The cities of the Decapolis, the places where Jesus crossed over. Away from the Galilee. Away from his people. Over the line.
Near to the Decapolis he finds a man among the tombs:
“When Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones”
It is a story that asks us to expand our frame of reference for who we might think is within God’s salvation economy. For the first hearers of this story, Jews are invited to expand their worldview to Gentiles, an expansion that will later, with Paul, define Christian belonging as transcending nation and ethnicity, clean and unclean, sane and insane. Here we see Jesus expand the boundaries, moving beyond.
Which boundaries and bounded places are we open to Jesus opening up for us on this pilgrim’s way? Who do we count in? Who might we be discounting? Where are we drawing our lines?
Today we certainly did cross the border line, in many ways. From Israel’s relative affluence and comfort to Jordan, where we were told over half of the population are refugees. It is the poorest of the Middle East’s countries, and the shift in living standards was immediately apparent.
Our destination today was Jerash, once known as Gerasa, one of the ancient Roman Decapolis and also one of the most remarkably well-recovered ancient Roman settlements in the world. There was a vast array of masonry, from the soaring pillars of the Temple of Artemis still largely intact to piece after piece strewn on the ground of the extensive compound. With a population that may have numbered as many as 20,000, there is nothing quite to prepare you for the scale of Gerasa, yet also for the way by which is sits cheek by jowl with modern day Jerash, a city of 50,000 that surrounds the ancient site.
It was here for me that the worlds began to collide. The fence around the site, while designed to keep pilgrims like us in, yet also presumably to keep local residents out who may have wished to take a shortcut to the store. I’m not sure that worked if it was the intention. Even if it did, what was wonderful about today’s exploration of this ancient archaeological wonder was the contrast between folks like us, taking a thousand pictures and marveling at the past, and local visitors who picnicked, while children played hide and seek on centuries-old limestone and mothers collected foliage to contribute to that evening’s dinner.
Ancient meeting modern. West meeting east. Rich meeting poor. Yet none really meeting at all, truth be told, for these are parallel moves. We slide past one another, looking but not seeing who we are. Cultures tend to herd together, local and global. So, yes, we crossed to the other side, of one border line, and then discovered the distance yet to travel to meet those still beyond.