Sunday, September 18, 2016

Distracted by the Law

Distracted by the Law -- October 30, 2016

On the face of it, it seems like a simple story -- another healing in Jesus’ catalog of healings. But there is so much here beneath the surface. You’ve heard of the three R’s in school (Reading, wRiting, and ’Rithmetic), well, there are three R’s in this story, too. And I hope to convince you that these three R’s represent the three stages of the Christian life. Do you want to take your Christian experience to the next level this morning? Perhaps this story will give you the clues you need to do exactly that.

As our story begins, Jesus encounters ten people suffering greatly from what was likely the most frightening disease in recorded history, but by the end of the story, they have been made entirely well. And so the first of this morning’s R’s -- is the Remedy.

As you likely know, up until very recently, leprosy was incurable, deadly, insidious, and mysteriously contagious. You didn’t know that you had it until it was too late, and its discovery was a death sentence. And that death wasn’t going to be a “short sharp shock”, either. It was a long and lingering suffering. And that suffering wasn’t just a physical one. It was also a social one. Lepers were invariably cast out from society, and left to fend for themselves.

The primary effect of leprosy is nerve damage. The first sign of the problem is the inability to feel pain. Now at first this might not seem to be a bad thing. But when you don’t know that your finger is cut open, and you don’t know that that cut has become infected, the end result is often the loss of that finger, with a disgusting putrid smell to go along with it. A leper’s experience often involved a great deal of disfigurement to hands, and feet and face. How much better to be sensitive to pain!

And so it is no surprise that leprosy has often been compared to sin, as its effects are so similar. Sin’s infection in our lives might also starts small -- perhaps even barely noticeable. But sin also desensitizes us, making it easier and easier to not notice its effects. Sin, too, represents a long and lingering suffering causing irreparable damage to our souls and to our relationships. Sin, too, distorts our very image. Finally, sin is also a sentence of death. As Paul writes in Romans 7: Oh wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death? But isn’t it marvelous that he is also able to write the very next verse: Thanks be to God [who delivers me] through Jesus Christ our Lord! Yes: it is only through Jesus that we can find the Remedy; only through Jesus can we find God’s wholeness.

And Jesus would like to provide the Remedy for us this morning, too! Just like these lepers, he wants to set us free from our sins, forgiving us and cleansing us, and starting us on the path to become the person we were meant to be. If we would like Jesus to provide the Remedy for us, we could hardly do better than using the words that the lepers used: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” I’m convinced that these words, uttered sincerely, will never be ignored! At the same time, Jesus doesn’t usually answer in the way we expect, does he? And there may be a bit of a surprise in his healing of the ten lepers, too.

After all, what does Jesus do in order to heal these men? Does Jesus touch them…? Well, no.. Does he pray for them…? Well, no he doesn’t do that either. So what does he do? He just tells them to go show themselves to the priests. Now while this might be a bit of a “what’s up with that?” thing for us, this was a really big deal in the context of the first century. You see, Jesus is sending the lepers to the priests in keeping with Leviticus 14. And what a fascinating passage that is! It starts with these words:

Leviticus 14:1 - Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing.”

Sure enough. In the book of Leviticus, Moses had been given laws for all manner of life situations. Chapters of instruction about sacrifices, chapters on dietary restrictions. There are chapters on the habits of the priests, and chapters on lawful sexual relations. Chapters on festivals, and chapters on commerce. But here, right in the middle of the book (chapter 14 out of 27 chapters -- it really is the central chapter of the book!), there are thirty-two verses of detailed instruction concerning what a person is to do if they are healed from leprosy. That’s almost four percent of the entire text of Leviticus! So it must be important, right? Only one problem: since the days that these instructions were written down to the days of Jesus, there had never been an opportunity to put them into practice!

So when the nine former lepers arrived at the priest, he very likely had to look the matter up in Leviticus. It certainly wasn’t something that he had any experience with. The ceremony involved finding two birds, killing one of them, and letting its blood spill into an earthenware bowl of water. Then the other bird, along with a length of scarlet yarn, a branch of hyssop, and a stick of cedarwood would be dipped in the water and the blood, and sprinkled seven times on the man who had been healed. And then the living bird was to be released to fly away. Then the healed leper was to wash all his clothes and shave his head and have sacrifices made on his behalf. It was quite an involved procedure.

But in all of recorded history, and in all of oral tradition, there simply had never been a post-law Israelite leper having been healed. Sure, there was Miriam, Moses sister. But she was healed of her leprosy before the law was given. And then there was also Naaman, but he wasn’t an Israelite. So what do we make of this remarkable fact that Moses provided the ‘law of the leper’ right in the heart of the book of Leviticus, but that that law was “dormant” -- it was simply never used for around 1500 years?

