We used to speak of Christians as pilgrims on earth, but the word has fallen out of use and people don’t really know what it means anymore. Jesus alluded to this aspect of the Christian life in Luke 9:51-62. Paul spoke it in different terms saying that of our citizenship is not of this world but of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Like the children of Israel who had been freed from Egyptian slavery we wander in the wilderness like nomads not yet having fully experienced eternal life with God. We don’t always know where we are going, but we do know who is leading us. And so we are wandering nomads but also pilgrims on a journey to a holy place, heaven, just as the ancient Israelites traveled to their pilgrim festivals three times a year to worship God.
Have you ever met people who claim that everything is either black or white, good or bad. Jesus would probably dispute that because in Luke 9:51-62 he reminds us that some choices are between two good things. Easy choices are between good and bad. We also know that sometimes we must choose between two evils, like a mother’s life or her unborn baby’s. Another example is Rahab who had to choose between the death of two Israelites and telling a lie, the lesser of two evils. Jesus set before us the choice between two good things, burying a parent versus following him, or saying goodbye to family versus following him. Both are good, but one is a greater good. The kingdom of heaven has priority over other good things that we could be doing. What is our choice today?
Not many modern western farmers plow with oxen any more, although I knew a farmer from Maryland who returned to a team of oxen and claimed a far greater return on investment than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on expensive farm machinery. He also said he was much happier. My father-in-law reminisced about farming with horses and told the story of how to keep a straight line. Just like the story in Luke 9:51-62 you can’t remove your hand from the plow or take your eye off your marker. To plough a straight line the farmer would choose a tree branch or other marker at the end of the field and stay fixated on that until the row was done. As farmers in God’s field, we must keep our eyes on Jesus and our hands on the plow.
Many Christians have jumped on the political bandwagon of “family values.” Perhaps we believe that it is a euphemism for “Christian values.” In Luke 9:51-62 Jesus seems to challenge that idea. One individual says he has to go and bury a parent and another wants to say goodbye to the family. They seem like perfectly reasonable requests. Jesus did not ask them to sever family ties, but used the situation to teach a valuable lesson. While many family values are also Christian values, they are not always the same thing. A family name can be an idol. A family business can be worshiped before God is worshiped. Family relationships can come between us and God. While family is very important, it is God who made family and God is more important. Kingdom values are higher than family values.
In Luke 9:51-62 is a story of distractions and the priority of Jesus. Do we squeeze Jesus into our plans or does he shape our plans? Do we allow persecution to distract us from the mission of the church? Imagine a company violating our rights to freedom of religion. Most of us might take them to court and spend a lot of time and money seeking justice. It is not an evil thing to do, but does it distract us from the priority of the Gospel? Most of us spend hours feathering our nests and preparing a home. This too is not an evil thing, but can the comforts of home distract us from the priority of Jesus? Honoring parents has a very high priority in the Bible, but can family distract us from an even greater priority, Jesus?
The story of the Crazy Man and the Swineherd (Luke 8:26-39) is also everyone’s story. We all experience crazy times struggling against wicked forces. From the moment of birth we have fought to survive against evils. Success in life is an up and down struggle against the unyielding forces of evil that seek to possess us: steal from your sibling, lie on a test, get high, experiment with sex, steal from your boss or employee, lie to your clients, lust after someone else’s spouse or house and cheat your neighbor out of a just result. In our story against the insanity of this world, we have often tried to do it alone and failed. At times, we have asked for God’s help and in those moments, we have had a story of victory to tell to the whole world.
Like many biblical stories the tale of the Lunatic and the Pigs (Luke 8:26-39) can be broken down into three similar scenes.1 Here we could call them the struggle, announcement of freedom and living free for a former madman. A consistent biblical theme is liberation coming from divine and not human resources. In the struggle between worship of dead idols and the living God, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal and God gave victory. God delivered Israel many times from her enemies. In the Gospels, we see Jesus as the deliverer from all human bondage. After deliverance came living free. Living free involves taking the announcement to others who are captive. Just as Elijah and Moses announced freedom so to do all who have been set free. We who are free must tell others what God has done.
1Brueggemann, Walter. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe. Abingdon Press. 1993.
We have all done something wrong in our lives, even if it was only a passing bad thought. What happens to people who allow wrong thoughts to go too far? Ordinary mischief turns into outright evil. As we go down that road too far, who is there to bring us back from the brink of destruction? In modern terms evil can and does possess people all around us. It is a dangerous downhill path towards insanity. We witness it in public among murderous world leaders, terrorists, drug addicts and greedy industrialists who enthusiastically destroy their families and the environment in worship of the “almighty dollar”. Not every nut job ends up as a drooling wreck living in a graveyard (Luke 8:26-39). The insanity around is is widespread and varied, but there is a common solution to it all: Jesus.
Some dismiss the Bible’s demon stories as ancient ignorance. Carlton Cornett writes that ‘For a professional pursuit that prides itself on its uncompromising search for “the truth” of psychological functioning, psychotherapy has often gone to seemingly absurd lengths to avoid considering the possibility that the spiritual dimension deeply affects human life.’1 Jesus made no apologies for his dealings with a man with obvious mental problems. We would perhaps diagnose it today as dissociative identity disorder (multiple or split personality). The causes are controversial but some experts are open to the idea of demon possession. Some even argue for possession syndrome as a separate category of mental illness found more often in non-western cultures.2 Rather than dismiss Bible stories such as the Madman and the Pigs (Luke 8:26-39) as mere fable, perhaps we ought to be more open-minded.
1Cornett, Carlton. The Soul of Psychotherapy: Recapturing the Spiritual Dimension in the Therapeutic Encounter. Simon and Schuster. 1998. vii.
