. In his teaching and behaviour he made it clear that goodness was not a characteristic that belonged to just one group of people and that God was not stringent in God’s demands, but offered love to any who would accept it. Paul in particular grasped the inclusive nature of the gospel and the fact that salvation was predicated on faith and nothing else. If belonging to the people of God was based on faith and not law and circumcision, then anyone could belong. Jesus and then Paul, broke down the barriers which had been built up to keep Judaism free from contamination by others – radically challenging the idea that one group alone had all of God’s attention.

When we are threatened or isolated from those who share our beliefs, it is comforting to draw our boundaries tighter and to strengthen our identity – to emphasise those things that make us different or special. This is a useful strategy in the face of persecution or when our culture or lifestyle is in danger of extinction. However, this behaviour can lead to the sort of arrogance that enables us to assume that we know what God wants and to presume that what we do or say, we do or say on God’s behalf. This leads to our setting ourselves apart as moral or religious guardians and believing that we are more special to God than others. It can have devastating effects – conflict, oppression and in some cases even annihilation of the other.

Jesus had the kind of self-assurance that meant that he didn’t need to impose his will on others or to tell them what or how to believe. What he wanted most of all was to open the eyes of those who were rigidly confined within boundaries of their own making and to show them that God’s abundant love was poured out on all those who would accept it not on just a limited and predefined few. Jesus’ greatest condemnation was not of sinners or those on the margins but rather of those who believed themselves to be at the centre and those who thought that they knew God’s mind and that they could judge/exclude others accordingly. He does not seem to have needed to make distinctions between people or groups of people, on the basis of faith, or ethnicity. People judged themselves according to their welcome or not of him.

Jesus, who did know God’s mind makes few demands and understands that a welcome reflects a heart that is open to possibilities and a mind that is willing to engage. How different might the multi-faith landscape be, if this was a view that was shared and promoted instead of a faith groups building fortresses and claiming right on their side?

Being Shown Up

July 13, 2013

Pentecost 8 – 2013

Luke 10:25-37

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who challenges us to see beyond the surface to the deeper meaning beneath.  Amen. 

I have recently signed up to receive daily emails from the Centre for Action and Contemplation founded by Richard Rohr whose books I have found both helpful and challenging. On Friday the meditation included the following quote from one of Richard’s books.

“Those at the edge of any system and those excluded from any system ironically and invariably hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. They always hold the feared, rejected, and denied parts of the group’s soul. You see, therefore, why the church was meant to be that group that constantly went to the edges, to the “least of the brothers and sisters,” and even to the enemy. When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be the Christ. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.”

In Luke’s gospel this point is made over and over again. It is the outsider in the form of the centurion who demonstrates sensitivity to Jewish culture norms by not allowing Jesus to enter his home (7:1f). The “woman of the city”, demonstrates true gratitude in comparison with  the self-righteousness Pharisee  (7:36ff).  In 8:19 Jesus redefines family as those who follow him. Jesus heals the Gentile demoniac and commissions him to teach the gospel (8:26f)l and a bleeding woman is commended for her faith (not censured for touching Jesus) (8:48).  Those on the outside, those excluded by Jewish society, are commended by Jesus, used by Jesus to reveal the hard-heartedness, ignorance and lack of faith of those who consider themselves to be on the inside.

It is in this context that the parable of the “Good Samaritan” must be understood. Centuries of domestication have made it difficult to recover the original intention of Jesus in telling this story. Far from being an example story, it is a direct attack on the exclusiveness of the Jews who label all non-Jews as immoral and lacking in human decency.

The parable is very carefully crafted.  As is often the case in oral story-telling, Jesus sets up a pattern which leads his listeners to draw their own conclusion before he shocks them with his surprise ending which challenges and critiques their stereotypes and preconceptions about those who do not belong.  The outsider, the marginalised, the despised Samaritan is the one who behaves in the way they think a “hero” should behave. They are challenged to re-think their attitudes to Samaritans and accept that they might not reach their own high standards.

There are four characters in the story, the first three of whom are Jews. Jesus’ telling of the parable, sets up an expectation that the fourth person, the “hero” will also be a Jew  – someone with whom the audience can identify, someone who will reaffirm their good opinion of themselves.

The setting of the tale – the road between Jerusalem to Jericho is notoriously dangerous. Jesus’ listeners are not at all surprised that the traveller falls among thieves. Neither are they surprised that the members of the priestly class fail to stop. Among the ordinary people of the day, anti-clerical sentiment was such that the callous actions of the priest and Levite would simply be taken for granted. That said, they believe that surely someone like themselves would stop and attend to the man. Using a pattern of words – coming, seeing, going past – Jesus builds a rhythm that not only gains the listeners’ attention and helps them to remember, but also leads them to think that they can complete the story (in the same way that children’s stories lend themselves to the child calling out the last line or identifying the “surprise”)[1].

However, in this instance, the story is not going in the direction expected. First of all, the established Jewish hierarchy – priest, Levite, Israelite (lay person) is broken. The last person in this trio is not even a Jew! Secondly, though Jesus’ language is similar, there are important differences which add to the effect.  Instead of coming, seeing, going, (like the priest and the Levite) the Samaritan comes, goes (up to) and sees.  The breaking of the pattern means that Jesus’ unexpected ending has maximum effect. His audience, having been lulled into a false sense of security that they know the ending, find that they are caught out, They presumed they knew where Jesus was going and they got it wrong.

The element of surprise means that the listeners cannot, escape Jesus’ meaning – the Samaritan, the one whom they despise – is the one who teaches them how to be a neighbour. The world of the listeners is thrown upside down – they are the chosen, they are the ones who have the law, they are the ones who occupy the moral high-ground – and yet it is their mortal enemy who shows compassion to the man left for dead. Jesus’ audience have to re-think both their opinion of themselves and their attitude to others. The “unloving Jews” are shown up by the “loving Samaritan”.

