On Saturday, June 7th my spouse John and I took our three year old daughter to march in the Central New York Pride Parade in downtown Syracuse. [link here] It was a historic moment for the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, being the first time we visibly took part in the parade.
Three parishes from the diocese marched behind the “Episcopal Church Welcomes You” banner:
Grace Church, Syracuse, NY [link]
Trinity Memorial Church, Binghamton, NY [link]
St. Paul’s Cathedral, Syracuse, NY [link]
Dean Tom Luck from the Cathedral,who wore his vestments in the 90 degree temps, was consistently harassed by conservative Christians with megaphones: “That priest is a sinner.” “The Episcopal Church is an abomination!” “That priest is an abomination! Hey, Reverend Reprobate…” In that moment I think we all realized just how important it was for all the welcoming churches, regardless of denomination, to march in solidarity. Otherwise, the dominant Christian presence would have been one of condemnation and harassment.
The hecklers with megaphones were spaced out along the entire parade, and cast a pal of hatred over the event. But what struck me more than the hecklers, was the overall atmosphere of genuine hospitality and compassion that pervaded the Pride community itself. Now that I think about it, John, Anna and I were the ones being welcomed…
In Matthew 9:9-26 [link to reading] Jesus invites a tax collector, a person who is considered an abomination by many of the Jews to be his disciple. He also hangs out with “sinners” and goes to dine with them in their homes. When the Pharisees question Jesus about why he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners, his reply is:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
When we read this bit, we assume that Jesus is siding with all the outcasts of society. And in fact, he is, but he is also being ironic in his superb sort of way, intentionally challenging our understanding of all such divisions.
Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 [link here for entire reading]:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of god and not burnt-offerings.
Hosea was one of the 8th Century Old Testament prophets, who with Amos, Isaiah and Micah protested the hypocrisy of the rich and prosperous Jews who considered themselves righteous because they performed all the necessary sacrifices in the Temple, but who at the same time exploited the weaker members of their society. For more on the theme of “mercy not sacrifice” in the eighth century prophets [link here].
Jesus was deeply influenced by the protests of the eighth century prophets, but his approach to the problem was very different. The prophets used direct confrontation, including accusations and threats, to demand the people return to their covenant relationship with God. The prophets insisted that the people had broken the covenant by violating God’s command to care for the outcasts and the most afflicted members of society and had turned instead to ritual sacrifice. And indeed, sacrificial systems create divisions, righteous vs. sinners, clean vs. unclean, pure vs. contaminated, which are often used to exclude those who are different, the poor and the sick. However, by pointing the finger of accusation at the so called “righteous,” the Old Testament prophets tended to reinforce those same divisions. Isn’t it true that divisions between “us” and “them” allow “us” to judge others while safely maintaining our distance from “them”?
Jesus, on the other hand, engaged in relationship. By dining with “sinners” and healing the outcasts, Jesus participated in very intimate acts which brought him into close physical contact with people who were shunned as ritually unclean, and very likely rendered him unclean in the process. In those days dining was a far more intimate act than it is today with our white tablecloths and individual place settings. People reclined on cushions, sometimes leaning on each other in the hot climate. They used their fingers to eat from the same bowls which they passed from one person to the next.
Jesus’ acts of healing, several of which occur in this reading, were equally intimate. Instead of using instruments to poke and prod, Jesus touched the wounds of the sick with his fingers. Scholars assume that Jesus was being over dramatic, but this is more to do with the modern tendency to equate healing with one-sided acts of mercy. For the ancient Israelites, mercy meant much more, but interpretation has been lost in layers of translation.
ἔλεος (Greek): mercy, kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them [link to definition]
But the word that Hosea used, which Jesus would have repeated, was
חסד hesed (Hebrew): mercy [link to definition]
For the ancient Israelites mercy, was far more than an act of kindness, it involved the closest form of relationship. Unlike our definition of mercy as a one sided act, hesed was inherently two sided… [Link to Ben Witherington III on hesed]
Jesus’ acts of mercy actually rekindled relationships which the people had ignored for centuries by systematically separating themselves from the weak, the lowly and the outcasts. This had a ripple effect which was far more effective than all the fiery language of the prophets. For instance, as Jesus dined with “sinners” a ruler of the synagogue, the very paradigm of the sort of “righteous” person the prophets would have condemned, entered the house and asked for Jesus’ help. Not only did the ruler knowingly expose himself to supposed contamination, he then took Jesus to his home, defiling it as well. This supposedly “righteous” person actually insisted that Jesus touch his daughter who has just died, so that she will live. Jesus rather than refuse to help him, as we would expect based on Jesus’ own words, rose without hesitation and followed him.
When he arrived at the ruler’s house the people gathered there had already started the ritual mourning. Jesus however did something totally outrageous, just as the ruler asked - he picked up the hand of the dead girl! At that time, touching a dead body was the worse form of defilement. The result, however, was totally miraculous as the girl returned to life. Could it be that Jesus exposed death as just another one of those false divisions?
What is striking in this reading, is that all of Jesus’ acts involved touching and close proximity, which
rather than reinforce old divisions or create new ones, crossed all such boundaries. Whatever your perspective may be, Jesus’ actions ignore any recognizable categories of sinfulness, and actually free us from those divisions, allowing us to reconnect with each other. He did this through the simple act of touch, an action free of any form of condemnation, which actually invited those around him to do the same and resulted in the healing of the people involved.
This is most evident when, on the way to the ruler’s house, a woman who had been excluded from the Temple for twelve years because she had an incurable flow of blood, touched Jesus’ garment. This was a totally scandalous act, because her touch would have contaminated Jesus, except for the fact that he is already unclean. And indeed Jesus acted surprised, but he immediately recognized the significance of what had just happened. By reaching out and touching Jesus, she had in that moment escaped all the internalized condemnation she had suffered for so many years. The fact that she was able to give herself permission to touch him, is truly miraculous. And better yet, now that she had crossed the boundaries of division, and understood the power of mercy as a two-sided relationship, she was in a position to touch others, and rekindle those long forgotten covenant relationships.
After the Pride parade, the participants gathered for a festival outside the Everson Museum. [Watch on YouTube] It was crowded under the tents, as all of us, hot and sweaty from the march, sought protection from the midday sun. As we ate hot dogs and were handed free popcorn and water bottles, there was no doubt in my mind that we were participating in the messianic banquet. Whenever we venture out beyond the self-prescribed boundaries of our separate communities and open ourselves to intimate contact with each other, we set in motion that same ripple effect which, without angry words or accusations, dissolves the divisions which continue to threaten the unity of our church. We may even realize that there are no sinners, that not one of us is really righteous, but that we all share a common need for healing, which may only come through the touch of mercy given one to the other. -Sue Wright