Sinners Outcasts and the Poor
Welcome back to our Lenten message series, “The Way,” based on the book by Adam Hamilton. We’ve walked with Jesus through the wilderness, around the Sea of Galilee, and into Capernaum. Today we will back up a bit, and journey with Jesus on his way to Galilee, going through the region of Samaria. If you have your Bible with you, please open it to John chapter 4. If you need a Bible, please feel free to take one from the pew and keep it as our gift to you. John chapter 4, we begin in verse 3:
[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Do we have any country music fans in here? A few years back, Garth Brooks had a hit called “Friends in Low Places.” Every time I hear that song, I think of Jesus. Jesus broke bread with the rich and poor alike. He ate with both the “righteous” people and the “sinners.”
However, in Jesus’ day, if you were a faithful, religious Jew, “people of the land” were beneath you. These were the uneducated, the uncouth. To associate with them meant lowering yourself. And yet these were the very people with whom Jesus spent a great deal of time. He healed their sick and fed their hungry. He was constantly roaming in their midst, touching the untouchable. He was interested in the very people others put down. And as we walk in Jesus’ footsteps today, we’re going to consider Jesus’ “friends in low places,” and what they tell us about him, and what it means to be his followers. And let’s begin with Matthew.
Not long after Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John, the fishermen, he stopped at the tax-collecting booth of a man named Matthew. Matthew was stationed on a Roman road, collecting levies on goods such as fish being transported from Capernaum for sale elsewhere. He was a Jew from Capernaum who had bid on the right to hold the tax concession for that spot. He paid Rome in advance, and all the money he made over and above what he had paid the Romans was his. Tax collectors were not welcome in synagogues, and upstanding Jews would not associate with them.
But Jesus walked up to him and said, “Matthew, I want you to follow me.” Surprisingly, Matthew looked at Jesus and said yes. This was a huge decision— for both of them. In looking for a present-day analogy, it would be as if I went to a businessman who owned four or five strip clubs and said, “I can tell you’re really good with business. You’ve got great customer-service skills, and so l’d like you to come be associate pastor at St. Paul’s.
The congregation would think I’d lost my mind! But in this story we find Jesus doing a very similar thing. However, Jesus didn’t see this tax collector as a second-class sinner. He saw something in Matthew that no one else was able to see.
Jesus went and ate with Matthew and his friends. The guests must have been astounded that a Jewish rabbi was eating dinner with them, and the pious onlookers were of course shocked. Afterward, they said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” It was a question Jesus would hear again and again.
But this was the picture of God that Jesus was showing his disciples when he ate with sinners and tax collectors, as surely as when he related the parable of the prodigal son, or of the one sheep that wandered off, or of the lost coin. Jesus was living those parables of God’s love for all of us. Jesus loves even sinners.
Another group which Jesus associated with was made up of outcasts, and there were two types we’ll look at here. The first type of outcasts were the physically unclean, such as lepers. In biblical times, leprosy wasn’t quite the same as Hansen’s Disease, which is what modern-day leprosy is called. Biblical leprosy referred rather to a variety of skin disorders, including eczema, psoriasis, ringworm, and other conditions that caused open sores. These conditions were thought to be infectious, and the Law of Moses commanded that if you were diagnosed with one of them, you had to leave your home and your family and move outside of town.
Can you imagine what it would feel like to be a person whom others could not hug or hold or even touch, who had to live outside the city gates until you were declared clean by a priest, something that might never happen?
But for all the fear they generated, lepers were welcomed by Jesus. In Luke 5, a leper came and fell at Jesus’ feet. He said, “Lord, if you are willing, you could make me clean” (5: 12 NIV) I love Jesus’ reaction. He reached out and touched the man— sores and all— and said, “I am willing; be clean” (5: 13 NIV). This was a step well beyond dining with sinners. Touching a leper was simply not done. And yet Jesus did it.
A couple of years ago, a group from our church went to the Bahamas. No, it wasn’t a vacation, we went on a mission trip. We focused our efforts in two areas: we built a foundation for a training center for missionaries heading over to Haiti; and we ministered to a group of people in an AIDS colony. This was formerly a leper colony, but after it was realized that leprosy was not contagious, the towns sent people suffering with AIDS to live there.
The conditions were deplorable, with little individual shacks containing a tiny bedroom and sitting area, some with running water and some with electricity, even cable. But they were isolated, and many of the “residents” could not bathe or walk or even get out of bed to use the bathroom.
And even though I knew I could not contract AIDS by touching them, there was some hesitancy, even fear, in my heart, which at first kept me from getting too close or touching any of them. After a couple of days, however, I was able to overcome the fear and to sit on the bed with them, and hold hands and pray with them, even hug them.
I mean, who goes into such places to take the hands of the sick and dying and to love them? I think it is Christ-followers who seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. They are the hands and feet of Jesus, not just talking the talk but touching lives. And while I had to work up the courage to do this, I remember Nancy Irving, whom we just said goodbye to last week, leading the charge to minister to God’s children in this colony. Because Jesus loves the physical outcasts.
A second type of outcast in the time of Jesus were people considered unclean to have been of the wrong race or religion. Among the largest of these groups in Jesus’ time were the Samaritans. They were despised to the point where Jews traveling from the Galilee region in the north to Jerusalem or Judea in the south would go hours or days out of their way to avoid passing through the region of Samaria that separated the two.
Samaritans were seen as “half-breeds” by the Jews, even though the Samaritans adopted many beliefs and practices of the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, Samaritans were not allowed to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, so they built their own temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Still, the Jews viewed the Samaritans as heretical, and unclean.
(show Samaria video)
In the text we read today, John tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” In actuality, as I said a moment ago, no one had to go through Samaria. Jews could and frequently did go out of their way to avoid Samaria. Jesus chose to travel through Samaria because he cared about the Samaritan people. As Jesus passed through the region, he came to the town of Sychar.
