The Stiff-Arm of God

stiff arm

I’m preparing a talk for the weekend and wanted to post a bit about it. It will be some new material, so writing a bit about it helps to sort it out, a bit.

In Mark 5, Jesus and his friends are in a neighboring region called the Decapolis, the land of Tyre and Sidon, where foreigners lived and where (in their minds) bizarre religious practice dwelled.

They immediately encounter a man with many demons, who lives among the tombs, who cannot be bound by chains, who howls at the moon, and cuts himself with stones. Yikes! This guy is in some bad shape, right?

Through a brief and unusual interaction with Jesus, the man is freed from his plight and is seen as “in his right mind,” or as N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament renders it, “stone-cold sober.” (v.15)

This man has received new life, or what we might call in Christian environments, “born again.” We can only imagine what possibilities lied ahead for him now that he was in his right mind.

The nearby residents didn’t like the way in which this miracle was conducted and what it cost them to have the local eye-sore set free, so they revoked Jesus’ visa and demanded that he leave the country.

As Jesus and his disciples prepared to leave, the man-formerly-known-as-the-tomb-dweller asked if he could join Jesus and his friends.

Jesus stiff-arms him. And tells him to,

“go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (v.19)

The man did as Jesus asked and,

“all the people were amazed.” (v. 20)

We should be a bit struck, initially, at how Jesus resists this man coming aboard the boat and joining his band of disciples. The man was left by his own country people among the tombs and now has a reputation to be in league with Jesus of Nazareth, whom they just deported. What’s the chance that anyone would embrace him in community?

Wouldn’t it have been more kind of Jesus to allow him to climb in the boat, hang out with them for a while, until he got back on his feet?

It must have been a challenging call for Jesus to make. He was potentially asking this guy to go back to an impossible situation.

But, part of our development sociologically and psychologically is to experience a gap, even from those who we look up to and admire. As early as 18 months to 2 years old, our primary caregivers set this pattern within us and we recognize it for the first time: we are not them nor does their whole world revolve around us.

This “stiff-arm” is important, for it helps us to develop a sense of self and a way to engage the world in a more healthy way. The man from among the tombs experienced both this lack and the blessing from it, for he was able to face the uncertain world with confidence and maturity.

Jesus returns to that same region later in Mark’s gospel and the residents of that land embraced Jesus instead of rejecting him. (see Mark 7:31-8:10) Perhaps it was the direct work of this one man, formerly the eye-sore-of-the-community-turned-messenger, who helped to pave the way for that great work.

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