In Matthew chapter 8 and 9, Jesus:
- Heals a man with leprosy.
- Has a chat with and then helps a Gentile- a Roman Soldier no less. A trained killer for Caesar.
- Heals Peter's mother-in-law. Interesting, the first Pope had a mother-in-law...
- Casts demons out of a bunch of people and healed all the sick in a town, irrespective of their disease.
- Restores two violent, demon-possessed men.
- Heals a crippled man with the words, "Be brave son; you are in the process of being forgiven and redeemed as we speak." (Some religious leaders said this forgiving was evil and blasphemy. Jesus responds by calling their accusation evil. No, you're the blasphemer. Puh- Your mom's a blasphemer. No, your mom's so blasphemous she owes Satan an apology. Yeah right, like my mom would apologize to your dad. Fun times with Jesus, as I imagine them.)
- He invites a tax-collector, Matthew, into his inner circle. An apostle fashioned from of a public enemy.
- Hangs out at a Matthew-and-cronies party, listening I'm sure to Matthews entire 8-track collection of pagan rock. This, again, riled the religious leaders. "Farewell, @Jesus" one of them tweeted.
- Travels to raise a dead girl to life by touching her corpse.
- Touches and heals a woman stuck in what appeared to be a perpetual, 12-year state of menstruation from what any first-century doctors could deduce.
- Heals two blind men with persuasive volume.
- Heals a demon-possessed man that was mute. (Which was quite a trick since it was believed you could only cast out a demon if you knew its name. Mute demons don't easily give up their names. And, little known fact, demons refuse to use sign-language. Self-conscious about their hooves.)
This is an amazing couple of chapters. But there's something even more amazing in my estimate than the specific acts performed:
All of these infirmities, conditions or even ways of life come with formal exclusion. If you're one of these that Christ healed or talked to, you simply weren't invited into "us". You're "them".
Sometimes it was something outside of the excluded person's control (sickness, blindness, demon-possession, bleeding, etc.) Sometimes it was a choice, (tax-collecting, being a soldier for the Empire, etc.).
Sometimes it was a condition.
Sometimes it was a choice.
Regardless, these things put one safely on the outside. They were excluded from the faith community. They were rejected from the inclusive life of the center. They were not just sick- they were actually sickness itself. Outsiders. Provincials. Cast-aways. Them.
And those on the inside had the scriptures and traditions to support these exclusions. Perhaps more significantly, there were numerous biblical injunctions it seemed against even interacting with such unclean, objectionable people- let alone touching them as Jesus unflinchingly did. The reason for their ostracization was contagious, Jesus! Don't you know this?!
This is hard for us to really appreciate. Especially if we've read or thought about this before and fell familiar with the idea. But, fact is, Jesus just didn't seem to care about things he had to care about to have a place in the culture. The closest sense of shock we might understand would be like watching someone repeatedly inject themselves with used hypodermics. Everything in us would say "don't do that!"
Jesus just went and talked and touched and partied and loved people that other good boys and girls wouldn't even bring up in quiet conversation.
Overall, we seem to be doing a lot better as a society these days in understanding that people shouldn't be excluded for conditions they've been victimized by. I don't know anybody that would look at a physical infirmity and suggest the condition was grounds for rejection. I concede this is the case because I don't personally know the judges on America's Next Top Model. But over all, much progress seems to have been made in not only tolerating people our forefathers and mothers isolated and cast out, but in giving them extra energy to help ensure them the best opportunities possible.
Where we still have much work, and perhaps have even gone backward rather than forward, is that second group. The tax-collectors and "sinners" group. People who live in a way and believe things that the rest of us don't understand, agree with or support. They're not sick. They're sickening. We're still sure this second group is contagious and deserves to be isolated and controlled and opposed until such a time as they come around to doing and believing like "us".
Jesus rounds out Matthew 9 and all his work this way:
"Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.'" (Matthew 9:35-38)
It's easy to believe that others and their ideas are bad for us, our families, our nation or our way of life until they change. We know blindness isn't communicable anymore. But certain behaviors and ideas are more dangerous to us, the pure, than ever. At best we offer these disagreeable, objectionable people a peaceful stiff-arm until they convert their mind and ways. At worst, these people are the dreadful sinners in our us-and-them theology that keep hell's fires hot while "we" dance on streets of gold. It was by grace we got there. Grace and accuracy and not being sickening and not voting the wrong way not having God's least favorite sins in our lives.
Jesus sees those who have been rejected, shamed, judged and ostracized and has a different take.
He says they're "harassed." They're being mistreated. Jesus refers to people on the "outside" as mistreated as he spoke to those in synagogues. He says this to his disciples. To the spiritual people.
I like to think Christ is essentially saying, "Guys, there's so much harvest. So many good things ready to celebrate that you've nervously predetermined either isn't there or should die on the vine. There's so much to go and benefit from as you bring it from "out there", into your homes. The problem is there are too few people who want to do this work. Too few servants. Sure, plenty of people who level judgment and condemnation, and plenty of people who have gotten comfortable with their group of fellow insiders, understanding themselves by whom and what they're against. But few willing to traverse their sacred quarantine zones and learn that the field is God's harvest field. Few willing to entertain that the Spirit wants to unite people, not perpetuate a tired, old us & them. Pray, therefore, that rather than God changing "them", that he would change you. That he would change fearful, narrow, hand-sanitizer saints into people who understand "they" are your siblings out in that field. No more lacking in purity or accuracy than you are. Pray God would show you how upraised hands look better with the dirt of reality in the fingernails. Pray God would show you people aren't their right or wrong ideas but are, equally, God's children. Imago Dei. Worth the effort."
Perhaps our generations' call is to read Matthew 8 and 9 and recognize that the harassers have too often been those who know all the verses. Perhaps it's time to admit we've acted as aghast as self-righteous scribes and start admitting to ourselves that the church is the church of tax-collectors and sinners. "They", whether that's a set of political views, economic ideologies, the hot-button pushers, other religions, the nonreligious, those with different sexual identities, differing environmental takes and countless other things on yours or others' lists; all are the fruit of God's field- beloved and valuable to say the least. More so when they're harassed for their lives by those called by Christ's name. "We" on the supposed inside must remember we are Matthew; rejects suddenly invited into Jesus' arms and ministry for reasons so incomprehensible it seems irresponsible of Christ to have done it. Plenty of others can make a case against having Matthews in the church. "We" are always someone's "them".
If we'll accept this call I think we'll find ourselves suddenly celebrating the realization that behaviors and perspectives and lives we don't understand are no more dangerous to those housing God's Spirit than mute demons or mothers-in-law. If I'm wrong about this, then I confess I understand my faith less everyday. Because I just don't know how to go into a field and change the vegetables that are actually there into something they are not before I'll take them into my home.
May we love and serve all others, and convert only ourselves.