(from Radix Vol. 38:4)
One of the striking things the Gospels reveal about Jesus is his concern for outsiders. This major theme in the preaching and healing ministries of Jesus was rarely heard in the sermons I grew up on.
That Jesus Christ is God’s son and our savior was taught and remains a cornerstone of my faith. Sermons stressed the importance of being “saved” and holding right doctrines. Heated controversies flared up about exactly when Christ would return. Since Jesus said no one would know the day or hour of his return, this speculation seemed a strange focal point.
But in one key passage, Jesus does clearly state how his followers will be viewed on judgment day. What he actually said still surprises me. The passage in Matthew describes the day all the nations are gathered for the last judgment. God calls those who are blessed, saying:
Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)
This is a challenging, unsettling passage and I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon preached on it when I was growing up. Followers of Christ are called to care for the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. These outsiders are God’s insiders. But even more startling is Jesus’ radical identification with the outsiders. Caring for them is caring for him.
In Jesus’ day, the sick often were ostracized. In addition to their physical suffering, they became like strangers in their own communities. An illness might be attributed to the “sins of the parents,” making the sickness a just punishment and wiping away the need for a compassionate response. The sick were often considered “unclean,” as was the woman with the issue of blood who reached out to Jesus, wanting to be healed.
The “righteous” observers were scandalized that such a woman would touch the rabbi. But Jesus rewarded the woman, praising her faith and calling her “daughter.” Jesus not only healed her, but in calling her “daughter,” he welcomed her back into community as a member of the family (Luke 8:43-48).
Jesus and the Samaritans
Not surprisingly, lepers were among the “unclean” excluded from community. But when a group of lepers approached him, Jesus didn’t reproach them—he healed them.
Then we’re told that of ten lepers who were healed, nine left, without looking back. Only one returned to thank Jesus, and the Gospel account tells us that he was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19).
This is not the only time a Samaritan appears as a righteous person in the life and teaching of Jesus. Each instance must have surprised the disciples.
There were historical reasons for the long enmity and distrust between Samaritans and Jews. During the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, Samaritans moved into land where Israelites had lived.
When the newcomers were plagued by wild beasts, they asked about the “God of the land” and were introduced to the Israelite’s God. They knew little about this God and created a hybrid religion combining elements of Judaism with their pagan beliefs.
When the Israelites returned from Babylon and found the land populated with “foreigners” a long-lasting feud erupted over land rights. There were outbreaks of violence and Jews were forbidden to speak with Samaritans.
In his most famous parable, Jesus tells the story of a stranger lying injured by a road. Two respected men of high rank pass the injured man without stopping. Then one man stops to help. The story makes it clear that God is not concerned with status or birthright, but is concerned with how travelers and foreigners are treated. The Gospels tells us that this man who stopped to help was a Samaritan who, like the one healed leper, was the only person who made the right response (Luke 10:33). Thus, a despised outsider is the one who finds favor with God.
In another story, recorded in John 4:4-26, Jesus encounters a woman at a well and amazes her, telling her things about her life that a stranger couldn’t have known. The woman asks him whether the one true temple was in Jerusalem or Samaria: "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem.”
Her question was at the center of a long-standing argument between the Samaritans and Jews. Jesus answers with good news that makes the tired, old contentious disputes irrelevant: “The hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The woman seems to understand what he’s saying, and begins to guess his identity, as revealed in her next statement: “I know that the Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
Jesus answers her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The disciples had been waiting for Jesus to confirm that he was the Messiah. But Jesus chose to make this declaration to a Samaritan and a woman (a double outsider).
Jesus not only welcomed outsiders, treating them as "insiders," but he himself became an outsider. He left his home to sojourn on earth. While here, he marginalized himself by the people he associated with (publicans and sinners). During his ministry, he was called “Jesus of Nazareth,” a term both accurate and scornful.
People from Nazareth were held in low regard by other Jews. When Nathaniel was introduced to “Jesus of Nazareth,” he replied “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?”
Jesus and his disciples were wanderers, going from place to place to spread the Gospel, usually by choice. At other times they fled for their lives.
The work Jesus did—healing people, feeding them, and promising them eternal life—was a huge threat to the status quo. Powerful people wanted him dead and Jesus and the disciples frequently were forced to moved on.
Jesus should have felt at home in Jerusalem, in the temple of the one true God. But it had been turned into a marketplace, with money changers taking advantage of the pious Jewish visitors. When Jesus threw the crooks out, those in power saw him as a threat to their economy. Once again, Jesus and his followers were in danger.
The way Jesus entered the world announced that this King would be different from the usual power-hungry despots, certainly different from the evil King Herod who massacred thousands of baby boys hoping to eliminate the promised Messiah.
Herod was both wrong and right about the threat the baby born in Bethlehem posed. The child wasn’t going to depose Herod and take over his kingdom. But his life and teaching challenged the supremacy of Herod and all other earthly rulers from that time forward.
Jesus didn't call for political revolution or a violent overthrow of the Romans (as some Zealots hoped). The revolution Jesus inaugurated called for personal transformation so radical that it was called "rebirth." Followers were reborn as members of a new community that would go on to change the world. This kingdom wasn’t based on status, money, or power and, in fact, challenged the love of those things.
The kingdom of Jesus is one where the last are first, where the King of Kings washes the dirty feet of his disciples and heals"unclean" outsiders, who rightly see that he is their only hope.
Jesus is humanity's only hope. But in his teaching ministry, it was the outsiders who understood this first. When a woman anointed Jesus with costly ointment some of his disciples were critical of such extravagance. But Jesus said this woman, an uninvited guest, understood what was coming and anointed him for his burial.
Despite the death threats, the disciples couldn't, didn't want to, believe that their great mission was going to end in martyrdom and didn't understand what Jesus was saying (Matthew 26: 6-13). After hearing all his teaching, watching how Jesus behaved toward them, and witnessing how his values were counter to those of the world, the disciples still didn't get it.
When Jesus overheard them arguing about which of them was the greatest, he told them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last, the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Jesus the Stranger
Jesus began his life in humble circumstances—we remember the lowly stable birth attended by shepherds. Jesus, of the royal line of David, was born of a woman, and only a woman, in a society where women had no status. His parentage and the timing of his birth were irregular in a society where such things mattered.
Then when Jesus was a young child, the holy family became refugees, fleeing by night through the cold Judean desert to escape Herod’s murderous wrath.
During his earthy ministry Jesus was a wanderer. He told the disciples they would be persecuted for his sake, and they were. He taught them that they, like him, were strangers and sojourners on earth He taught them that they, like him, were strangers and sojourners on earth. But they were not without a home or a family. They were reborn into a new family and their home was in a new kingdom with it’s upside-down order of things.
We’re called to care for the marginalized, for the strangers in our land, in the knowledge that we, too, are strangers here, called to remember our true home and our true identity.
Like the early disciples we’re strangers in the old kingdoms of the world, aliens with different loyalties and values. This world is not our home, but we are not homeless. We’re no longer citizens of the world, but of the new kingdom Jesus inaugurated, reborn into a new family.
Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
Sharon Gallagher is editor of Radix and Associate Director of New College Berkeley. She is author of Finding Faith.