Thursday, October 17, 2013

Breaking Boundaries

Breaking Boundaries
Lk. 17:11-19[1]
  Boundaries can be an important part of a society that functions smoothly.  For example  there are important reasons why we make laws that set minimum age limits for driving, buying tobacco products, and drinking.  Similarly, we expect certain professions--like physicians, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and even ministers--to have certain minimum credentials in order to be qualified to do their jobs.  These are boundaries that we as a culture have agreed on in order for our society to operate well. But there are other boundaries out there that aren’t so healthy.  Typically, they are the unspoken boundaries, the assumptions and prejudices that we make but that tend to be unsupported by facts.  These kinds of boundaries are not only unhealthy, they can be positively destructive to individuals, communities, and our society as a whole. 
  One of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus came bringing the gracious kingdom of God that breaks through all our boundaries.  Make no mistake:  the people of Jesus’ day had as many destructive boundaries as we do.  In our Gospel lesson for today, we see one of those boundaries played out: the animosity between the Jewish people and their half-cousins, the Samaritans.  I say “half-cousins” because the Samaritans were descended from the Jewish people who were left behind when Northern Kingdom of Israel fell.  But they were also descended from the gentile peoples that the Assyrians conquerors brought in to solidify their hold on new territory.  That took place 700 years before Jesus’ day.  And the bitterness between the Jewish people and the Samaritans hadn’t diminished one bit over all that time.  In fact, I would say it had only increased. 
  I find it interesting that when we meet the group of “lepers” in this Gospel lesson, there’s no initial mention of ethnic distinctions.  Their common illness made them all unclean and outcast.[2]  And like many who are outcast, they bonded together despite the boundaries that might otherwise have kept them apart.  Because all of these men were ritually “unclean” and therefore socially outcast, they were excluded from all the normal activities of life--from family to community life to worship.  And so they formed their own “community” of sorts, one that ignored the boundaries of their day.
  When they cried out to Jesus for mercy, they were obviously asking him to heal them from their disease so that they could re-enter their lives, their families, and their communities.  His response that they go show themselves to the priest might seem strange, but when someone was healed from a skin disease, that person was to appear before the priest.  The priest was to examine them, and if there was no further sign of the disease, he declared the person to be “clean.”  That meant being accepted once again in to the normal activities of life--family, community, and worship. 
  I would think that at first the ten men might have looked at their mutilated skin, and then back to Jesus.  I would imagine the thought may have crossed their minds that he had forgotten something:  the part where he heals them.  But he said “go,” and they went.  In doing so they displayed just enough faith that their skin was restored.  The lesson says that one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned praising God with a loud voice, and fell at Jesus’ feet thanking him.  It’s only at this point that we learn he was a Samaritan.  As a Samaritan, no Jewish priest anywhere was going to pronounce him clean.  Because of who he was, simply because of the fact of his birth and his heritage, he would always be viewed by any Jewish person as “unclean” and therefore outcast.[3] 
  But it was this man, this man who had lived his whole life on the wrong side of the boundaries of his world, who had the ability to “see” that he had been healed by Jesus.  I think what he saw in his healing was the fulfillment of what the Scriptures had promised would happen when God’s kingdom had come.  And he had the faith to see that it was through Jesus that the healing grace of God’s kingdom had come to him.  And so Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you whole.”  In a very real sense, his ability to see beyond the obvious fact of his healing and to recognize the grace of God at work through Jesus revealed a level of faith that went beyond the others.  His faith not only made him physically well, it made him spiritually whole--it “saved” him.[4]
  I think this story provides us with an interesting paradigm for how we view matters of faith in our day.  It has typically been the case that those who have lived on the wrong side of the boundaries of our world are more sensitive to the presence of God’s healing grace than those of us who are “respectable.”[5]  In the Gospel lesson, Jesus asks where the other nine were.  I think the answer is obvious: they were so excited about being healed that they didn’t walk but ran to the priest.  They couldn’t wait to be declared “clean” so they could be respectable again, so that they could re-enter their lives on the right side of the boundaries. 
  Unfortunately, that may very well be a parable of where the church is today.[6]  We can still be so caught up in living our lives on the right side of the boundaries in our world that we miss the fact that God is out there working with the outcasts.[7]  In fact, Jesus said that’s where he would be, among the hungry and the strangers and the outcasts (Matt. 25:40).[8]  I think if that’s where Jesus is, then that’s where we should be.  It seems to me that if we want to experience the new life of God’s kingdom in our churches, if we want to see revival and renewal, we need to be out there breaking the boundaries, working among the people on the wrong side of our prejudices.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/13/2013 at First Presbyterian of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 203.
[3] Cf. Maggi Dawn, “The Untouchables,” in The Christian Century (Oct 2, 2007):18.
[4] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 203.  Cf. also Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1152, where he points out that the “seeing” is decisive in this story, not the healing.  All ten experienced healing, but because the Samaritan “sees,” he also receives salvation. He adds (p. 1155), “this is an awakening, his eyes of faith were opened.”  Cf. similarly R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:327.  He says, (p. 328) “For those who have become aware of God’s grace, all of life is infused with a sense of gratitude.”
[5] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7, where he says that the poor and the powerless “fulfill the primordial purpose of creation: God’s call to live and give life to others, even in the midst of catastrophe.”
[6] Cf. Paul D. Duke, “Down the Road and Back,” The Christian Century (Sept 27, 1995): 883.
[7] Cf. John T. Carroll, “Luke 17:11-19,” Interpretation 53 (Oct 1999): 408, where he points out that Protestant churches in North America have focused their efforts to survive on making and enforcing clear boundaries regarding the issues of our day.  He asks, “When we are yearning for clear structures and boundaries, how will we serve a Lord who subverts them and extends compassionate care to the most unlikely of persons?”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power, 126-29, where he argues that Jesus’ presence is to be found among “the least of these” according to Matt. 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”


Inkin' Thinkin' said...

I really enjoyed this message. Having just finished Malclm Gladwell's book David and Goliath, I am reminded that God prepares us for the roles we play in life--often with imperfections that help us hone skills and understandings that allow us to serve others with greater humility and kindness.

Alan Brehm said...

Thanks for the good word!