Strangers on Holy Ground: Bible Study Assignment & Reflection for Nov. 13
Matthew 25:31-46 Sheep and Goats
This week, our concluding week for this study session, we read three well-known texts from the Christian canon. The commonly known names for these passages are given after their citations, because we’ll be using those names for reference. The first two texts are stories to the contemporary eye and the last connects the prophetic tradition, which bears examples and visions of what happens when we fail and when we live up to our covenant with the Holy. These three passages are also examples of how Jesus taught living faithfully: through his life, through parables, through prophetic speech.
Before you read, what do you know about these passages? Where have you met them before?
As you read, consider the role of the stranger. How are you, the reader, also a stranger in meeting these texts? How are you being called in covenant within these texts?
Canaan is the land the Hebrew people conquered and inhabited. Perhaps some Canaanites joined Israel; there is some story for that with Joshua 24, when the assembled people at are enjoined to put down their personal gods and join the covenant with the One. But others remained separate, through the Babylonian exile and after. Jesus has been engaged in a number of healings through the land. The Canaanite woman is a person who has little social authority, and if someone can be said to be socially even lower than the usual crowd Jesus associates with, she is that person. We can gather from the woman’s appeal to Jesus, “even the dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table” that Canaanites have learned not to expect to be treated as equals. Yet she asks for healing for her daughter. She’s a parent at wit’s end, having run through every option to help heal her daughter. But then she hears about this stranger teacher, who wanders around and has been doing odd things, including healing people who could not be healed. What compels people to move out of where we are known and know others? Where we feel relatively safe? Why does love move us to become strangers taking huge risks?
Jesus turns away from her. This is the mercy, love, serve people, hang out with the rejected guy, and he turns away from her. Don’t just slide past this moment: if he were pitching a baseball game, the umpire would call a balk and a dead ball – nobody goes anywhere. Nobody advances toward home. How do you feel about Jesus saying “nope, not you”? How do you feel when you’re rejected? How do you feel when you’re rejected after you’ve risked a lot and suffered to reach help and then you are turned aside?
Jesus says he is sent only to gather the lost sheep of Israel. Why? Is this a rhetorical device? If so, tell a story about why. Does he change his mind? That would connect to the tradition of appealing apparently unjust actions the Holy seems set on taking (however you view the divinity of Jesus, he’s a representative of the Holy as a prophet-teacher, or he is the Holy). But then he relents. It seems that Jesus has one of those “oh, yeah! Practice what I teach” moments, and then he heals the stranger’s daughter from a distance.
Really, what must we do to live into the law of our covenant? So the legal scholar asks Jesus, and rather than reply with a short answer, Jesus gives a teaching story, a parable. Teaching stories are also part of the larger tradition. They aren’t supposed to be mysterious. The mysterious bits of the Good Samaritan story come up from the cultural distance of who we are approaching the story.
Samaritans are like Canaanites in this story, except we’re talking about a people recognized in the story’s original context as a our near spiritual kin that we’ve had a falling out with. Families can be bitterly estranged from each other. Interfaith and interdenominational disagreements can be extremely bitter. In the United States, there’s the whole history of nativism to appreciate – anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic attitudes, laws, policies, and rhetoric. It still shows up. Every time a politician has to defend his or her beliefs or convictions not to believe, there’s the same suspicion that fueled nativism, a concern about “contamination” or “pollution.” We don’t have to search very far or dig very deep to find that kind of sentiment in how communities approach strangers. Yet, this story teaches that we’re on the wrong track when that sentiment appears. Who most fully and perfectly fulfills the law of mercy and loving the neighbor? The one everyone knows can’t actually do it (yes, if you hear echoes of Jonah’s protest about the Ninehvites being unable to repent, there’s good reason to do so).
When was the last time you stopped when you were busy — when you were dressed up and had places to be, when you were on your way to a very important place — and helped someone you didn’t know? Have you ever been that person in need of help, that person all kinds of people crossed the road to avoid? How did that feel? The Good Samaritan is a story about generosity – the recognition that we are one and belong to one another, and then living that out in an uncomfortable difficult way.
The last passage we’re examining belongs to the prophetic tradition. But it is the prophetic tradition as emphasized by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, not the prophetic tradition emphasized by Ezra and Nehemiah. (If your only encounter with Nehemiah is via the congregation-based community organinizing models, take the time to read Nehemiah in his context. Shared community to rebuild the city is awesome and good work, something I support, but Nehemiah is rebuilding walls in part to purify the city and keep strangers out.) In the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus is talking about weighing how well we’ve lived our covenant, and what will count the most in living that covenant. Have we paid attention to the least in our world – those who have an abundance of suffering and little social power, those who have an abundance of trouble and little considered socially redeeming, those who have an abundance of oppression and hatred and separation and little acceptance, appreciation, or love? Or have we been too busy going where we need to go, tending to “our” people, and living more comfortably? The big test is how we are with strangers.
Once we were strangers. Often we are strangers again. When we live in ways that strangers are our kin, the people we protect and love closely, then we put ourselves in the same risky places that strangers are inhabiting. We also live the risks of imprisonment, rejection, physical danger, loss, and grief. We lose some, or all, of the context that was safe and familiar, our home holy ground. But we also gain. We gain appreciation for holy ground being made and celebrated everywhere love is, everywhere mercy is, everywhere people are taking faithful risks to live generously and compassionately, loving their true neighbors.