Week of April 26

Practicing Justice from within the Same Circle

Read: 1 Samuel 24; Psalm 57-58; 1 Chronicles 8; Matthew 8

“When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’”
Matthew 8:1-2, ESV


Mother Teresa once said, “. . .The sufferers from leprosy, the rejected, the alcoholic, who we serve, are beautiful people. Many of them have wonderful personalities. The experience which we have by serving them, we must pass on to people who have not had that wonderful experience.” “Phase II” in the fight against the novel coronavirus has been entered by many nations. This move beyond the terrifying and deadly advance of COVID-19 excites me, but I do have concerns. The transition from “flattening the curve” to reopening society means that various longstanding social injustices will likely resurface. Plainly, we do not see all humans as "beautiful people." Our passage today holds moral implications for this current moment in the world. We will do well to apply its example to our lives.

A Biblical Lens

Matthew writes that “when he came down from the mountain . . . a leper came to him” (8:1-2). Two quick contextual statements need to be made. First, the previous section that began at 5:1 now concludes. Secondly, Matthew takes up twin questions in 8:1-9:35: “Who is this Jesus? and “How do His disciples respond to Him?” (cf. NAC). Got it? Good!

Their culture was quite open, but this encounter was not typical because lepers were required to maintain strict social distance from healthy people (cf. Leviticus 13:46). They were the embodiment of physical and spiritual uncleanness. So, we may take the passage at its face value, but we dare not miss the deeper point. Matthew wants us to recognize Jesus the Messiah’s role in bringing in the kingdom and who may be involved in it (cf. Matthew 5:7). Christ’s words and actions hold specific truth for our Christian walks.

On the one hand, Jesus did not observe the taboos regarding contact with lepers (cf. Leviticus 5:3, “defilement”). He was an example of a “frontline healthcare worker!” On the other hand, the leper demonstrates the proper posture of discipleship (8:2, submission evident in “knelt”; trust evident in “you can”). We do well to see the entire circle of interaction in this event.

My point is to encourage each of us to become more theologically reflective in how we apply the gospel to real life. Jesus knew the typical religious approach that folks took to such life-altering illnesses. His involvement makes a powerful statement that God was actively at work to save (physically and spiritually). How may we see God at work in our own challenging time? Secondly, I believe that we also need to become more morally reflexive which I will examine more in depth in a wider moral pathway section.

A Moral Pathway

A current moral situation involves protests that erupted in recent days because citizens in certain states have grown weary of the executive orders by their governors that keep certain businesses closed in the pandemic. They believe that these mandates are too restrictive, thus destroying businesses and hindering their liberties. Governors have been seeking a way to protect public health because without actual life there can be no business or other person freedoms! They partly base their directives upon the core value of respect for human life. Jesus certainly understood the importance of public health. Social distancing at that time was vitally necessary for community wellbeing because there was no promise of an imminent medical cure. Contemporary shelter-in-place requirements and social distancing guidelines are presently put in place for similar good reasons.

Friends, social distancing is not new and provides benefit. It is as old as the Old Testament laws that governed restricted contact with people who had incurable diseases, like leprosy, that were easily transmitted and could decimate a population! COVID-19 is a disease for which there is not a present cure. A vaccine will not be in place for the immediate future, so social distancing will be required. Christians do well to consider their neighbor when considering a breach of good social distance at this time. There is also a spiritual opportunity to minister to people who otherwise may be unreceptive.

Secondly, fairness is important. The theological and philosophical term is “justice.” Lepers in Jesus’ day were required to separate themselves totally from society and were given little hope of ever being restored. There was no such thing as just treatment. They were considered to be as good as dead and gone. Jesus treated the leper fairly, and we do well to consider ways to do the same in our day. COVID-19, for example, further separates people that already tend to be socially and economically isolated. The elderly, as well as minority populations, will not have the same ease of access to treatment options and testing sites. How will Christians ease these burdens?

Thirdly, we should guard against social profiling. I wonder how the leper was received from that time forward in his own community. Did they also label him socially? I’ve heard about people who do not wear masks and are bringing their children to grocery stores despite social distancing guidelines. There are those on social media that have expressed their upset in comments that are sometimes laced with economic and racial undertones. We will do well to note that many single parents with small children live under severe economic stress and are unable to buy a mask or make one. They also are unable to pay for childcare when they go shopping. Things may not be as they appear, but, sadly, very real and un-Christlike biases appear over such things.

Reflexive moral thinking requires us to examine and acknowledge “the biases and preconceptions” that we bring into our daily encounters that shape our viewpoints and the outcome. A Matthew 8 approach to discipleship requires us to view our relationships holistically. This permits us to recognize our own personal moral flaws in our daily encounters with other broken lives. It invites us to step inside the circle of need with the hurting. Together, we are able to seek Christ’s healing. This approach also gives churches the occasion to examine more carefully their responses to wider moral community concerns. We have much to consider today, so let’s ask the Lord to help us grow deeper in our submission to Him and our trust in His way.

For Your Journaling

1. Take time to consider biases that you may have toward those who are ill. For example, do their illnesses make them unlovable and untouchable? Do you feel that God does not love you because of a disability? How does the truth that God loves and forgives you, a sinner, change how you respond to others?

2. How may your church’s theology toward the ill or impoverished hinder effective ministry to these communities?

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock