Thursday, September 1, 2011

Life in the Fab Lane

Preface:  Because her husband had a powerful position in King Herod Antipas' domain, Joanna lived in palatial surroundings with wealth and prestige.  Machareus, the primary residence of Herod was perched on an isolated, breathtakingly-high desert hilltop. This impenetrable fortified palace was filled with towering marble pillars, massive open porches, elongated rooms and courtyards, ornate ceramic tile flooring, luxurious gardens, an amazing thermal bath-house and spectacular views of the Dead Sea.  In addition, when they were in Jerusalem, Herod Antipas and his family and chief assistants also resided in the majestic structure called the Citadel which was just as luxurious as Machareus.  It was an extravagant walled resort with intricate colorful frescoes and decorative vessels of silver and gold.

Coming from this fabulous lifestyle, we don't know how Joanna became such a devoted follower of Jesus.  We do know he miraculously healed her.  And there are enough similarities to suggest that her husband Chuza was the same royal official who traveled to Cana to find Jesus, begging him to heal his dying son whom healed from a distance early in his ministry.   As a result this nobleman and all his household became believers (Jn 4:46-54).  Joanna's generosity with her assets provided a substantial income source for Jesus.

Joanna tells her fascinating story:

"So many people think having money and prestige is all they need to be happy.  In the beginning, my husband Chuza and I were completely infatuated with all that had been made available to us.  Chuza managed the vast personal estates of King Herod Antipas, a position of distinction and power.  And the unique experience of being associated with Herod's court and of living in a plush environment had it's moments to be sure.  But we quickly learned our luxurious and important post could also be threatening to our well being. There were powerful undercurrents of intrigue and suspicion fueled by unbridled jealousy and cruel ambition that swirled continuously throughout the palace.  It did not take long for us to figure out how to navigate our dangerous environment.

"A chilling example was the murder of  John the Baptist.  Initially, Herod had a measure of respect for John, regarding him as a holy man.  He had actually paid attention to John's teachings until John told him it was not lawful for him to be married to Herodias, his current wife.  Herod had scandalously dismissed his first wife, a princess from the neighboring nation, then stole his brother's wife--yes, he married his sister-in-law.  And on top of that, Herodias was also his niece.  Angered by John's proclamation, Herod threw John in prison, but had no real intention of killing him.

"John's admonishment to Herod infuriated Herodias even more.  She had finally gotten the celebrity and eminence she so coveted by marrying Herod and she was not about to let some provincial teacher get in her way.  She began to plot John the Baptist's murder.  Eventually, her evil plan unfolded as she cleverly arranged for her sensuous daughter, Salome, to dance before Herod and all his nobles.  Smitten by her performance, Herod foolishly agreed to give his step-daughter anything she desired.  So Herodias instructed Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Trapped by his own rash promise and wanting to save face before his dinner guests, Herod felt he had no choice but to agree to the grotesque demand.

"Living in this upscale and privileged setting left us feeling unnerved and anxious much of the time,  but it finally began to make sense when we encountered the great merciful teacher, Jesus.   Our influence and financial benefits allowed us to help further his mission of freeing the oppressed, healing the sick and bringing hope to a captive, impoverished people.  My son and I were recipients of miraculous healings by the benevolent rabbi.  Our family was filled with gratitude and our hearts were turned to him.

"As often as I could, I followed Jesus as he traveled through the cities and villages of Galilee.  Those of us who served with him came from many contrasting backgrounds.  It took awhile for some of his companions who had been less fortunate in life to accept me, considering my upper class standing among the elite.  But they soon saw my heart, filled with sincere dedication to Jesus and his cause, particularly when Chuza's well-paid position enabled me to help financially support Jesus and those who assisted him.

"As Jesus' ministry suddenly came to an untimely end, I helplessly witnessed his agony on the cross.  And when I later learned how Herod and his soldiers had ridiculed Jesus prior to the crucifixion, I was even more heartbroken, because I knew these men.  When Herod first heard of Jesus and his miracles, he feared he was John the Baptist who had come back from the dead.  But with time, he realized this was not so and had been elated when he heard Pilate was sending the arrested Jesus to him to help determine his fate.  He had been fascinated by Jesus' supernatural powers and determined to witness a miracle firsthand.  He eagerly began to question Jesus, but Jesus did not answer a word.  Herod, not one to be ignored, became increasingly irritated.  In the end, he and his soldiers began insulting Jesus, scoffing and making fun as they draped a brilliant,  kingly robe on him before returning him to Pilate for crucifixion.

"When the cruel execution was over, Jesus was hastily placed in a sepulcher.  Some of the other women and I arrived later to prepare his remains for burial.  We expected to find his mutilated body, but discovered an empty tomb and two dazzling angels who asked why we sought the living among the dead!  Our sorrow immediately turned to rejoicing when we grasped that he was alive!

"Though now over, my sometimes fabulous, sometimes frightening sojourn in the palace provided a unprecedented opportunity to bear testimony of the love and grace of our Lord.   Herod's own foster-brother and close companion, Manaen, later became a prominent believer.  An amazing adventure in an entitled and indulged, but dangerous world!"

Luke 8:1-3; 23:8-12; 24:1-12; Mark 6:14-32; Acts 13:1
Joyce Catherwood (c) 2011

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"Give Her Something to Eat!"

Preface: A young 12-year-old girl was on the verge of death.  She was the daughter of a synagogue ruler named Jairus.  Most of the religious leaders in Judea were furious with Jesus at this point in his ministry and had begun to discuss what to do with him.  There had already been an attempt to shove Jesus off a cliff after he taught in his hometown synagogue.  The accusations of blasphemy by the Pharisees and teachers of the law grew daily.  We don't know if Jairus was actively involved in this angry reaction.  If he had been, it is easy to see how the possibility of losing his only child might bring about a drastic change of heart.  Regardless, Jesus did not discriminate among those who needed help.  He had mercy on a synagogue president's family who became recipients of one of his most dramatic miracles.

Jairus' wife tells her side of the story:

"I will never, ever forget the day I met Jesus.  Our home was filled with family, friends and public mourners crying and wailing because my darling daughter had just died in my arms.  Throughout her lingering illness, I felt so helpless, with nowhere to turn.

"The stories of Jesus the healer were widespread.  Someone told me he had raised a woman's son from the dead.  I desperately wanted to find him.  But it would have been impossible for me, as the wife of our town's chief synagogue officer, to seek out Jesus on my own.  I wasn't even permitted to walk the city streets alone, much less search for a maverick teacher.  This would have brought the ultimate embarrassment to my husband, Jairus.

"And because Jairus was prominent in the synagogue, he himself had reason to think twice about going to Jesus.  Pharisees, priests and teachers of the law from all around had labeled Jesus as a blasphemous trouble-maker.  They wanted a reason to arrest him and stop his growing popularity.    So how could Jairus dare ask Jesus for help?  Yet on that horrible day, as he watched our precious daughter grow paler and weaker, gasping for breath, he could no long restrain himself.  Synagogue ruler or not, he had to find the miracle worker.  It was our last hope.  When Jairus finally found Jesus, he fell at his feet, pleading for the life of our only child.

"Waiting for Jairus to return felt like an eternity.  I wondered if Rabbi Jesus would really come to help a little girl.  Most rabbis had no time for females, young or old, and viewed us as a distraction from the more important things in life.  As these thoughts ran through my mind, I glanced down at my daughter, then watched as she drew her last breath.  I rocked her back and forth in my arms, stroking her hair, her tunic soaked with my tears.  I screamed her name, begging her to come back to me.  But she was beyond the reach of my voice.  I held onto her for a long time, then carefully laid her on the bed.  I gently closed her eyes and caressed her face with my hand.  The suffering was over and she looked so peaceful, as though she were asleep.   A servant left immediately to tell Jairus.

