Stretching Cultural Boundaries

Thursday, June 21, 2012 — Week of Proper 6, Year Two

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 971)

Psalms [83], or 34 (morning) 85, 86 (evening)

Numbers 12:1-16

Romans 2:12-24

Matthew 18:10-20

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

The story in Numbers 12 is a fascinating tale of racism. Moses’ sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron “spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married.” Usually the region of Cush refers to Ethiopia (occasionally to Midian). Moses’ wife Zipporah was from Midian. Ethiopian Africans are black. The effect of the charge against Moses is not unlike someone calling another’s wife a “Nigger” regardless of where she is from, simply because she is dark skinned or foreign.

God’s reaction is swift and unambiguous. God reaffirms an intimate relationship with Moses, then God makes Miriam unclean with leprosy. In a gracious act of inclusion and forgiveness, Moses intercedes on Miriam’s behalf, and the community pauses on their journey long enough for her to be restored to them.

How much of our human story is marred by racism and prejudice.

Paul also addresses some racial and cultural boundaries in the portion of his letter to the Romans that we read today. Paul insists that everyone stands naked before God. None of us is privileged by reason of our race, religion, or standing. Everybody has sinned. And many people behave rightly even though they are outside our religious boundaries. God honors their goodness regardless of their religious standing. There is no special privilege accorded to one religion over another. Especially if the behavior of the religious ones is hypocritical to the values they espouse. Paul says, “God shows no partiality.”

And Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of the lost sheep and announces that “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” The little, the lost and the leprous are the ones that God seeks especially. God will not let anyone out of God’s net.

But for those of us who are insiders, when we sin against another, the Gospel gives us a process for truth and reconciliation. If that process fails, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” But of course, it is the Gentiles and tax collectors that Jesus says go first into the kingdom of heaven anyway.

So much of the Biblical witness turns our privilege and presumption on its ear. God’s mercy is abundant and extraordinary. God special outreach is always directed compassionately toward the lost sheep. The only ones who tend to catch God’s particular ire are the proud and those who are pretty certain of their own standing and rightness. They get jacked around for awhile. But, Moses and Jesus intercede, and the community will wait on them. As long as they are able to stand up and join the parade with the outcast and sinners; the lost and little and leprous; the black and the gay and the Moslem — the parade will welcome them no matter how far back in line they may finally decide to join in the fun. Come along Miriam and Aaron. We’ll wait on you.

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