“The work of Jesus”
I have a story to tell you. A woman was walking by a church one day and a teenager on the steps of the church spit in her face as she passed by. This was on a Sunday and the teen was all dressed up in his Sunday best, tie and all. The woman was dressed up, also, on her way to work in her best hijab.
I don’t know exactly what the young man was thinking during this incident. Perhaps he thought he was acting on behalf of Christ when he spit on the Muslim woman. Presumably this young man that he was doing the work of Jesus, the work of God.
Aren’t there all manner of actions that people can take in the name of God that might seem reasonable at the time but which don’t stand the test of time? The Spanish Inquisition, for instance. Persecution of left-handed people (left-handed people are sinister, you know). I could go on, but you get the idea. Our motive is to remain pure in the eyes of God. God loves only us and God loves only people like us. (NOT!)
My point in telling you the spit story is to illustrate that people even in our enlightened time have purity standards. Even in our enlightened time we act to preserve the purity of our environment with respect to God. We aren’t so shocked to read about misguided acts of religious purity in Jesus’ time, though. Then, for example, before germs were discovered, touching a corpse was a big no-no, a religious purity issue.
Perhaps we can forgive this religious belief precisely because of people’s ignorance then about germs. They experienced viruses, bacteria, plagues, and contagion without understanding them, except to observe that people who touched dead people could die of whatever had killed the person who was dead in the first place. So don’t touch a dead person, for the love of God, in the name of God. In fact, over time, the prohibition became, “to be pure, don’t even touch anything in CONTACT with a dead person.”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus encountered a dead man being carried on a bier, a movable frame on which a dead body is carried to their grave. When Jesus saw this dead man he had compassion—not for the dead man, mind you, but for his living mother, a widow. In the culture of Jesus’ time, people were not at all kind to widows, especially those with no living male children. When a widow’s male child died, her dead husband’s money reverted to his family. And if that family didn’t provide for the woman, she had no means of support. No welfare. No social security. No health insurance. No job. Just spittle.
When Jesus encountered this widow and her dead son, Jesus’ compassion for the woman was so great he did the religiously unthinkable: he TOUCHED the dead son’s bier and healed him of his death. Jesus became religiously impure to bring new life back into this hopeless, helpless situation.
There are many theories about the so-called “work” of Jesus—what God came among us to do—and his death later on the cross. And here is a foreshadowing of the purpose of Jesus’ life: to take our impurity on himself so that we are healed of death. Jesus took on the disease of death itself so that we can have life. Jesus took on the germs of religious hatred to show us that God doesn’t ever think dead is dead, just a prelude to new life. And Jesus took on death by his presence with us, and by touching us NO MATTER WHAT, and offering to relieve us of our death.
The questions I have for you about this incident are these: Aren’t you just the slightest bit angry at God and at Jesus for bringing only THIS man back to life, and only for a little while. And aren’t you offended that Jesus only had compassion for the widow, for THIS widow? There were a lot of widows, even in Jesus’ day, much less in our own day. And what about those who get spit on in the name of Jesus? And what about those who understand Jesus’ work so poorly that they feel compelled to spit on others in his name?
I know; we aren’t supposed to get angry at God. But we do. Where is his compassion for the rest of us who are dying, suffering, spitting, spit upon, widows? Where is Jesus’ compassion for us?
And this is where the response of those who witnessed Jesus’ compassionate response to the widow with a dead son can help us most. THE WITNESSES of this resurrection understood the appropriate response:
- First, they feared God. That is to say, they respected God and recognized that this action was the work of God. God was present with them, and our fate is God’s to decide, God’s alone.
- Second, they worshiped God, giving thanks that God had “looked favorably” on his people. Instead of condemning God for not healing everyone in all times of all things, they understood that by healing this one situation God’s compassion for us is so great that this healing is a promise of healing available to us all, in all times, of all things. “A great prophet has arisen among us,” they said, recognizing God at work in the work of Jesus the Christ.
- Finally, they worshiped Jesus, as we are doing today.
Today, though, our reactions might not be so positive if we were to encounter Jesus raising a person from death. When we recognize a great healing among us, do we recognize God at work, or are we cynical of a trick or profit motive at work? Or maybe we recognize the miracle but credit science instead of God. Or maybe we just see the widow among us and despair, wipe the spit from our face and blame God. Here’s the thing, though: through the work of Jesus and our baptism, we each ALREADY have been raised from the dead. We already have been “born again,” given new life, given eternal life.
I challenge you this week to look around and find how Jesus is at work in our world and how Jesus is at work in us. Look around and see how Jesus is creating new life among us, at Church of the Resurrection, for example, or in your own life. Better yet, ask yourself how you (in your new life in Christ) could be the hands, the voice, and the heart of bringing life anew to a dying church in a dying world. Wipe the spittle from your face; we have Christ Jesus’ work to do.