Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Clothes : House

"For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs."

I am reflecting on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Luke 8:26-39, and the Epistle paired with it, Galatians 3:23-29. Both passages are concerned with wearing clothes, and living in a house.

Clothing has always been about more than a practical covering. Clothing has a key role to play in our cultural identity, symbolizing our connections with others. Different societies, and different layers of society, have come up with their own clothing solutions, as a means of reminding us, and informing others, of our place - of where and how we fit in to the Bigger Picture. Clothes might denote social status, profession, family ties, affiliations - or the overlaps of two or more of these.

In the Greco-Roman world, there was not the sheer diversity of clothing that advances in technology down the ages has made available to us. The main factor distinguishing different groups was the quality of the raw material used, as indicator of social status. But men, regardless of wealth, would ordinarily wear a knee-length woolen tunic under a woolen cloak. In Jewish culture, clothing was part of the marriage contract: wives were required to provide the family with clothes (made in the home); husbands were required to provide their wives with the the raw material to do so.

Like clothes, houses are not simply practical means of protection against the elements: the ways in which we go about solving that problem speaks volumes about our cultural values and connections to others. In Jesus' world, houses were typically one- or two-room homes built around a shared central courtyard. People lived in extended family groups - and those extended families worked together as well as lived together. So, for example, Jesus' home would have been an extended family of builders, or stone masons, possibly living next to other families of builders - until he was rejected by that community (for pointing out that God's concern extends beyond his chosen people and the land he had given them) and found inclusion within an extended family of fishermen instead (see Luke 4).

So when we read about Jesus, having gone beyond the border of the Land, being met by a man who for a long time had not worn clothes or lived in a house, we are hearing a story about one man who has been rejected by his family meeting another man who has been rejected by his family. And this man - unlike Jesus' own people, his own family - recognizes who Jesus is.

But the man is worried that Jesus, also, will reject him. Worse: that he will hold out the hope of freedom, only to dash it once more. And in a sense, Jesus will reject him (which raises another issue: what do we do when Jesus says, "No!"?).

This man's situation is contained: he cannot be restrained, but he can be managed; he lives among the dead, where no one else will go, for fear of the spirits of the dead. (Only after the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire did the departed come to be seen as friends; only then did cemeteries come to be located first within cities and in time gathered around church buildings.) Here is contained fear: Jesus' actions, defying the containment, result in unconstrained fear - first among the unclean spirits, then among the citizens when they find the man 'clothed and in his right mind.'

Not for the first time, Jesus is not welcome. The man who did welcome him begs to be allowed to depart with him; and Jesus refuses. Jesus rejects him. Why? Because Jesus did not cross the Lake to extract the man from his community, but to restore him to his community; more than that, to reunite a divided community, to restore the community. The man has been clothed - someone (Jesus?) has surrendered their outer garment, their cloak, to cover his nakedness (or lack of outer garment). Now he must go home. Now he must return to the extended family, the network of workplace relationships, that had been unable to cope, and take up his part within the family - telling everyone who he will come into contact with through that household what God had done in restoring them to one another.

In his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul picks up the same language, of being 'clothed in Christ' and of being sons and heirs - that is, members of a household - to express the restoration of a divided community, whether divided along lines of ethnicity, social status, or gender...

We are never brought into a private relationship with God, a personal religion; but, rather, into a community that serves one another and the wider community; a community that has a story to tell of what God has done for them.

The question is, is such an (offensive) act of God too frightening to welcome? Are we more comfortable settling for the compromise of contained fear? Or, where are we happy to welcome such restoration, and who do we wish to keep at arms' length?

Health Warning: to pursue the restoration of a divided community might result in your being rejected by your own...

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