Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 7:11-35) transports me to the aftermath of the terror attack at the finish line of the Boston marathon, where 3 lives were lost and scores more were wounded. The primary and secondary injuries suffered include lost limbs, ruptured eardrums, and blinding shrapnel wounds. Tertiary injuries include traumatic brain injury, and over time post traumatic stress disorder. The immediate response of heroic first responders who broke through barricades and sprinted toward the blast to begin assisting victims elicits tremendous gratitude and respect. I am also awed by the courage and dedication of the second and third responders, those who will care for these victims and their families over the long haul, maintaining a marathon-like presence of compassion care long after the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared and this tragic episode has crossed the finish line of the news cycle. Hospice nurses who care for the dying, therapists who care for the amputees and the deaf and the blind, mental health providers who care for the traumatized, they join the ranks of the unsung heroes and represent for me the presence of God in the world.
God’s presence has not always been associated with those who reach out and touch the suffering of our world. The idea of God as love has long been countered by the contrasting idea of God as holy and terrrible, a divinity who creates castes of unholy untouchables among those whose bodies are in some way blemished, who are victimized by the vicissitudes of life. The levitical holiness code gives us the prime example of this second understanding of God. It creates a clear second-class citizenship among the covenant community, banishing the blemished, the blind, the lame, and a whole host of others from offering or eating the bread of presence or approaching the altar. Such people, according to the holiness perspective, profanes the sanctified sanctuaries of God. This mindset was alive and well in the first century holy land. Jesus encountered a faith community that made the lepers and other disabled people untouchable by sacred law. This is the backstory of John the Baptist’s question about Jesus, whether he was the real deal or not. As John sat in his prison dungeon, he needed to know just who it was he had baptized, just what kind of Messiah figure Jesus was turning out to be, in essence, what kind of God this Son of God was incarnating. Is this really the Christ we have been waiting on, or should we keep looking? Jesus, who had just performed one of his signature levitical-defiling actions by approaching a dead body (offering the dead a life-giving touch would not have been considered a heroic action by the strict readers of the holiness code), gives John’s messengers the answer his cousin was looking for: Tell John what you have seen and heard: I’m responding to the needs of the blind, the deaf, the lame, the dead and dying. I am touching the untouchables. In crossing systemic barriers to treat the traumatized, Jesus was taking sides in the centuries old debate about the nature of God (is God a discriminating source of terror for all but the most able-bodied and sound-minded, or is God a steadfast source of compassion for the suffering?). Jesus embodied his answer: God is love. He went on to question John’s followers: Just who did you come out here to the wilderness to find? An ostentatious power-broker with a perfect smile and all faculties functioning, living the life of levitical luxury? No, you came seeking a saboteur of this system, and that’s what you found. Now I tell you, as great as John is (and he is no slouch) the people the kingdom was designed for – the poor, the lame, the blind, the deaf – the least of these is greater than cousin John.
The people I know who spend their lives with the least of these, those our society tries to forget and dismiss – the differently-abled, the developmentally delayed, the dying – tell me they do their work not for any accolades and rewards our culture offers. If they did, they’d be waiting a long time. No, they spend day in and day out among these those blinded and deafened and maimed and driven crazy by the terrors of the world because it is there they find the greatest in God’s kingdom; it is there they find the presence of God. To be clearer, it is there they find the presence of the God of love. They seem content to leave the God of terror to the institutional levites of our world, the theologians and biblical scholars bent on determining which people should be banished from the bread of presence.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to respond, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.