"It wasn't long before I heard a man's voice rise above the chaotic mourning and wailing, asking the crowd in the adjoining room why they were causing such a noisy commotion.  He said my daughter was just sleeping.  Everyone laughed at him.  Then he told them all to leave the house.  I welcomed the quiet that followed.

"Jairus and I held onto each other, standing next to three of Jesus' disciples as the healer leaned over the bed and tenderly took my daughter's small hand in his.  Then, with endearing affection, he said to her:  'My little one, I say to you, rise up!'  She began to stir.  Her eyes opened and Jesus, still holding her hand, lifted her to a sitting position.  She immediately got off the bed and walked around a little disoriented.  When she saw us, she ran into my open arms.  I  held onto her, my tears of sorrow turned to joy.  Jairus wrapped his arms tightly around us both.

"Not missing a single detail, Jesus, knowing our child was weak and hungry after her ordeal, then smiled and said, 'Well, give her something to eat!'  Elated at this startling turn of events, we scurried around trying to find her favorite foods.

"Jairus and I were deeply humbled by the impartial goodness of Jesus.  With just one gracious touch of his hand, He restored jubilant life into our home, the home of a synagogue president, showing mercy we did not deserve."

Matthew 9:18-19; 23-26; Mark 5:22-24; 35-43; Luke 8:41-42; 49-56
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Are You Weeping?

Preface:  Not only did Jesus deliver Mary Magdalene from her mental illness and cruel isolation when he first met her, he also responded to her tears as she frantically looked for his body after he had risen from the grave.  You could say there must be other more important reasons why the first person Jesus appeared to was Mary.  But is it possible our tender-hearted Savior felt it was important enough to take a few minutes to comfort the grief-stricken, weeping Mary before he showed himself to the disciples or even ascended into heaven?  While most of his friends fled, Mary remained devoutly supportive of Jesus throughout the heart-wrenching crucifixion process, even to the point of being deeply concerned about what would happen to his body afterwards.  It is easy for me to see why Jesus might have been moved to respond to her devotion and wanted to wipe away her tears.  Jesus is affected by our tears.  And one day, when all is said and done, he will wipe away every tear from every eye and there will be no more crying.

Mary Magdalene tells her story:

"I probably have more reasons than anyone to respond with fierce loyalty to our Lord.  He lifted me out of despicable conditions, conditions so desperate they are hard to describe.  I lived in terrifying darkness, plagued with despair and depression.  Often I didn't know who I was, where I was--I had lost complete control over my life.  I had brought shame and embarrassment to my family.

"In our culture, those suffering from madness are treated with disdain, viewed as a freak of nature and banished to the edge of town or the city dump.  People would move aside and look disgusted or scared if I came near them.  I became accustomed to the degrading name-calling and finger-pointing, believing it was all I deserved. 

"But one glorious day, a man named Jesus saw me and took pity.  He walked right over to me, not at all put off by my wretchedness.  As he approached me, I backed away terrified, stumbling to the ground.  I didn't know what he was going to do.  I was so used to mistreatment.  But he knelt down and spoke calmly to me.  He smoothed my dirty hair off my face with his rough carpenter hands.  I had no memory of the last time anyone had shown me any compassion.  Then, in one split second, he healed my mind and filled my heart and soul with light and wonder and blessed peace!

"So it shouldn't be difficult to understand why I began to follow him everywhere.  I supported him financially out of my own means.  I became a part of his traveling team, sharing countless miles and meals.  I knew him so well.  I knew what made him smile, what made him exasperated, what made his heart heavy.

"And at the end of his life, no matter how frightening or gruesome things got, I could not leave him.  I was there when they nailed him to the cross.  I was there when he cried out 'It is finished!' and breathed his last breath.  I watched as Joseph of Arimathea carefully took him down from the cross and followed as they carried him to the tomb.  Only then did I go home, determined to come back and properly prepare his body for burial.

