Thursday, January 26, 2006

BE the Outcast[1]
Amos 7:7-17, Ps. 82, Lk 10:25-37
© 2004 Alan Brehm

In the 1999 Lasse Hallström movie “Chocolat,” Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, a free spirit who literally blows into the French village of Lansquenet and has the audacity to open a Chocolate shop right in the middle of the holy fast of Lent! This particular village is under the thumb of the Comte de Reynaud, played by Alfred Molina (of “Murder on the Orient Express” fame) who insists that everyone observe the fast and sets the example himself by literally not eating for 6 weeks! He takes the Chocolate shop as an affront to God and a personal challenge to his authority as Mayor and launches a campaign to see that it is run out of business before Easter.

Unfortunately, the supposed piety of this quiet village masks the reality that Lansquenet is a place where people struggle with deep, dark secrets that create misery, loneliness, terror, and even violence! The Comte has his share of this himself—and the clash between appearances and reality resolves itself when he breaks into the shop and gorges himself with chocolate!

Young priest, father Henri, instead of delivering the sermon on morality that the Comte had carefully crafted for him, decides to preach his Easter sermon on Christ’s humanity. He says, “We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”

The poignant climax of the movie raises an important question—how do we define what it means to be a Christian?

The Measure of a Christian. The question has been answered in various ways throughout the history of Christendom.

Some have defined what it means to be a Christian in terms of being religious. Doing “religious” things like going to church, confessing sins, receiving sacraments, and praying are what it means to be a Christian. As both Bible and history demonstrate again and again, however, it is all too easy to do “religious” things and still not be very Christian.

Amos in fact attacks this way of defining what it means to be in relationship with God. In the name of the Lord he says, “I hate, I despise your feasts.” Religion without justice is a sham that simply hides our true selves!

Although the Comte de Reynaud can boast of a stellar religious performance, the reality is that he doesn’t hesitate to spread malicious gossip about Vianne, he so despises a group of “River Rats” led by Johnny Depp that he launches a campaign to resist their “contamination” by shunning them, and all the while he is too ashamed to admit to himself that what’s really eating him is the fact that the Comtesse is not just on an extended vacation, but has left him for good.

Others have defined what it means to be a Christian in terms of being spiritual. Seeking “spiritual” experiences like contemplation, spending time alone with God, meditation, etc., make up the true essence of being a Christian.

Once again, however, “spirituality” is a means to an end, not the end itself! Spirituality without justice is just about feeling good—self-centered and selfish. Praying, fasting, meditation, and other spiritual practices all too easily collapse into an escape from reality!

Others define what it means to be a Christian by moralism. Those who are truly Christian, who are truly right with God, are the ones who live up to a certain moral code, however you define being “moral”: “family values,” “good citizenship,” or even being a good “Christian.”

There are two problems with this approach. The “sins” we choose to avoid inevitably wind up being someone else’s sins. And focusing on someone else’s “sins” makes it all too easy to ignore our own.

In the movie Chocolat, the Comte de Reynaud denounces Johnny Depp’s “River Rats” as “ruthless, godless drifters” who constitute a threat to the village, yet the end result of his campaign against immorality is that Serge Muscat, the local drunk and wife-bully sets fire to the boats! Who’s threatening whom?!? Morality without justice always obscures the real sins we need to resolve!

Seek His Justice First. Throughout the biblical witness, the one characteristic of what it truly means to be rightly related to God is justice. Although that word sounds strange as a definition of what it means to be a Christian, it shouldn’t. From Deuteronomy to Amos to Jesus, it is the defining quality of those who claim to know God!

If you’re feeling a little confused right now, don’t worry. I think we all get confused about justice. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “justice”? Punishing the bad guys? Making laws, keeping laws, and enforcing laws? If we think that’s what being a Christian is all about, no wonder we’re confused! But that’s not what “justice” is about in a biblical sense. It’s about living life the way it ought to be lived in relationship with God and others. It’s about the peace and mercy and love and kindness that make for “life abundant.”[2]

The kind of justice that Amos was seeking from Israel could be defined as the Psalmist did in our text for today:

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4).

It’s the kind of “justice” Isaiah wanted when he said, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:17).

It’s the same kind of justice that Jesus demanded of those who would follow him when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36).

The Fellowship of Outcasts. There’s one problem here, though. As that stands, it could be viewed as a call to social activism. We may think that if we want to be sure that we are living a life that pleases God, then we have to get out there and help the needy.

But it’s all too easy to engage in social action while despising the very ones you’re supposed to be serving. In the village of Lansquenet, the Comte de Reynaud decided to adopt Serge Muscat as his “project.” So he makes Serge go to catechism, cleans him up with a clean shave and a new suit, and sends him to win back Josephine, whom he had bullied into leaving him. The problem is that the Comte really didn’t take the time to get to know Serge, and the new suit and close shave couldn’t change the hatred in his heart. Activism without justice may make us feel good about ourselves, but it cannot promote the kingdom of God.

The parable of the Good Samaritan exposes the flaw in that kind of thinking. Although the scribe knows the Scriptures well enough to give the right answer to his own question, it’s one thing to know what is right and another thing altogether to do it![3] His question “who is my neighbor” betrays the selfish desire to restrict the range of “love” to those who are just like “us.”

In order to grasp the message of this parable, we have to understand that there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Talking about a “good” Samaritan would be about like a “law-abiding” convict, or an “educated” illiterate. It’s an oxymoron: Samaritans were the “half-breed” Samaritans, the “despised” Samaritans, the “hated” Samaritans.

The “religious” people might have expected Jesus to tell them that they should love their neighbors, including the “hated” Samaritans. But Jesus turned the tables on them. He made the “hated” Samaritan into the good guy! In effect, he told them to “BE the Samaritan”!

The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t just teach us to go out and help the outcasts; it tells us to BE the outcast! The outcast in Jesus’ parable is not one in need of our help; the outcast is the one who defines for us what it means to be rightly related to God!

We have to recognize the humanity of the homeless, the refugees, the convicts, the impoverished, the migrant workers, the single moms on welfare in order to love them enough to truly work for their well being. Only when we truly see them as part of our family, as our brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, will be care enough to see that they get to live life as God intended![4]

That’s where justice starts. It starts with the compassion that we feel when we see “that every human face is the face of a neighbor.” [5]

Conclusion: One of the best definitions of justice is to recognize “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”[6] As the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us, we can only do that when we see ourselves in others, and see them in us. It means more than just feeling sorry for the disenfranchised, or giving money to causes that support the marginalized. We have to “take up our cross” by embracing Christ’s lowliness, poverty, and suffering, [7] and become a fellowship that lives in solidarity with the poor and a place where the Christ who dwells among the poor is embraced and welcomed.[8]

Have to see ourselves as outcasts in order to truly identify with the outcasts of our day. “Fellowship with the crucified one cannot be lived in any other way than in fellowship with the least of [his] brethren.”[9]

[1] A sermon preached 7/11/04 at First Presbyterian Church, Baytown TX.
[2] Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” TheolTod 48 (April, 1991) 16.
[3] Fred Craddock, Luke, 150.
[4] Desmond M. Tutu, “The Best of Our Family,” sermon reprinted at
[4] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 134.
[6] Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, 25, 36, 60
[7] Nouwen, Here and Now, 101.
[8] Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 355.
[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97-98.