Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 5:12-26) transports me to yesterday’s Sunday afternoon mountain cookout, with my cousin Charlie and some of his family. I always enjoy time with Charlie; he’s one of the best storytellers I know, and I can always count on hearing something new. This Sunday, he was remembering his time as a young adult softball coach, with a team that had one especially memorable character. This young man was quite good at improvising on the spot, assuming a role and playing it for all he had. One example was a time when some of the team went out to eat at the local J&S cafeteria, and Charlie’s daughter-in-law was there with her baby girl in tow. The daughter-in-law and baby had to leave before the others, and left the bassinet and blanket behind. As the team got up to leave, the character in question layed the blanket over the bassinet, picked it up and started walking clumsily through the cafeteria, banging it on tables and chairs, stopping each time to stoop down and say something like, oh, honey, Daddy’s sorry, are you alright? As he neared the exit, a group of satisfied diners were sitting on a bench, which the poser used to make a final grand exit, banging the bassinet against the bench before dropping it to the ground with a thud. Again, the poser stooped down with his tender apology, Daddy’s sorry honey, I hope that didn’t hurt too bad. Charlie said he thought an army of blue-haired ladies were going to chase the faux father down and hold him in custody until Family Services could arrive. Another outing had the team realizing on the way to a game that they were responsible for bringing softballs. They turned in at Roses department store, ran in and quickly grabbed softballs from the sporting goods shelf and headed to the front, only to find each of the cashier lines filled with a long line of shoppers. The team wouldn’t have time to wait; if they were late they’d have to forfeit. No problem; the poser was quick on his feet. He waltzed over to a vacant register, flipped on the light, and announced in a loud voice, This register is open with no waiting, causing the adjacent line to quickly thin out. Again, he had to improvise his way out of the hands of some angry shoppers, but the team arrived on time with softballs bought and paid for.
According to New Testament scholar Ched Meyers, Jesus was quite the improvisational artist in his day, and caused quite a stir when he engaged in what his adversaries considered posing. Just who does he think he is? the Pharisees and legalists cried out. The two episodes from today’s passage give us a clue what roles Jesus was assuming, and why it had people wanting to run him out of town, if not worse. When a leper came up to Jesus and challenged him, saying in effect, you could make me clean, if you dare, Jesus took the dare, and he touched this unclean man. According to the Levitical procedures, this man’s isolation was a matter of ritual declaration; the priests were the only ones who could declare a person clean or unclean. With the unclean identity, the man was excluded from the community, and as such was denied all the social security the community could provide. If the man came into physical contact with anyone else, it would make that person unclean, as well. So Jesus dared to confront this system by touching the man, and instead of Jesus getting contaminated, he boldly declared the man clean. Jesus was posing as a priest, assuming the authority only the Levites supposedly had. Jesus told the newly included member of the community, don’t waste time talking about this to your friends and family; I want you to go straight to the priest, and tell him what happened. Tell him how you got clean. It was not just a matter of innocent or playful posing for Jesus; it was an in-your-face assault on the system that isolated and marginalized people in the community. The second episode had the same effect. A lame man was carried to Jesus, and when the friends were unable to get to the healer, they raised the roof and lowered him down, where Jesus was on stage and a group of Pharisees and legalists were on the front row. Jesus took that opportunity to pose not as a simple alternative healer, but as the instrument of grace and mercy, in short, as the Son of God. He wanted to show the powers that be how easy it was to include those the community had marginalized. The man’s infirmity would have been seen by the authorities as a sign that he had sinned, that he had a debt to pay to society, and his suffering was his way of paying that debt. Jesus didn’t buy it; he cancelled the man’s debt and restored him to full-fledged membership in the community. Another daring pose, to be sure.
Two thousand years later, the mainstream religious culture, steeped as it is in the trappings of morality and the need to exercise social control, is still in the business of authorizing who is clean and unclean in our communities, who is decent and who is abhorred, who deserves to be called upstanding and who deserves their status as downtrodden. We need more folks like Charlie’s friend, some improvising posers who will not hesitate to take any opportunity to publicly defy the authorizing agents and proclaim the unclean clean, canceling the paralyzing debts the down and out supposedly owe. Who dares?
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.