Well, regardless of what we make of it, I can tell you what the Rabbis made of it. The Jewish teachers who took David’s words to heart, and meditated on God’s law day and night -- when they looked at this ‘law of the leper’ in the context of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, they concluded that this law was finally going to be used when the Messiah came! That’s right: long before Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Rabbis were convinced that one of the signs of the Messiah’s arrival would be that this law -- ‘the law of the leper’ -- would finally be used. And every educated Jew would have known that.

So any Jewish person hearing this gospel for the first time in those early centuries would get a serious case of goosebumps at the point where Jesus says “go, show yourself to the priests.” It would be a moment of “w-o-a-h”. But it would have been an even bigger deal for the former lepers, of course. Can you picture the conversation that they would have had? Clearly, these men came to Jesus with intent: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” they cried. They had an inkling of what Jesus could do for them. And then can you imagine the excitement when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests? This would have been a validation for them: they had thought that he could help, but now Jesus is telling them that he is, indeed, the Messiah.

But, oh! What about the discovery that they had been healed. Can you put yourselves in their shoes and feel the elation. But then… then one of them realizes that they have been put in a bit of a bind -- they are now in a conflict situation: as you recall, the text told us that Jesus was “on his way”. And the priests were likely “out of the way” (that is, perhaps in a nearby town). That would mean that by the time they made it to the priests, and participated in the requirements of the law (which, as we just saw, were anything but trivial), that Jesus would have been long gone by the time they were done. They were walking away from the Messiah!

And so there would have been a bit of a discussion about this. I don’t know what you might have done if you were in their shoes, but I know what I would have done. If I was a leper, and someone gave me instructions, and in the process of obeying those instructions I became healed from my leprosy, wild horses couldn’t keep me from following through on those instructions to the very end. I would have certainly gone all the way to the priests with nine of those men.

But the twist in this story; the surprise -- the shock, even -- is that the majority, those who (like me) were inclined to dutifully follow the law -- indeed: those that obeyed the words of Jesus by going to the priests -- they don’t seem to receive Jesus approval. It is outsider, the outcast, the marginalized who wins Jesus approval. “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” he asks. Let’s attempt to make sense of this remarkable situation this morning.

And the best way to explain this is by way of showing the contrast between our two remaining R words. On the one hand, nine out of ten of these lepers knew that going to the priest was the right thing to do. After all, in verse twenty of Leviticus chapter fourteen, it says, “and the priest shall make atonement for him and he shall be clean.” and, of course, back in that culture to be clean was to be good. You see, as much as we might be inclined to make a distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law today, the Bible makes no such distinction at all. Jesus makes no such distinction. Paul makes no such distinction. As far as they are all concerned, the law is the law is the law. Or, using a word that begins with R -- the law is a Ritual.

Now for some of us, the word “ritual” isn’t a nice one. But for first century Jews (and many Jews and Christians since), Ritual was morality. After all, law-keeping just is Ritual. And Ritual was a means to stability; it represented the established order of things. To follow the law’s prescribed rituals was to find oneself to be a full participant in society. And these ten lepers knew that by this means, they, too could regain their place in the Jewish community, having been excluded for so long.

But I said “ten” didn’t I? Perhaps only nine. Because one of those healed lepers was an outcast for two separate reasons. First, he was a leper like the rest of them, but second, he was also a Samaritan. And as a Samaritan -- someone who, through no fault of his own, had Gentile blood in his veins --  he could never be welcomed back into the community of Israel, because he was never welcomed there in the first place.

And somehow, perhaps even because of the fact that he was an outcast, this Samaritan was able to see the situation more clearly than the other nine. Our first R this morning is Remedy -- many people find help and even wholeness in following Jesus’ teaching. Our second R is Ritual. Everyone who has ever encountered Jesus correctly recognizes that there are moral implications in Jesus’ redemption, and that usually translates into being more careful about behaving according to God’s instructions. But in our text this morning, it would seem that the majority can be so distracted by those moral implications, that they miss out on the third and final R, namely, Relationship.

You see, the dynamic that we see in our text this morning is a lot like the dynamic that exists in so many churches throughout the world. Too often, we are tempted to imagine that the point of the Remedy is the Ritual. We imagine that the purpose of being cleansed is to be clean. We imagine that “the straight and narrow” isn’t actually leading anywhere, but that just being on that path is good enough.

