Do you want to be made well?

With cancer in his middle-aged body and the prospect of lifespan shortened, Doug Brewer joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014 while health permitted. Near the start of the Via Dolorosa—the traditional “way of suffering” where Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem—Doug and fellow pilgrims visited ruins of Bethzatha (Bethesda) Pool. A man who had been sick for thirty-eight years once lay beside that pool until Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

bethzatha-pool-kraybill-compressed

At Bethzatha Pool, fellow pilgrims surround Doug Brewer with love and prayers. Others in the picture (clockwise starting with woman in black close to the camera) are Mary Lou Farmer, Hortensia Unternaher, Ruby (local tour guide), Shana Peachey Boshart, Roger Farmer, Martha Yoder, Randy Dalke, Karen Dalke, Helen Lindstrom, and David Boshart (leading the prayer).

Bethzatha Pool was known in ancient times as a place of healing. Some New Testament manuscripts say that “an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well.” The man sick for thirty-eight years must have been paralyzed. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” he said to Jesus. “While I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Having others in church or society step ahead of them sometimes happens to persons with illness or physical challenges. “I have no one to put me into the pool” is another way of saying my community ignores me. In some faith communities, those with chronic illness feel judged as lacking faith or willpower, or even as having sin in their lives.

The man at Bethzatha Pool did not have a sustaining community. No one helped him into the water, and religious watchdogs were quick to bark when miraculously and wonderfully he was able to rise and carry his mat—but in violation of strict Sabbath rules (5:10).

Warm hands and heartfelt prayers

Someone in our pilgrim band at Bethzatha Pool asked Doug if he wanted prayer for healing. Soon we surrounded him with warm hands and heartfelt petition to God. No one presumed personal powers to cure; all of us entrusted Doug’s health to a loving Creator.

Two years later I inquired by email about Doug’s well-being. Turns out he was at death’s door in the interval, but survived. “By God’s grace and many prayers, I’m back to normal and feeling really good,” he wrote. “My cancer level has been at 0 for the past several months, so I’m not on any chemo at the moment.”

Praise God! A loving family and community walked with Doug through his own Via Dolorosa. Faith, divine power, and modern medicine converged to restore Doug. We do well to view all healing as a gift from God, without needing to distinguish between miraculous and natural recovery. We also do well to accept that sometimes, even with faith abundant and excellent medical care, we or persons we love remain ill or die.

The author of Sirach (a book the early church considered canonical), writing about 200 BC, gives counsel still good for us today: “When you are ill . . . pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. . . Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him . . . There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians, for they too pray to the Lord that he grant them success in diagnosis and in healing” (Sirach 38:9-14).

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Thanks to Doug Brewer for reviewing this blog and giving me permission to publish. For a fascinating article on prayer and healing in an unlikely source, see “Mind over matter,” National Geographic, December 2016, pp. 30–55.

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

To hell with the pigs!

Jesus asked the man possessed, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. They begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. Luke 8:30–32

3-2-1-IMG_20451

On the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, these remains of a fifth-century church and monastery at Kursi mark the traditional location of Gergesa where Jesus cast demons out of Legion. In the distance are hillsides where swineherds cared for pigs.

On first hearing, this story is about Jesus liberating a tormented individual by casting out a Legion of demons from him. But when the early church retold this story—as three Gospel writers do—it may have taken on laughable or even revolutionary political overtones.

The incident happens immediately after Jesus calmed a storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Having demonstrated sovereignty over nature, Jesus now takes command in the spirit realm. The boat makes landfall in Gentile territory—on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, in a region called the Decapolis. Here farmers raised pigs, something forbidden for Jews.

1-Kursi--Final final final final

This map shows why ancient manuscripts variously say that Jesus healed Legion in the country of the Gerasenes, Gadarenes, or Gergesenes. All three refer to the Gentile region of Decapolis, here shaded with green lines. Red arrow shows the six-mile sea journey to Gergesa (today called Kursi) from Jesus’ base at Capernaum.

First-century listeners to this story must have caught their breath when the demon-possessed man said his name was Legion. That was the term for a unit of the Roman army that included five thousand men and an equal number of auxiliary troops! The army of ten thousand that Rome used to subdue Palestine—and eventually destroy Jerusalem—was the Tenth Legion. The symbol of this hated occupying force was . . . a pig!

2-1-1-IMG_8069

A brick stamp from the Roman era reads LEG X F, meaning LEG[ion] X [“ten”] F[retensis], official name of Roman troops that subdued Palestine. At the bottom of the stamp is the pig that symbolized this army.

Did the story of a demoniac named Legion and the sequel with perishing pigs infer that the Roman empire, with its pig-honoring Tenth Legion, also was demon-possessed? Understood this way, the story takes an anti-imperial edge:

  • Jesus cast demons out of a man named Legion just like countless Jews hoped God would expel the Tenth Legion from Palestine.
  • Confronted by Jesus, demons from a man named Legion entered swine and went pell–mell into the “abyss” (or “hell,” 8:31)In the same way, many people of Palestine hoped that Legions of Rome would go to oblivion.
  • Swineherds and local people by the Sea of Galilee tended to their pigs just like Jewish collaborators schmoozed the occupying forces of Rome.
  • The swineherds were afraid after demons left the possessed man, and they wanted Jesus to leave (8:35, 37). Similarly, Jews who collaborated with Rome were afraid of what would happened if the Roman army left Palestine. Such collaborators were behind the plot to kill Jesus.

It looked like Rome was invincible, and the Tenth Legion stayed in Palestine until the fourth century AD. Whatever political discontent the story of demon-possessed pigs might have stirred among ancient listeners, however, the narrative does not end with hatred. Jesus tells the man who was delivered from a Legion of demons simply to return home and declare how much God has done for you (8:39).

Sometimes non-violent political theater, parody, or satire are good ways to call for change and vent anger against oppressors.

© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ***************************************IMG_0425

Join me for a Peace-Pilgrim bible study tour to Jordan, Israel and Palestine this fall! See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015. Watch for information on another Jordan, Israel, Palestine tour in the fall of 2016.

I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.

See my book on Christians and Jews in the Roman empire at http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Allegiance-Politics-Devotion-Revelation/dp/1587432617/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1425912158&sr=8-1&keywords=apocalypse+and+allegiance

The map on this blog was produced by license agreement with biblemapper.com