Border Territory

Friday, September 30, 2011 — Week of Proper 21, Year One

Jerome, Priest and Monk of Bethlehem, 420

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 984)

Psalms 102 (morning) 107:1-32 (evening)

2 Kings 19:1-20

1 Corinthians 9:16-27

Matthew 8:1-17

Today we have two of Matthew’s stories about Jesus operating around and across the borders of Jewish society.

In the first story, Jesus encounters a man with leprosy. It is not unusual for a leper to ask healing from one who had a reputation for healing. The leper observes convention by approaching at a distance, kneeling before Jesus. But then, two surprising things happen.

First, Jesus chose to heal him. Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean. Jesus answers, I do choose. That was not the conventional choice. The dominant conviction was that diseases like leprosy were probably sent by God as a punishment, either for something the person had done, or possibly some sin or debt inherited from ancestors. To heal such a one would be to interfere with the judgment of God. Jesus chose to heal without regard for the worthiness or unworthiness of the sufferer. (Says something about the way we tend to offer our charity. Some are reluctant to give to those who may have some complicity in their own plight. Generosity toward those made homeless by a hurricane is easier to market than generosity toward those whose life choices have left them homeless.)

The second unusual detail is the phrase He stretched out his hand and touched him. That would have stunned all. There were health and religious reasons preventing Jesus from touching the man. Leprosy was a generic word referring to various kinds of skin diseases, but most were contagious. Many were spread by touch. To touch a leper would be to expose oneself to the disease. Moreover, a person with leprosy was also ritually unclean. To touch a leper would be to defile oneself religiously. One would be disqualified from entering worship without going through the prescribed rituals of purification. Nevertheless, Jesus touches the man, and he is made clean.

Then Jesus does something very conventional. He tells the man to go present himself to the priest with the appropriate gift for sacrifice. He tells him to follow the Biblical ritual laws by which a person once ill and unclean with leprosy may be certified to be well and clean, and thus reenter the worshiping community.

Today’s second story is another encounter with the borders — this time with a Gentile Roman officer. The Centurion is a man of power, commander of up to 100 soldiers. Yet the Centurion offers his powerlessness to Jesus, requesting the healing of his servant. When Jesus moves as if to approach the man’s house, the Centurion stops Jesus. The officer knows — to enter the house of a Gentile would defile Jesus in Jewish eyes. Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. It is a beautiful phrase of humble trust which has found its way into the prayer and piety of the church. Many Christians use that prayer just prior to their receiving communion. Jesus honors the faith of the officer and heals his servant. (In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus never enters a Gentile’s home. Mark and Luke have scenes at tables in the homes of non-Jews.)

These stories have reminded me of a story. When the AIDS epidemic was at its height, there was a church in Dallas that was particularly welcoming to gay men, including many who were HIV positive. It was not a large church. As I recall, the congregation lost over eighty of its members who died during the epidemic. The Rector noticed that some members who had traditionally sipped from the common cup began to practice intinction. He was bothered. It seemed to him to be an expression of fear and a compromise of their communion as one body. His wife also noticed. She then adopted the practice of waiting to receive her communion last, from the cup. Then, the priest performed the ablutions, not in the sacristy, but at the altar, publicly consuming the rest of the wine from the communion. It was their quiet testimony of faith and communal identity.

Where are our borders? Who are the unclean in our world? Where are our fears of communion? Who is hard to touch? Whose home would it be a scandal to enter? What would Jesus do?

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