"While it was still dark, I returned to his grave site with a few other women.  A violent earthquake frightened us out of our wits, but did not deter us as we made our way to the garden where his tomb was located.  When we got there, I was astonished to find it empty.  The soldiers that had been positioned to guard his body lay dead on the ground.  It angered me that anyone would steal his body after all that had already been done to him.  We ran to get help.  Peter and John rushed back with us, saw the empty tomb and then left, confused.  None of us understood that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

"I began to sob uncontrollably.   I looked into the tomb one more time and was startled by an angel whose appearance was like a stream of lightening.   He was so bright.  Bewildered, I turned around when someone standing behind me said, "Why are you weeping?"  I was still blinded by the light of the angel and my eyes were swollen and flooded with tears, so I didn't recognize who it was at first.  But when he spoke my name, I knew it was Jesus!  I fell at his feet and hung onto him with all my might.  We were laughing and crying at the same time.  My master was alive!

"Jesus finally had to tell me to let go because he hadn't yet ascended to his Father.  He had delayed his ascent to heaven so he could comfort a weeping woman--amazing, yet so typical of my Lord.

"The sun popped up over the horizon and cast a brilliant glow over everything.  What a contrast to the darkness of the last few days.  I don't think my feet ever touched the ground as I ran to tell everyone the good news!  Jesus had come back to life.  I had seen the risen Lord!" 

John 19:25; 38-42; 20:1-18
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Preface:  Jesus' reaction to the woman caught in the act of adultery may seem surprising to some.  It certainly was in stark contrast to the actions of the religious leaders of the day who exhibited utter disregard for her as a person.  They had actually set her up in an attempt to theologically trick Jesus and then proceeded to publicly incriminate her.  We don't know why or how she fell victim to this hypocritical plot.  But remember, women of 1st century Jewish society had no rights. She was the possession of her husband in an arranged marriage, for better or for worse.  Her opinion did not matter.  She had no power, no voice even if she found herself in an abusive situation.  Jesus knew her heart and he also knew what was in the hearts of her accusers.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but it turns out names can really hurt too.

She tells her story:

Just before dawn, the door to our secret hiding place burst open and slammed against the wall.  Scribes and Pharisees stormed in, screaming, "Adulteress!"  They grabbed me, pulling me out of bed and shoved me toward the door.  Barely awake, I glanced back at the man I had trusted with my heart and deepest needs.  He turned his head away.  Why did they take me and leave him behind?  I later learned that my foolish indiscretion had thrust me into the middle of a malicious plot to entrap and accuse the popular rabbi, Jesus.

Once out the door, I was immediately sandwiched between two fast-walking Pharisees who gripped my arms so tightly they left bruises.  Fighting back tears and unbelievably ashamed, I looked down as they rushed me through the streets, passing shopkeepers and vendors setting up for the day.  I felt sickened and humiliated beyond words.

When we arrived at the temple courts, my band of captors rudely plowed through a large gathering until we reached Jesus.  He was seated, teaching a large crowd that had gathered early that morning.  The two Pharisees pushed me in front of Jesus loudly proclaiming they had caught me in the act of adultery.  As I stood shivering, disheveled and exposed, I knew people were gawking at me, some with looks of sheer disgust.  I could hear the salacious whispering and ridicule going on behind me.  One of the women traveling with Jesus gently placed a cloak on my shoulders.  Tears of appreciation rolled down my cheeks.  I knew what I had done was so wrong, one of the gravest sins according to our law.  But in our culture, the marriages arranged at  childhood are sometimes loveless.  Wives become the property of husbands who can be arrogant and overbearing.  Vulnerable and starved for affection, some risk seeking love elsewhere.

Then the scribes and Pharisees said: "The law of Moses says we should stone her.  What do you say?"  I gasped as I heard those words.   We were a captive nation and Roman law forbade capital punishment for an offense like this.  Would they really stone me?  Horrified, I looked at Jesus.  He seemed to ignore their challenge, and instead, bent down and wrote in the dust with his finger.  Frustrated, they continued to shout questions at him.  Jesus finally straightened up and said, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone."  Then he bent down again, continuing to write in the dust.

