Benediction Online

Sunday, October 13, 2013

No Outcasts

Back in the day when Dennys was still at the end of Los Osos Valley Road near the freeway, and you could get a grand slam breakfast for $2.99, I was filling up the car with gas when I was approached by a young man who said he needed money for to get breakfast. I didn’t have much cash but I emptied my pockets, searched deep in the bottom of my purse, and under the seats of the car. Eventually I came up with $2.99 for a grand slam plus another $1.50 for coffee and tax. Pleased to be able to help I gave him the money and told him how to get to Denny’s. Yet as I drove away I saw him approach another customer for money.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is approached by ten lepers. These unfortunate people suffered from what we now call Hanson’s disease. Known to humans for thousands of years, this disease went untreated in biblical times and caused permanent damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, compromised the immune system, and hastened death. Though it is now known to be only mildly infectious, the ancients considered it highly contagious and forced lepers to stay away from others, identifying their condition by announcing, “Unclean. Unclean,” when approached.

As a result, they were excluded from society and forced to make their own communities. They became dead men walking – at the mercy of others, ostracized, alienated from the richness of family life and the comfort of communal religious practices. Lepers were outcasts who bound themselves to one another out of necessity because no one else would touch them or even come near. All that mattered was their disease. They were identified as unclean, as different. Their disease was such a strong identifier that one of the lepers in the story was actually a Samaritan who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in regular Jewish society.[1]
It was this man, only the foreigner, who praised God and came back to thank Jesus. The others were too busy getting to the health authorities to show that they were now clean and could return to their families.

This lack of gratitude doesn’t stop Jesus healing people; in a page or two we’ll find him healing a blind beggar, another outcast. Jesus does not judge the nine lepers who were in such a hurry that they forgot to express their wonder and gratitude.

As disciples of Jesus this must give us pause.

We are living in a time when the leaders of our nation can shutdown the government in an argument over providing affordable healthcare. We are living in a time when the poor are portrayed as the problem, when benefits to the neediest are the first to suffer from cutbacks. We are living in a time when undocumented immigrants are so scapegoated that even to give them a ride or serve them at a soup kitchen could become a criminal act.[2] It is easy for us to get caught up in this mindset and start to judge those who are begging, those who are living by the creeks and under the bridges, those who are mentally ill and those who are disabled.

Sometimes people behave in ways we don’t like – like asking for money for breakfast and then not immediately using it, or not wanting the sandwich or the coffee we want to give them – but they are still beloved children of God.

As the followers of Jesus, we are called to respond with humility and compassion, and to work for a society in which there are no outcasts. That’s a really hard thing to do, because it is part of human nature to gather in groups and make those groups stronger by talking about how other groups and other people are not so good. It’s part of human nature to scapegoat people who are different from us and blame them for the problems we experience.

It’s part of human nature, but it is a part that does not stand up to the light of the Gospel. Our mission is to work for a day when all beings will be reconciled with God and with each other and we further that when we bless those who fail to thank us, when we bless those whose behavior we don’t like, when we bless those who are outcast, and work to bring them back into society. This requires a change of heart which goes against our natural inclinations, and which goes against the messages we get from the media.

It’s much easier to help people who are grateful. It’s much easier to talk to people who respond in a positive way. Sometimes we walk our dog, Shadow, in the hills above Los Osos and we park on Bayview Heights Road. Naturally, we frequently meet other people with their dogs. One man in particular seems often to be there at the same time that we are, and when we first met him he was usually in a bad mood. One day he yelled at me because he didn’t like the way I had parked my car, and then zoomed off in his pick-up with a great screeching of tires. After that we avoided him and when we met just said a quick greeting and kept going. The other day I saw him sitting in the vet’s office. I plucked up my courage and asked about his dog, expecting a gruff response. Instead he gave me a lovely smile and we reminisced about dogs we have loved. He could have been a different person. I don’t know what made the difference. I don’t know what may have happened in his personal life to make him so angry all those months ago. I’m just glad that I didn’t just say oh no and look the other way in the vet’s waiting room.

He isn’t an outcast, he’s just a normal guy with a pick-up and a dog. But my inclination was to ignore him and pretend that we had never met. For once I was able to do the other thing, the more Christ-like thing, and attempt to be open to him as a fellow human being without the baggage of our past interaction.

There are millions of people in the world who are outcasts. There are thousands of ways that we can help them. And it’s important to do whatever we can and whatever God calls us to do. The most important thing is that like the Samaritan who came back, we have a change of heart. Of course, like the Samaritan, we are called to praise God for all the ways in which we experience healing and blessing, and even for the times when we don’t. But the big change of heart which Jesus shows us, is to refuse to scapegoat, to refuse to see others as less than we are, to refuse to judge. The big change of heart is to remember that, but for the grace of God, we could be in their position. The big change of heart is to see Christ in all beings.

That is the path of compassion. That is the path of Jesus.


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