Arriving at midday, he sent his disciples into the town for food and waited outside, sitting near the town’s water source, Jacob’s Well. Women typically came to fetch water in the morning and shared fellowship around the well, so a woman who came at midday would have been unusual— either because she chose not to associate with the other women or because she was not welcome among them. I believe the woman who comes in our scripture was considered an unclean outcast by the people of her own Samaritan village— people who themselves were considered unclean outcasts by the Jews. She was, then, the lowest of the low. John tells us that she had been married and divorced five times. Further, she was now living with a man who was not her husband.
When the woman arrived at the well, Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” “Really?” she replied. “You’re a Jew, a rabbi, and you want a drink from me?” John reminds us parenthetically that Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans, particularly when it came to eating and drinking. This was every bit the social divide that existed in the American South in the 1960s and before, when there were two bathrooms and two drinking fountains, one each for blacks and whites. And yet Jesus was going to drink from her cup. “If only you knew whom you were talking to,” said Jesus, “you would ask of me and I would give you living water and you would never thirst again.”
Think of it. Jesus sought out a woman who was considered an outcast even among the Samaritans. She had found only rejection from the men she had loved. And yet Jesus offered her life— living water— and a love that would satisfy the longings of her heart. The story ends with the woman returning to the town and telling others that she had met the Messiah. John records, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” In other words, a woman who had been divorced 5 times and was living with another man became the first missionary to the Samaritans. No matter who you are, or what you’ve done or haven’t done, God loves you and has a plan for your life!
The third group which Jesus associated with were the poor. Though the Hebrew faith called for compassion and mercy toward the poor, giving them charity and actually caring for them were two different things. Many looked at the poor the way some do today, saying, “They’re lazy, and they make bad choices. I’ll help a bit, but that’s it.”
Jesus’ own concern for the poor was evident from the beginning, when Luke tells us that in Jesus’ very first sermon in his home town of Nazareth, the text he chose was from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
Jesus routinely fed, healed, and ministered to the poor. When he ministered to the rich, he called them to compassion and concern for the poor and those in need. It was not a suggestion. It was part of life in the Kingdom.
Jesus cared about the underdog, the mistreated, the down-trodden. If we are going to be his disciples and walk in his footsteps, then we must do the same. Christians have always understood that part of our work is to be the hands and feet of Christ in caring for the poor, the outcast, and the sinners. Sometimes it begins with a handout, but we are meant to look for ways to offer a hand up, to develop long-term relationships, and to effectively address the needs of others.
I’m proud that the people of St. Paul’s have taken Jesus’ admonitions to heart, serving in ministry to the homebound who have very little outside contact, to children who struggle with peer pressure and other outside forces, to people who are displaced and/or homeless and are looking for a meal and a sense of community, and to single parents who try to make ends meet and make a life with their children, among other ministries. We are making a difference in this world, even if sometimes the difference is made to those whom the world despises.
Jesus had friends in low places. Look around! And followers of Jesus should do the same: we should love sinners, welcome outcasts, and care for the poor. This is the way Jesus lived, and because of his grace and mercy, it’s the way we live when we walk in his footsteps.
Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath and broke the laws against working by making clay and by healing. The rest of John 9 after the first 5 verses is the stormy story of conflict over legalistic religion. The issues in this story are amazingly contemporary: incurable illness, family rejection, conflicts over religion, fear of authority, ignorant and heartless religious leaders, misplaced judgment, and the determination of Jesus to cut through all of the confusion to accept and encourage the man when he was cast out as a sinner! Jesus accepts us when religion doesn’t.
The parents of the one born blind avoided defending their own child for fear of offending judgmental religious leaders. Sometimes the greatest pain of AIDS is rejection and abandonment by family and friends. Religious leaders rebuked the rebel and threw him out. Jesus searched for the religious reject, found and encouraged him. Rejected people need someone to care. All of us need encouragement.
Jesus did not waste time trying to decide who is to blame for sickness and pain. Jesus was motivated by compassion and love and calls us to follow him and do the same. When we help people with AIDS by giving our time, practical care, food, financial help, clothing, shelter, transportation, friendship, love and encouragement, and the simple gift of “being there,” we truly are following Jesus.
Jesus cleansed the Temple as a dramatic act of defiance against the abusive and oppressive legalistic religion that left out marginal and undesirable people. Mark 11:17: “Jesus began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written (Isaiah 56:7), ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations (Greek ethnos), But you have made it a robbers’ den.” The word ethnos is the New Testament word for “gentiles.”
The part of the Temple that Jesus cleansed was the part that was set aside for the use of foreigners and non Jews. It had become a place of commerce and greed. Jesus attacked the abusive use of religion in the special place that was intended to make faith in God inclusive of all people. This turned the politically powerful priests against Jesus and led directly to his death.
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, his actions were consistently aimed at including the people that religion had left out. Jesus included women, children, foreigners, sinners, the “unclean”, outcasts, the sick and even outlaws and murderers (thief on the cross) at a time when the basic thrust of religion was to divide people into “insiders” and “outsiders”, the clean and the unclean. Not much has changed.
Based on Lk 15:1-10
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“Lost and Found”
Lost and found. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. Who or what do we value in life? Joy and celebration over the lost. Our gospel today consists of one of Luke’s favourite themes. One of Luke’s favourite pictures of Jesus is Friend of Sinners. Today we learn that the setting of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin is Jesus’ answer to some Pharisees and scribes “grumbling” that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. I think that these stories or parables remain so popular among us because everyone can relate to them—everyone has been lost and or found at one time or another; or everyone has lost someone or something and looked for it and found it. We can all probably tell stories about this