Tuesday, 19 February 2008
A Risky Step of Faith and a Scandalous Welcome by Richard J Sudworthy
This is a challenging piece of writing by Richard Sudworthy of Life Words(formerly Scripture Gift Mission). Immigrants and assylum seekers are flooding into Western Europe at an incredible rate.It is also not just a Western European problem:due to political unrest,war,famine etc it is happening in many parts of the world.How should the Church respond? Certainly the churches must have a policy towards them that is biblically based and expresses the love of Christ.Personally I believe it is a gift to the Church so that it can exhibit God's compassion for the alien and stranger;before a watching world.No matter what, they are increasing in number each week and we can either befriend, ignore or resent them. The choice is ours.AK
If you’ve ever been to a football match or a rock concert, you’ll get a feel for what was happening around Jesus in Luke 8. The writer leaves us in no doubt that it was chaotic: “the crowds almost crushed him”. Jesus and the disciples were en route to the home of Jairus and his twelve year old daughter who was dying. This was not to be missed: this Jesus had already healed a demon-possessed man, his followers reckoned that even the winds and waves stopped raging at his command. Rumour had it that some time ago, he’d even raised a widow’s son from the dead.
In amidst all this pushing and pulling, a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years was desperate to meet Jesus. This is her story:
“People don’t understand what it is like to face my life; with no prospect of change, no real future. It wasn’t just the bleeding, though that was bad enough. I was “unclean”; all women are once a month. But for me, there was no let-up. This meant that I couldn’t go to someone else’s house. I could never go to the synagogue or the temple. I couldn’t touch anyone without them being unclean; no husband, no children, no intimacy. Nobody could come near me. I’d done nothing to deserve this; well, nothing more than anyone else. And this Jesus: the miracles are amazing, the stories almost beyond belief. But he seemed to give a priority to people like me: lepers, the sick, women, the poor, even foreigners. All those categories of people that the rich, the powerful, and the very religious keep outside. We’re too messy for their world.
Anyway, I guess I thought that Jesus would make it all better. The trouble was, I couldn’t go near him, couldn’t ask him for help so I had to hatch a plan. Getting into the crowds, where everyone would be looking at Him, that was my best option. They’d be too fussed following his odd groupies to the next miracle to worry about me and if I put a scarf around my head, then I’d be insured against any nuisance of a neighbour pointing me out and keeping me from the action. If I wore some extra layers to hide the give-away stains, maybe I could get near. I’d seen him heal someone before. It seems that he just places his hands on them. I’d heard he’d even done this for a leper. Sounds insane doesn’t it but I reasoned that if I could touch him, he’d understand that it was against the rules for me to be around people and just heal me anyway; no fuss, no bother. It was worth a try.
Well, there we were, hundreds of us, dozens screaming for help. Some people were falling over, pulling his clothes; his followers were trying to be bouncers, steering him in a particular way. But Jesus seemed to find his own path even if the crush got worse. I was trying so hard to get to him, I was pushed over and fell onto the road, getting kicked and shouted at in the process. And then He was there, barely an arm’s distance from me. I stretched and just managed to touch the hem of his cloak, trailing in the dirt of the road. Instantly, the constant warm trickle of blood that has plagued my life for twelve years stopped. I knew Jesus had healed me. The pain and discomfort that were my permanent companions had gone. I was on my hands and knees in the road, with the crowd all around me, weeping with joy.
The next thing that happened was like a blur. Jesus shouted out something to the crowd because it all went quiet and then he shouted out again, “Who touched me?. I knew exactly what he meant but one of his bouncers laughed and pointed out that hundreds of people had been touching him. Jesus knew, and I knew. I slowly got to my feet, shaking with fear. I’d done wrong; I shouldn’t have been here, let alone touched God’s prophet. I’d got Him all wrong; I thought He’d be more compassionate with people like me. So there I was, standing in a crowd, the “sick woman” that no-one went near, ready for their abuse, shaking with shame in anticipation of their rage. How many of them were now unclean and would have to make a detour to the priests and get ritually “included” again?