2Spiegel, David. Dissociation: Culture, Mind, and Body. 1994. American Psychiatric Press, Inc. 131.
We don't often experience demon stories on the street like those in the Bible. We institutionalize the mentally ill. They blamed mental illness on demons. At the opposite extreme, we often blame it all on physical causes. However, ask someone who works with the criminally insane or otherwise mentally incarcerated and many will tell you that there is an mysterious and little-understood spiritual dimension to psychopathology. While some of these people are diagnosed as having physically caused organic brain syndromes, others are not as easily explained by the physical alone, such as schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. East of the Sea of Galilee a mentally ill man lived among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). Jesus did not make a scientific diagnosis but asked a question, commanded the impure spirits to leave and gave them permission to enter a herd of pigs.
I once heard of a church with an annual church service for prostitutes and other sinners. Everyone was invited to hear the Gospel, not just Christians. Would Jesus approve? He probably would, but some church members might object strenuously just like the Pharisees did in Luke 7:36 - 8:3. The problem with religious people is that the longer they have been Christians the more they tend to hang out with just Christians. We tend to hide our light. Jesus sent us out into the world, not to become like the world, but to shed the light of good works. Imagine an old lady who had been married a virgin and attended church her whole life sitting in church next to a young repentant prostitute with tears in her eyes. Who is the more grateful to God for forgiveness?
As Jesus ate with some Pharisees a so-called sinner joined them (Luke 7:36 - 8:3). The Pharisees were fastidiously observant of rules and the “sinners” tended to stray more often. Of course we understand that we are all sinners before God, but we so easily deceive ourselves that we are better than those who have crossed the line more often or in more socially unacceptable ways than ourselves. Our society treats whores worse than bought and paid-for politicians, or bootleggers worse than insider Wall Street traders and gays worse than heterosexual fornicators. We all tend to treat some in our society as more reprobate than ourselves. In all this self-righteous judgmentalism we often forget one important thing: whoever has been forgiven for greater faults loves much more than those who have been forgiven for seemingly more trivial mistakes.
Welfare in ancient Israel was a system that used private, family and state resources. The welfare laws of Israel provided fairness in inheritance and preserved family unity. Like our modern systems, they could not possibly cover every scenario and so like today, some people fell through the cracks. One such case seems to be the widow who was about to bury her only son (Luke 7:11-17). With her husband gone and her only son deceased, she possibly faced financial ruin, without the welfare provided in a family support structure. The individual responsibility of not harvesting the corners of fields so that the poor may glean and the national responsibility of paying a third year tithe for the poor may not have solved her problem. Regardless, Christ sets us the example of our responsibility towards those who suffer: heartfelt compassion.
Not everyone has the gift of healing, especially like Jesus did. In Luke 7:11-17 he raised a widow’s son from the dead. As much as we would all love to do the same, even in those churches that have a large focus on miracles, such things rarely occur. So what can we do then? We can all heal to some extent, even if not in such spectacular ways. Like Jesus we can notice the pain and suffering of others around us and we can care enough to have compassion. In a world where self interests are the fashion, we are to be different. We have many options to bring healing to a sick world, from encouraging words to personal investment of time and money. While most people just don’t give a damn about the poor and suffering, we must.
My eye doctor recently told me that a retinal occlusion which I had about a year ago was completely clear. He said that I should thank God because such things do not normally heal completely. I had been anointed with oil and prayed for by a fellow pastor. Since ancient times miracles of manipulating nature, healing from sickness, death and evil forces are recorded. Some thought that it was the words alone that caused the miracles and developed systems of magical incantations sometimes as scams, sometimes relying on self-seeking occult powers. Luke 7:11-17 tells of Jesus reviving a widow’s dead son, but there was more going on than words of a mere incantation. There was divine authority behind the words. Church liturgy can also be empty wishful words of incantation and magic unless we recognize God's power behind it.
In Luke 7:11-17 Jesus spoke a few words and a widow’s dead son was brought back to life. Words are powerful. Negative words can destroy life just as readily as positive words can give life. Have you ever been around someone who just sucked the life out of you with their words? I have, and it’s not pleasant. I just want to avoid them or love them at a distance. On the other hand have you ever been around someone who just gave you energy, enthusiasm and excitement for life? My grandmother was such a person and I have met many individuals like that throughout life. They are wonderful blessings to have around. We may not all have the wonderful gifts of healing like Jesus did, but we can all communicate. Let us spread healing words wherever we go.
Imagine the loneliness of a woman who has lost her husband. Then imagine that same woman losing her only child. The pain is indescribable. The real desolation would be deep and abiding. Human community is not always compassionate, but the large crowd who followed the funeral procession of the widow of Naïn (Luke 7:11-17) seems to have wanted to support her in her devastating loss. The village is Nein in Israel today, a Muslim town, with a Christian church built on the possible site of her house. The account does not emphasize any great faith she or her son may have had, but the compassion of Christ for a widow. The Greek word comes to us in medicine as splanchnic, meaning visceral or intestinal. It implies here a kind of sympathy that is physically felt deep within the bowels.
Have you ever been to one of those churches that focuses on miracles and healings? Miracles and healings are wonderful when they come from God, but a false prophet can also perform miracles (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Revelation 19:20). A way to tell the difference is by the teaching. Is it false and heretical cult-like teaching or true and orthodox Christianity? In some churches people who are in wheelchairs or suffer from uncured diseases have been told that they lack faith to be healed. Is that true or just another fiction from unlearned preachers? In Luke 7:11-17 Jesus healed a person who was dead and in a coffin. What faith can a dead person exhibit? He was not even conscious and therefore unable to even ask to be healed. The only criterion mentioned was Jesus’ compassion on a widow.