Touch. Human touch. You don't realize its value until it is absent. Babies can die without it. It's what Gary Chapman describes as one of the five "love languages." Whether it's a hug or a handshake...a high five or a fist bump...the holding of hands or an arm around a shoulder...a willingness to engage in human touch conveys to the other that he/she is valuable and accepted. Touch not only engages the hands and arms of its recipient. It engages the soul. To refuse a gesture of touch ( to refrain from the handshake or the hug) says to the other that "I don't trust you"...."You're not worthy of my time"...or maybe even "I don't love you."
Jesus of Nazareth walks into a culture that has marginalized THE UNTOUCHABLES. Ritual purity had become what seems at times the sole focus of Pharisaic piety. Between their hand-washings (Matthew 15:1-2) and cup-washings (Matthew 23:25), the scribes and Pharisees were in effect just tomb-washing (Matthew 23:27)...for a place of deadness is what they had become. Jesus calls them out for becoming the very thing they were working so hard to avoid - UNCLEANNESS (Matthew 23:27). How? Because their social circle had grown so small that the concept of "outreach" (a term that implies touch) would have horrified them. Their concept of the Kingdom had no place for the "dogs" of society..."the scum of the world, the refuse of all things" (1 Corinthians 4:13, ironically applied to Christians). And since these scribes and Pharisees set the tone for the culture of Palestine as the "leaders," Jesus had to come in and turn over some cultural tables. And He did so by engaging the marginalized...by caring for the neglected...by destigmatizing the stigmatized...by touching the untouchables.
THE GROUP: Lepers
THE STIGMA: Unclean! Danger! Danger! Hide Your Kids! Hide Your Wife!
THE SAVIOR ENGAGES: Maybe the fear of leprosy wasn't completely unfounded. Leviticus has 2 whole detailed chapters (13-14) on the treatment of leprosy. But what you don't find in those chapters is any call to abandon lepers to their own demise. Quite the opposite. Yes, for health reasons, there was a protocol on caring for the leprosy so that it would not spread to others in the communities. But Jesus reminds His culture that God's concern was not just for the protection of the "clean" but for the leper himself. Health and safety are legitimate concerns. But they cannot trump the call to love and engage even "the dangerous." Jesus engages the lepers (Matthew 8:1-2; 10:8; 11:5; 26:6; Mark 1:40; 14:3; Luke 4:27; 5:12; 7:22; 17:11-12) in a way that was otherwise unseen in Palestine.
THE GROUP: Samaritans
THE STIGMA: Half-breeds, Mixed-race, Dirty people
THE SAVIOR ENGAGES: Jesus spends most of His recorded ministry in either Galilee (in the north) or Judea (in the south). But unless you want to go completely out of your way by traveling on the other side of the Jordan River, you pass through the region of Samaria when traveling between the other two. And most Jews would just hold their nose, close their eyes and ears, and pass through as quickly as possible. On one of Jesus's trips through the region, however, we read of Him stopping at a well in the Samaritan city of Sychar (John 4). A woman who comes to draw water is floored when Jesus speaks to her. And the text plainly tells us the reason for her shock - "The Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9). Why? Because the Samaritan people were the offspring of intermarriage between native Israelites and Gentile transplants (from when the Assyrians moved some people groups around years before). They were an ethnic minority and didn't fit nicely and neatly into the Jew-Gentile dichotomy. So the accepted practice was for "pure Jews" (ignoring their own heritage of different ethnic groups) to completely ignore the Samaritans. Jesus breaks that mold. He steps out of the comfort zone. He has meaningful conversation with this Samaritan woman, showing love to this whole village of people that they had never received from a Jew. Jesus even makes a Samaritan the unlikely hero of a story He tells about who a true neighbor is (Luke 10:25-37). And His mission the these neglected Samaritan people continues with the work of the early church (Acts 8).
THE GROUP: Women
THE STIGMA: Inferior to Men, Untrustworthy, Manipulative, Little Self-Control
THE SAVIOR ENGAGES: The Samaritan in John 4 is not only shocked that Jesus is engaging her in conversation despite her ethnicity...but also because she's a WOMAN. In Jewish culture (most of which had developed from the rabbis and not from the pure biblical teachings), women were given little respect. Their testimony meant basically nothing in a court of law (which is largely still the case today in most Muslim cultures). The rabbis taught that self-control (sexually, in speech, in other actions) was not an attribute that few women would ever possess. Women were the victims of injustice in most divorce cases...which also often left them in an extremely vulnerable financial state. They were even frequent victims of "frame-jobs" or at least "set-ups," which seems to be what happened with the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8:1-11. But Jesus's ministry had great concern for women. Mary and Martha of Bethany are close friends of His. He values the support of women both in their financial gifts and their spiritual contributions to the ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Many of His healings, the demonstrations of both power and compassion, are shown through women. Jesus casts demons out of a lady named Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2), who becomes a follower that is still with Him even through the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection (John 19:25; 20:1, 18). In fact, the first witnesses of the resurrection are women, despite the fact that their testimony would have been regarded as garbage in the law courts. The value Jesus places on women...single, married, divorced, or widowed...young or old...high or low social status...rich or poor...was revolutionary.