In disbelief, I waited for what seemed like an eternity, too frightened to move. My heart thumped so loudly, I could barely hear Jesus when he asked me "Where are they?"  I dared to turn my head and was startled to see that my accusers had slipped away, one by one, beginning with the most prominent.  Jesus was now standing in front of me and said:  "Has no one condemned you?"

Incredulous, I responded, "No one, sir."  Jesus then said, "Neither do I condemn you."  He told me I was free to go and should leave my life of sin.  I was astounded by Jesus' tenderness, his gracious manner.  It was a remarkable contrast to the contempt and disdain of the scribes and Pharisees which was what I expected.  Never would I have anticipated experiencing such forgiveness from a rabbi.

 I turned and made my way through the crowd.  Once on the street, I walked away quickly.  I felt the wind against my face and breathed deep, cleansing breaths of freedom.  Jesus had pardoned me.  So great was God's mercy, it filled my empty heart and gave me hope for new beginnings.

John 8:1-11

(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Send Her Away!

Preface:  Did Jesus really call the Syrophoenician woman who begged for healing for her child a dog?  At first glance, one might think he was rude and insulting to her by telling her it isn't right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.  This reference is to the fact that his major mission during his short earthly ministry was to the Jewish people and not specifically to the surrounding nations which included Phoenicia.  But if you read between the lines, you will see the loving and compassionate Jesus finding himself unable to withhold responding to the humility, persistence and deep faith of a pagan woman and her little daughter in the grips of misery.

The mom from Phoenicia tells her story:

"I was beyond desperate!  My precious little girl was terrified and completely out of her mind.  I sought help everywhere, but no one was able to bring relief.  I had heard of the great Israelite healer, Jesus, and his miracles.  The Jews abhorred our people; so when word spread that Jesus had traveled into Phoenicia, I found it heard to believe he was actually here.  I set out to find him, asking family, friends and even strangers whether they had seen him

"Finally I found him!  I saw him standing in the courtyard of the house where he and his disciples were staying.  My heart filled with hope.  'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!' I cried as I begged him to heal my baby girl.  At first he didn't answer me.  I turned to his disciples, pleading with them to help me get through to Jesus.  They quickly became annoyed with me and urged Jesus to send me away.  They seemed to read into his silence that he must have been irritated by me as they were.

"At last Jesus spoke.  I was so relieved that he had at least responded, I fell at his feet and prayed, 'Lord, help me!'  He explained to me he was sent only to Israel and that I should realize it's not right to take the children's bread and give it to their little dogs.  The children should be allowed to eat all they want first.  And I knew that.  I knew he had been working miracles only in Jewish regions.  I knew we lived in a spiritually dark and pagan corner of the world.  But he was here in our land, standing right in front of me.  So, I said:  'Yes, Lord, I know.  But even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table.'

"As I gazed up at him, looking for even the slightest positive sign, Jesus smiled, obviously moved by my response.  He told me I had great faith and my heart's desire had been granted--my daughter was healed!  Overcome with relief, I thanked him over and over.  Then I ran all the way home and found my little one sleeping peacefully.  My sweet daughter's beautiful tiny face was no longer contorted with stark fear and anguish.  I curled up beside her and wept tears of joy.

"Jesus had crossed the border into our country to get away from tiresome arguments with the Pharisees.  He didn't want anyone to know where he was.  Even though in my desperation I had interrupted the privacy Jesus sought, divine pity crossed physical and racial boundaries that day as Jesus reached out to me, an outsider.  I received bread, not crumbs, from the master's table!"
Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Neighborhood Misfit...

Preface:  How does it feel to be looked down on and constantly ignored? The woman referred to in the Gospel of Mark as "the unclean woman" was an untouchable misfit in her society.  She knew how it felt to have people dismissively look away or to step quickly aside, scrupulously avoiding any physical contact with her. She felt insignificant, alone, unloved and abandoned.  She felt betrayed by her diseased body.  Her encounter with Jesus was fascinating.  Not only did he heal her physically, but he restored her profoundly wounded heart and damaged soul.

Let's hear it in her own words.