But Jesus wasn’t angry: “Daughter”, he called me. Can you believe it? Me? A man, a teacher, clearly someone from God and he calls me his daughter! “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” Peace: “Shalom”. I know what that word is meant to mean: peace inside, peace with other people and holding it all together, peace with God. All the stuff of peace that had been dream territory for twelve years, was possible. Jesus had made it so. And what’s more, hundreds of my neighbours, the community leaders, the religious types, they had just heard I was healed and was ok to be around again. All those witnesses: I was acceptable, healed, could be hugged again, could worship God again, could love again. Life had opened up beyond measure!”
I hope that we see in this encounter something of Jesus reaching out across boundaries, typically breaking convention but embracing people that were excluded. Many of us working alongside refugees and asylum seekers recognise the similar needs and patterns and are convinced that Jesus would make a priority of the excluded strangers in our community.
1) It’s good to get a feel for the backdrop of the story and notice, as so often with Jesus, that he will not be squeezed by other agendas. There are huge demands on him but Jesus will never be rushed. Responding to the grave request from Jairus, Jesus is too late, waylaid by dealing with the sick woman. Jesus is “late” to heal Lazarus and criticised by the family for his seeming callous disregard for the urgency of the situation. We are presented with a picture of Jesus as someone who, dare I say it, knows his limitations, “will only do what he sees the Father doing”, and refuses to be railroaded into action. This Messiah does not have a Messiah-complex!
2) When doctors receive patients, they will ask about what they term the “presenting needs”, the outward signs of ailments that may point to a particular diagnosis. The woman seeking Jesus’ help had a very clear presenting need: an end to the constant bleeding. As doctors try to see beneath some symptoms to perhaps deeper behaviours, contexts or emotions that trigger physical reactions, Jesus goes way deeper with this woman. Taking the social and historical context of the woman’s life, the sickness would mean that she was excluded from society. Wonderfully, Jesus does not let her slip away healed, unobtrusively but brings her story to light. The whole community would now know that she was restored. A ceremonial cleansing could be performed and touch, friendship, worship could be hers. Jesus had pronounced on her healing, endorsed her in public and given her that right of entry into a fuller life.
3) If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see our own hunger for security and significance, for a sense of belonging. Jesus was especially able to relate to the marginalised because he himself took that place. In what ways can we be honest with asylum seekers and refugees about our own struggles? Do we feel it is even good to share our own vulnerabilities or should we always be giving from a position of strength?
4) This whole process of Jesus drawing attention to the woman is worth reflecting on. Luke tells us that she was “trembling”. As well she might; she HAD broken the rules. Why did Jesus have to be so cruel as to put her through this ordeal? We so often sanitise and domesticate Jesus as “meek and mild” in an ineffectual, do-gooder hippy type. The reality of the Jesus of the gospels is so very different. He is robust and focused, unable to be manipulated by the agendas and priorities of others, direct and uncompromising about hypocrisy and scathing of those in power. The “meek and mild” stuff tells us about the equally bold ability Jesus had to shun the trappings of power and self-service. He never seemed to justify himself, assert himself over others or seek the easy route of fame or influence. And Jesus was robust with those he healed: “what do you want?”, “your sins are forgiven”, “stop wailing”, “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs”. Jesus was not a Disney fairy godmother who responded to each request with a benign smile in a world divided between goodies and baddies. There was a toughness about Jesus healing this woman, a toughness that was hard for her to bear, and painful, but it was necessary for the deeper and richer intentions that Jesus had.
Are we conscious of our own limitations and boundaries in our work of service? In what ways might we be tempted to think that we can solve all the problems of asylum seekers that we know?
What are the presenting needs of asylum seekers and refugees that you know? What surface issues do they bring to you?
What deeper needs and perhaps more fundamental help do they seek? How can we be more sensitive in responding to some of the deeper needs and getting to a point of listening and “hearing” those?
Jesus clearly saw the inclusion of this woman in society as a priority concern. Though we may be powerless to change anything legally on that front, what kinds of work and ministry foster communities and churches that are genuinely inclusive? How might we be able to gauge progress in “inclusivity”?
Jesus brought some pain and discomfort to the woman in the process of bringing healing. Are there situations where some discomfort and pain might be helpful in the process of independence and dignity for refugees and asylum seekers who have become dependent on the help of others? In your own situation, are there practical measures that reveal something of Jesus’ robust approach to the woman that you can adopt that ultimately put refugees in a stronger place in our communities?