THE GROUP: Tax Collectors
THE STIGMA: Traitors and Thieves...The Worst of Sinners
THE SAVIOR ENGAGES: The marginalized were not always poor. Sometimes they were marginalized because of their wealth. With the Romans occupying Palestine and seeking to delegate civic responsibility in all territories for the good of the empire, they needed to make certain appointments. Beyond the governors like Pilate and their cohorts of soldiers, they also needed people hired to collect taxes for the empire. And who better to hire than some of the locals who would be willing to do it? Imagine your city being taken over by a hated foreign nation and your neighbor deciding to go and work for the enemy, collecting a portion of your money in the process. You would call him a traitor! Now imagine that he not only demands the percentage of your income required by the new foreign government...but he also demands some extra for himself that he's going to pocket in addition to his government salary. And if you refuse, you could be in violation of law and taken to court. How do you view this guy? Well, that's exactly the stigma that developed for all tax collectors, whether they were honest or not. So what does Jesus do? He goes up to a tax booth where one of these traitor-thief-sinners named Levi (or Matthew) is collecting and calls Him to be a disciple. The man immediately leaves his collecting behind and invites some of his tax collecting friends to come over for dinner with Jesus. And when the authorities catch wind that this radical rabbi is actually engaging tax collectors and other "sinners" in food, in drink, in conversation, in ministry, they are appalled (Luke 5:27-32). But some of His most devoted followers come out of this demographic. A tax collector named Zaccheus is one of these "sinners" reached by the Gospel of Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). In a parable, Jesus even uses a tax collector and the honesty and humility of his prayer in contrast to that of a Pharisee in order to flip our expectations of who is truly righteous in the eyes of God (Luke 18:9-17). If the Kingdom of Heaven can be filled with tax collectors, then no group of stigmatized "sinners" is beyond reach.
THE GROUP: Children
THE STIGMA: You must be 60" tall before you can ride this ride
THE SAVIOR ENGAGES: In Mark 10, we find 6 groups of people (besides just the core group of disciples) who all want access to Jesus. And the core group, the apostles, have taken on the role of a secret-service outfit at this point in Jesus's ministry (a role never really endorsed by Jesus, by the way). They are the bouncers, determining who gets close to see Jesus and who doesn't. Of these 6 groups, 5 of them are given access: the crowds from beyond the Jordan (10:1), the Pharisees who want to test Him (10:2), a rich young ruler (10:17), another crowd who wants to follow Him on the way to Jerusalem (10:32), and a blind beggar named Bartimaeus (10:46). The one group that's denied access is the children...the kiddos...the rugrats (10:13). They're just a distraction to the "important" work of Jesus, right? They're not the focus of His Kingdom Work, right? Actually, He says that the characteristics of children are THE FOCUS of Kingdom Work...setting them as the example of how to receive the Kingdom (10:14-15). The apostles' attempted denial of their access to Jesus leads to a somewhat rare glimpse into His anger...which usually only occurs at the hardness of a heart. Jesus closes this scene by taking the children in His arms to offer TOUCH and BLESSING.
Touch is where we started, and so touch is where we end. Touch says to the children, "I have time for you." Touch says to the lepers, "I'm not afraid of you." Touch says to the Samaritans and women, "I'm not superior to you." Touch says to the tax collectors, "I'm not more righteous than you."
Over the coming weeks, we hope to challenge you in this series on THE STIGMATIZED AND NEGLECTED. A number of different authors will contribute articles that will focus our attention on groups of people that we often neglect in our ministry and fellowship. Maybe we've marginalized them, labeled them with a stigma, or just failed to get out of our personal comfort zones to engage them in a more meaningful way. So today's thoughts are not just about 1st-Century Palestine and merely looking back at all the problems of "those Pharisees." It's about us. Take a look in the mirror. To which groups of people are the footsteps of Jesus leading you?
To His Glory,
Preaching & Outreach Minister
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