"With a look of disgust on their faces, people cautiously stepped aside when I walked by. I sensed their irritation because I had gotten in their way. By law they were required to avoid all contact with me, otherwise they too would end up ceremonially unclean. I was known in my community as the 'unclean woman.'  This had gone on for twelve miserable years.  The continual, daily rejection bred emotionally painful isolation and chronic loneliness.  I felt small and invisible.  I never grew accustomed to it and the fear of more rejection caused me to be defensive at times.  This made people want to avoid me even more. I spent most of my waking hours hiding in the shadows, watching others live their lives.

"I suffered from a malady that caused a chronic hemorrhage of blood.  And in our society, anyone who touched me or anything I had touched, either purposely or accidentally, was considered ritually unclean until evening.  They were then required to wash all their clothes and bathe with water.  When I first became ill, a few had pity on me, willing to perform the complex, time-consuming rituals after having had contact with me.  But that quickly grew tiresome for my family and friends.  Plus there was the lingering foul odor and untidiness of it all.  It was simply easier for people to stay away from me. 

"Doctors didn't know how to treat my disease and often the 'cure' was humiliating and painful, worse than the illness.  The cost of treatments left me penniless.  Having exhausted any possibility of a cure and living in poverty, I was at my lowest point, feeling truly abandoned.

"Then Jesus arrived in our town.  People called him the 'gentle healer.'  The afflicted and hopeless whispered his name with deep affection.  He offered restoration and healing of mind and body-a new beginning.

I hadn't stopped dreaming of being whole again, doing the normal things women do every day.  So I gathered up what little courage I had left and searched the neighborhoods for Jesus.  When I found him, he was surrounded by men, women and children, all wanting to see his face, to receive healing and a promise of better things.  For the first time in years, my heart soared.  I was absolutely caught up in the excitement and decided on the spot if I could just touch his garment, somehow that would be enough.  I knew better than to think I could actually approach him directly.

"Then I noticed the prominent synagogue leader, Jairus, walking with Jesus.  They were on their way to Jairus' house because his little twelve-year-old daughter was dying.  My heart sank.  My plan was shattered.  Touching Jesus' clothing would render him ritually impure and he would not be allowed to enter Jairus' home.  But I was desperate and instantly convinced myself to do it anyway because, after all, Jesus wouldn't know who had touched him.  People were swarming around him, grasping at him, bumping against him.

"I pushed through the thick crowd, finally crawling on my hands and knees, between legs and over feet, managing to reach the spot where Jesus was about to pass by.  I stretched out my hand, barely touching the fringe of his robe.  Immediately, I felt a surge of healing and strength coarse through my body.  Breathless, I struggled to my feet and backed away, stunned.  Then Jesus called out:  'Who touched me!'  I froze.  He repeated the question.  I wanted to flee but instead fell at his feet, terrified.   Sobbing and choking on my words, I poured out my story.

"Amazingly, there was no rebuke, no scolding for delaying and defiling him.  Instead, Jesus praised my faith and said what I had been hoping against  hope to hear:  'Take heart, daughter, you are free from your suffering!'  But as he spoke, he was interrupted by one of Jairus' servants bringing news that Jairus' beloved daughter had died.  I swallowed hard, assuming I was the cause of her death.  I had selfishly delayed Jesus and now the synagogue ruler's only child was dead.  I feared retribution from Jairus, but Jesus quickly reassured him, saying:  'Don't be afraid.  Just believe.'  Confused and conflicted, I followed Jesus and the crowd to Jairus' house.  There Jesus raised his daughter from the dead!  Everyone was astounded.  The master had graciously delivered us both!

"And just like that, it was all over.  After twelve years, I was no longer the neighborhood misfit, the untouchable woman in my village.  Jesus had healed my body and brought wholeness to my life.  He had publicly validated my faith.  What a glorious time I had returning to normal living, doing things that most took for granted.  No more hiding in the shadows.  No more shame and rejection.  No more pain.  No more isolation and loneliness.  For the first time in twelve years, I embraced life and all those around me!

Mark 5:21-42
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011