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The Wise Men of Gadara

An address by Fr John Slater

17 November 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

In the Church of England, priests insist that they are not merely chaplains to their congregations but rather at the service of the entire community of their parish. I’m sure Father Clifford would agree with me when I say that priests often find themselves at the very fringes of society, speaking about God to men and women who have no religious background at all. This can be refreshing - and it can certainly be challenging.

Those who have had no religious education can find themselves asking profoundly religious questions without realising that their questions are religious, or that they have been asked before in many different contexts, or that there exist a number of different responses to these questions in the realms of science, philosophy, and literature, as well as in several great religious traditions.

The most usual issues of debate are whether our universe is a deliberate creation or merely an accident, whether there is any kind of life beyond death, and how we can speak of God as loving in the face of so much violence and suffering which seems somehow built into the way the world is. These are real questions, asked with complete sincerity, and demanding a more serious response than one which simply states what the Bible or the Church says. No form of fundamentalism is adequate to the profound questionings of our scientific and questioning age.

I say that this is refreshing and challenging because in the past there was a strange assumption that religion was a kind of consolation for the weak or the elderly. On a recent television programme promoting Shakespeare as the greatest Briton of all, there was a brief clip of Mistress Quickly describing the death of Falstaff. When the old man cries out, God, God, God, Mistress Quickly says, I, to comfort him bid him ‘a should not think of God; I hop’d there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. God is clearly to be thought of only in the very last extremity. He does not seem to be allowed any space within the heart of human life and experience.

But God is not simply a comfort for the weak or the dying. He is the Lord and Creator of all things, ourselves included, and so is to be encountered in every aspect of life where he comes not only to console but also to disturb and to challenge. If there are times when we need comfort, there are also times when we need to be stretched and have our horizons broadened.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus comes to a city which no doubt had had its gates guarded against the wild man who lived outside the city among the tombs. When Jesus has healed the man, the citizens come to see what has happened. Their response is amazing. The whole city came out to meet Jesus: and when they saw him, they besought him, that he would depart out of their coasts. Why do they not welcome the miracle worker and ask him to heal all in their city who are sick.

Bishop John Moorman, in his classic commentary on St Mark’s Gospel, The Path to Glory, has this purple passage about the men of Gadara.

O wise men of Gadara. How sensible to get rid of Jesus before he began to disturb your lives or reprove the smug self-righteousness of your respectable little town. How sensible to bar the gates before the whirlwind Christ ‘whose fan is in his hand’ tearing people from their homes and their surroundings, upsetting everyone’s lives and ideas, dividing families from one another, changing the whole structure of society. Of course you don’t want all this to happen when you are so happy and contented as you are. So you do the natural thing and tell Jesus to go away.

Clearly we have a choice. We can welcome God into our lives, knowing that in the brightness of his nature we shall see our own shortcomings all too starkly. Or we can choose to live rather in darkness, half asleep, because we prefer not to see ourselves clearly in the light of Ultimate Reality. But if we choose to wake up and see ourselves and the world as we most truly are, then we need not fear that God comes to judge. We may judge ourselves, but he comes to save and to redeem and to restore.

These of course are Advent themes and in two weeks time we shall be thinking more specifically of the one who comes. We may call him Judge and King, Lord and Creator of all, but we know him also as Jesus, whose name means the Saviour.
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