Here’s the thing: the law -- that is, ritual and morality -- helps communities function. Ritual has value in bringing us together and making a strong community. That’s as it should be. That’s a good thing. And for many people, church just is society. And the established means to enter and function in church societies is one of Ritual, one of morality -- being a law-abiding member. But if we get distracted by our place in that community, when we begin to consider our status in society -- even a church society -- as the goal, then we can totally miss out on the reality of a relationship with Jesus.

We know that Ritual can clash with Relationship. Let’s face it: one of our shared rituals is to attend church on Sunday mornings. Some of us add to that ritual, and make sure to attend church… on time. Some even add to that, and make sure to tidy up and wear good clothes to church. But anyone who has ever been the parent of small children knows that ritual can sometimes clash with even the most important relationships. Or, to consider another example, imagine attempting to make a change to some aspect of the church service. Relationships would almost certainly suffer for it.

For the majority of those cleansed by Jesus -- nine out of ten in the present case -- ritual took priority over relationship, and society took priority over salvation. They just didn’t seem to get it. Like the church in Colosse, they needed someone to remind them:

Colossians 2:16,17  Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day [i.e., a ritual!]. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

And Jesus says to these people:

John 5:39,40 - “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

So Jesus uses the Samaritan as an object lesson for us, to shake us up a bit, and to take us (if we are willing) to the next level -- to take us from clean (having experienced the Remedy) to whole (experiencing Relationship). And aren’t Jesus words interesting in this context? “Were not all ten made clean?” he asks. You see: it really wasn’t following the thirty-two verses of ritual that made those lepers clean. It was their encounter with Jesus.  

And our text leaves us with the very distinct impression that this Samaritan, by putting his relationship with Jesus before the legal requirements of the law had chosen the “better portion” (just like Mary did last week). Indeed, that was also the lesson for us in the story of Mary and Martha, wasn’t it? Martha was caught up in the Ritual (with its elements of power and status in the household), while Mary was focused on the Relationship.

So how do we go about developing a relationship with Jesus. Pretty basic question. And so important. But the Biblical answer might surprise you. After all, if we want to know what it is to have a relationship with Jesus, it makes sense that the first thing that we should do is to listen to what Jesus says about having a relationship with him. Please listen carefully to Jesus words:

Matthew 25:31 ...when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 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; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’

These are the marks of a real relationship, aren’t they: caring about someone enough to think of their hunger, to think of their cold and their discomfort and their loneliness. And Jesus makes it clear that “all nations” will be judged on this basis. Do I indeed have this kind of relationship with him? I don’t know about you, but this teaching makes me really insecure. But Jesus continues:

Matthew 25:37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’

Oh my! I wasn’t the only insecure one. It certainly seems like these, the righteous, the blessed of the Father, the inheritors of the kingdom, they are also insecure of their relationship with the King -- even though it is clear that it is this very relationship that establishes their standing in the Kingdom! But now Jesus gives us the punchline:

Matthew 25:40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Here, then, is Jesus own prescription for having a relationship with him: care about his brothers and sisters. And not just the fun ones, or the bright ones, or the popular ones, or even the good ones, either. Care about the needs of the “least” -- the outcasts, those on the margins. And by developing a relationship with them, Jesus assures us, we are developing a relationship with Jesus himself.

But there is such a strong tendency for Christians to become stuck at Ritual, without ever making it to Relationship. This is quite natural, of course! After all, following Ritual is naturally status-conferring. It makes us look good. But the need to look good often keeps us from engaging in relationship, doesn’t it? It particularly keeps us from engaging in relationship with the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which can often feel like it takes more humility than we have at the moment. So are we willing to be humble enough to develop those relationship this morning? It isn’t easy. And it isn’t comfortable. But please listen to Jesus words one more time: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Jim Dixon writes: “Instead of reaching out to the people Jesus wants us to care for, we isolate and protect ourselves from them, building barriers that prevent us from having any contact.” No doubt we have good reasons to behave that way. It is “safer” for our children; it takes vastly less energy; and it is far more comfortable to use the resources that we have to cater to ourselves -- or at a minimum engage them on our own terms. But whether we like it or not, we can’t escape the fact that our lives will be judged on our ability to extend ourselves beyond that comfort zone.

I believe that most people here have experienced at least a little of Jesus’ Remedy in your lives. If you haven’t, you don’t know what you are missing! Freedom from sin is true freedom. But the point of the Remedy is not the Ritual. The point of the Remedy is Relationship with Jesus. In fact, the Ritual is intended to reveal the Relationship -- not to replace it. Let’s take our spiritual lives to the next level this morning, and meet with Jesus in the way that he himself has recommended. May we, too, be greeted into the Kingdom with those wonderful words: “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”