To those who are able to absorb what Jesus has said two things become evident – to remain in the story the Jewish listener has to become, not the hero, but the victim. Secondly, the listeners have to accept that the boundaries that people create to distinguish themselves do not hold. The mortal enemy can be the saviour. God can and does act in unexpected ways.

Every culture defines itself by its difference from others and by setting boundaries which reinforce those differences. Jesus’ point is that we should not allow those things which distinguish others from us be an excuse to denigrate and exclude them. Jesus’ inclusion of the marginalised and rejected, tells us something of God’s kingdom in which no one is unwelcome and all have something to offer and something to teach.

The openness of Jesus’ heart exposes the narrowness of our own. We need to understand that from the point of view of Jesus’ audience there was no such thing as a “Good” Samaritan and to ask ourselves who do we limit and confine, by our refusal to accept and understand and our unwillingness to welcome and to love.


[1]1. a certain man was going down

they-went-away

2. a certain priest was going down

on that way

and seeing

he-went-by-on-the other-side

3. a                Levite was going down

upon that place coming

and seeing

went-by-on-the other-side

4. a certain Samaritan

being-on-the-way

went up to him

and seeing

                                                                        had pity

Scott, Bernard, Brandon. Hear then this Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, 193.

 

Accepting Difference

June 22, 2013

Pentecost 5 – 2013

Luke 8:26-29

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose love embraces all God’s creation. Amen.

There is an extraordinary story of a boy (now a young man) who lives in Fiji. His name is Sujit and his story is difficult to piece together. It appears that he may have been born with slight cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His father was murdered and his mother committed suicide. When Sujit was given to the care of his grandfather at two years old he was locked in a chicken coop (possibly because he was thought to be demon-possessed). Not surprisingly, the child developed behaviours not unlike those of the chickens with whom he spent so much time. At age eight, having been found on a road, he was consigned to an aged care home, where his behaviour was so disturbing and difficult to manage that for the next twenty-two years he was tied to a bed. No attempt was made to change his behaviour or to offer any kind of nurture. He was left to his own devices and his chicken like behaviour was allowed to continue without any intervention.

Elizabeth Clayton, an Australian living in Fiji came across Surit when she visited the care facility to deliver some plastic dining tables. He was filthy and covered in sores. Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to get him out of there and to provide the care that was so badly lacking. Even then at around age 26, the young man still clucked like a chicken, clawed at his food and didn’t know how to walk, let alone speak. His fingers still turn inward like claws, he understands only a minimum of speech and is not toilet trained.

As awful as this story sounds it is not unique. Out of ignorance or despair, many parents and institutions resort to what appear to be harsh and unnecessary forms of control for children whose behaviour they do not understand or cannot manage. In China today for example, there is no support for parents of children who are autistic. When such children exhibit violent or self-harming behaviour, parents feel that they have no option but to restrain the child – for the child’s safety as well as their own. With little knowledge and no help, these parents can only do their best to keep their children safe. Even if they want to, without support, they are unable to help the child to develop and to live a relatively normal life.

Our failure to understand difference has meant that even until quite recent times those with mental illness or disability were shut up or isolated from the mainstream of society. In many cases those who suffered from mental illness were feared and misunderstood. Not many people knew how to interact with them or considered that they might possibly have something to contribute to society. As a society we are still unable or unwilling to provide the support to families or individuals who do not fit the so-called norm.

In the first century the situation was no better and probably worse. Medical knowledge was extremely basic and demon possession was seen as the cause of many medical conditions which are understood quite differently today. From the New Testament accounts we surmise that conditions attributed to evil spirits or demon possession would have include mental illness and epilepsy to mention. Depending on the nature of the condition, family and friends would have resorted to a variety of treatments and forms of care – exorcism was a popular treatment.

In today’s gospel, we meet a man who is bound by chains among the tombs. In this case there are no clues to help us to understand what his condition might be in today’s terms. We simply know that according to those who knew him, the condition was so severe that he was believed to be possessed by a multitude of demons (Legion). Whatever is troubling the man it gave him such strength that he could not be managed. His behaviour was so intolerable and frightening to those around him that not only was he bound, but he was confined in a place as far away as possible from everyone.

It is shocking to think that people who through no fault of their own are violent and distressed are not only excluded from our presence but bound both by their condition and by the ties that others impose on them. Thankfully research and public education has reduced our fear of those with mental illness and of those who are differently abled. Our education system no longer excludes those who require additional support and we are challenged by the brilliance of such people as Stephen Hawking to reconsider our stereotyping and prejudices. Psychology and Psychiatry have made great strides in understanding not only what goes on in the mind, but how to treat mental illness and to enable sufferers to hold down jobs and to contribute to society in a wide variety of ways. Technology has made it possible for mute to communicate, the deaf to hear and the paralysed to contribute to society.

Jesus is not afraid of the man with the demons, nor does he see any reason not to intervene (despite the reluctance of the demons). He restores the man to his right mind and to his rightful place in the community. More than that, Jesus gives the man a responsibility – he is to be the bearer of the gospel to those among whom he lives. The outsider becomes the insider, the rejected becomes the accepted and the one who was excluded becomes the one chosen and commissioned by Jesus to share the gospel.

In a world that is uncomfortable with difference and which seeks the comfort of conformity, Jesus teaches us that love, compassion and understanding can transform the lives of those who were previously misunderstood, mistreated and excluded. We are challenged by Jesus’ example to create a society that is welcoming, empowering and inclusive of all God’s creation – no matter their race, their gender, their faith, their sexuality or their ability.

 


%d bloggers like this: