Trinity 4 – Beyond the Pale

23 June 2013

Trinity 4

10.00 St Mary’s Hadlow

Readings: Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

 May I speak this morning in the name of +God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 This morning I want to think about how faith can take us ‘beyond the pale’.

When we say that something or someone or, say, a joke is ‘beyond the pale’ then we mean that the person or the thing has gone too far, they have breached the limits of acceptability, they are no longer operating within the norm.

As doubtless most of you know the phrase ‘beyond the pale’ itself comes from the time of the Norman occupation of Ireland.  The word ‘pale’ actually means ‘stake’, as in stake in the ground upon which you might build a fence, a wall or a palisade.  The pale represented the barrier between Norman controlled Dublin and environs – everything on the Norman side was safe and civilised but everything that lay beyond the pale was wild and dangerous and threatening.  Apologies to any Irish people that may be here this morning.

And human beings tend to be very good at building barriers between us, the good guys, and them, the scary uncivilised people.  In addition to the Irish pale I give you the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, the DMZ in Korea, the so-called Peace Walls being built in Israel and in Northern Ireland.  And those are just the physical barriers – how much more prevalent and pernicious are the unseen yet very real social and mental barriers that we build.  In a thousand different social, linguistic, cultural ways we divide ourselves into those that are ‘like us’ and those that are not.  If all those invisible barriers were to suddenly become visible then we may be shocked to see exactly how divided we are from one another, walking around in our own little palisades and only interacting with those who seem to be flying the same flag.

But that is not just true of us in the here and now – sadly it has probably been true for much of the history of human civilisation and it probably has some deep rooted evolutionary causes to do with survival of one’s own tribe.  And that word ‘tribe’ takes us to the 12 tribes of Israel.  It cannot be avoided that a great deal of the history of the tribes of Israel that we find in the Old Testament has to do with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob creating and maintaining their distinctiveness from the many other tribes and cultures around them.  First there was the covenant of circumcision and that was followed later by the ten commandments and then by the much more detailed law of Moses.  Members of the tribe who kept the law were a part of the community – however, gentiles, pagans and law breakers were ‘beyond the pale’.

A great deal of the law of Moses focuses on the concepts of cleanliness and uncleanliness – it may be cleanliness of one’s belongings, food, body or spirit.  There are myriad ways in which someone who is clean can become unclean – by eating the wrong thing, by wearing the wrong thing, by giving birth, by coming into contact with a dead body and so on and so forth.  And once one has become unclean then there are very strict rules about what you have to do in order to become clean once again and to get back on the right side of the fence – to once again become acceptable to the tribe and therefore to God.

But then along comes Jesus – familiar with the law of Moses since childhood and yet intent to demonstrate time and time again, throughout his earthly ministry, that God’s real purpose for humanity is not achieved through a fearful application of the law, and is certainly not achieved through using the law to exclude others from his presence.  That does not mean a wholesale sweeping away of the law – Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them – and in today\s Gospel reading I think we see Jesus fulfilling God’s desire for his people to be clean by going beyond the pale himself for the sake of those on the wrong side of the fence.  And of course that ministry found it’s ultimate expression through what he did for us on the cross.

From a first century Jewish perspective the whole of today’s gospel reading takes place beyond the pale.  Jesus has sailed across Lake Galilee and landed in the region of the Gerasenes.  From Mark’s account of this same story we know that this was very near the Decapolis or ‘ten cities’ and was a very Roman area.  In fact we should be able to guess that this was a non-Jewish area because of the presence of the huge herd of pigs, which, of course are an unclean and forbidden food for the Jews.   In Mark’s account we are told that there were some 2000 pigs – this was industrial scale farming probably for the purpose of feeding the Roman occupiers who lived in the Decapolis.  The farmers and people of this region were either pagans themselves or were extremely non-observant Jews who may have been seen as collaborators.

The first thing that happens when Jesus steps ashore in this unclean place is that he is confronted by a demon-possessed man, who may well be naked and who lives among the tombs.

Now before I go any further I should say that many people find this story uncomfortable for two main reasons: firstly it deals head on with the subject of demon possession, which makes a lot of people squirm with embarrassment.  And secondly it involves a good number of animals dying, which challenges the fluffy image some people like to have of Jesus.  Dealing with these concerns in reverse order I should make first the obvious point that 2000 years and 2000 miles is a big cultural difference in terms of how we think of animal welfare.  It was a very different world and we should be wary about interpreting or judging everything through 21st century Western eyes.  However the more interesting point in relation to the pigs, as I touched on a moment ago, is the fact that they represent both uncleanliness and foreign occupation.  The huge herd of pigs being swept from the land and being drowned can easily be interpreted as God, in the person of Jesus, restoring cleanliness to the land of Israel.

In relation to the more thorny question of demon-possession many people may reasonably take the view that everything which was once perceived as possession by demons is no more than mental illness and that we do ourselves a disservice by giving any literal credence to this type of language.  Again we need to be aware of the massive cultural gap and I am sure that there is much truth in what is said by the rationalist reductionists but…but if we believe on any level that Jesus is the incarnate God who came into the world to bring light into the darkness then I think that it is quite permissible to believe that he confronted the forces of darkness whilst he walked amongst us.  Of course entertaining that possibility does not excuse the abuse of the mentally ill which one hears about in some churches.

So Jesus goes way beyond the pale in talking to this social outcast of a man.  How many levels of uncleanliness are we dealing with here? He is a naked madman who lives alone and screaming the graveyard.  Just think about such a person living in our own graveyard and how you might react to him.

But Jesus doesn’t run and hide or phone the police or social services – he deals with that which is before him and is not concerned with his own cleanliness so much as helping this person, created in the image of God, to be restored to cleanliness and a right relationship with God.  Jesus engages with this man’s demons and there is a tussle about who knows whose name.  In that world names give power, but even though the demon’s know who Jesus is, and obfuscate about their names, simply calling themselves “Legion” which on one level simply means many and on another reinforces the connection with the Roman Legionaries, nonetheless Jesus remains in full control of the situation.  The unclean demons are sent into the unclean pigs and both are removed from the face of Israel.

The man is set free, is back in his right mind, and, understandably, he wants to follow Jesus wherever he goes.  But Jesus says ‘no’ – he is to have a different mission – to tell the people in this pagan region about the amazing things that God has done in his life – and the man sets off, telling the people about all the amazing things that Jesus has done in his life.  Our eyes and ears may miss the distinction but it is not there by accident – Jesus tells the man to tell people about God, and the man does this by telling them about Jesus.

And so Jesus fulfils God’s purpose to bring healing, cleansing and inclusion into the people of God by being prepared to step outside the boundaries of the law.  As St Paul said in the reading from Galatians it is not the law which makes us right or justifies us with God but it is faith in Jesus as the only one able to take away that which separates us from God and, indeed, from one another.

Although the walls and boundaries and palisades that we build around us may have deep evolutionary foundations the God I see at work in the person of Jesus and in the words of St Paul tell me that God wants us to transcend such divisions and recognise our common identity – when we cloth ourselves in Christ Jesus there will be no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, no posh or chavvy, no rich or poor, no Anglicans or Catholics or Baptist – if we belong to Christ then we are all children of God.

Faith took Jesus beyond the pale to bring healing to those outside the law, which, Sisters and Brothers, includes each and every one of us.  We should never stop giving thanks for that and we should allow our faith to take us to those who are beyond our pale, in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour.



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