Thinking About Norway

For Sunday August 14, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 45:1–15 or Isaiah 56:1, 6–8

Psalm 133 or Psalm 67

Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32

Matthew 15:10–20, 21–28

           In Norway last month, Anders Behring Breivik went on a shooting and bombing rampage that killed nearly a hundred people. He hated the idea that an ethnically homogeneous country like Norway worked so hard for a multi-cultural society that welcomed Muslims. In the United States, our debt ceiling debacle showed how the politics of ideological purity prevented the compromise and cooperation that are necessary for a greater civic good. And in the failed state of Somalia, the worst famine in 60 years has pushed millions of people to the brink of starvation.

Anders Behring Breivik.
Anders Behring Breivik.

           These three examples of what divides humanity stand in stark contrast to the readings for this week in which God welcomes every person with his warm embrace. The first pages of the Bible describe the division of humanity into a "babel" of confused languages (Genesis 11). We have been living that history since the dawn of civilization. But that's only the beginning of the human story, not its end. God intends something far better for us. The last pages of the Bible picture a city composed of people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Revelation 7:9).

           The particular story of the one man Jesus includes a universal welcome to every person of every time and place. Jesus unites what divides us. In him our many causes of exclusion become opportunities for embrace. Jesus, himself a man on the margins of society, brings the outsider inside. "No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus's world to make him shun them" (Wills). The self-righteous religious experts criticized him as a friend of sinners. The readings this week show how this is true in the areas of sexuality and nationality.

           Ancient Israel excluded eunuchs from its community as "blemished" people: "No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord"(Deut. 23:1). People with "damaged testicles" (Levit. 21:20) were only one of many groups of people who were stigmatized as disfigured and defective, and so excluded by the community.

           Whether by birth or by castration, eunuchs could not reproduce. They were biologically inferior and therefore liturgically excluded. Eunuchs were deformed and incomplete human beings. Castrating your enemy was a way to humiliate him even after death (1 Samuel 18:27). Eunuchs were at best "safe" and harmless people who could serve in a king's court.

Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Speaker of the House John Boehner.

           Isaiah 56 speaks of God's reversal of this exclusion and condescension: "Let not any eunuch complain, 'I am only a dry tree.' To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name that will not be cut off (56:3–5). The play on words is shocking: your genitals might be cut off, but your name will not be cut off from God. Instead of being rejected from the temple, eunuchs will be remembered in the temple.

           Jesus, as he does so often, likewise brings the outsider inside. He goes beyond eunuchs who were "born that way or made that way by men." He gives pride of place to people who've made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:12). The brilliant scholar Origen (185–254) is perhaps the best example in the early church of taking Matthew 19:12 literally. And in Acts 8 Luke portrays the Ethiopian eunuch as a paradigm of vibrant faith rather than of liturgical exclusion. And so what has often been a source of humiliation and exclusion, a sexual "deformity," has in God's economy become a sign of divine acceptance.

           Psalm 67 does for nationality what Isaiah does for sexuality; it expands the boundaries of God's embrace to include people who were vilified as enemies and outsiders. I'm always amazed at how some of the psalms move beyond the parochial to the global. The ancient poet comes from a geo-politically marginal people, yet he prays for God's blessings to fall on "all nations." God is not a territorial god, he says; he's the lord of all nations and peoples. He invites "all the ends of the earth" to offer praise and thanks.

           Similarly, Isaiah 56 joins nationality to the example of sexuality: "Let no foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, 'The Lord will surely exclude me from his people,'" for God's temple "will be called a house of prayer for all nations."

           Such is the teaching of Jesus in this week's gospel. A Canaanite woman who knew that in the eyes of the Jews she was a despised "dog" nevertheless earned praise as a woman of great faith (Matthew 15:28).

Somalia famine (girl carrying baby).
Somalia famine (girl carrying baby).

           Practically-speaking, for some time now Christianity's geographic center of gravity has shifted away from the white and western world to Africa, Asia and South America. "The centers of the church's universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Paris, London, and New York," writes the Kenyan theologian John Mbiti, "but in Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila." The small Jewish sect that started in Jerusalem has today extended to the ends of the earth. What used to be "foreign" mission fields are now centers of vibrant faith.

           It's a short step to move beyond the categories of sexuality and nationality to economics, politics, gender, and socio-economic class. "In Christ," writes Paul to the Galatians, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). Christians are thus radical egalitarians when it comes to the love of God.

           No person has an inside track; we are all equidistant from the heart of God. No nation is exceptional or privileged in his eyes. A Bosnian Muslim is no further away from God's love than an American Christian. A Honduran Pentecostal is no closer to God's love than an Oxford atheist.

           In the epistle for this week Paul levels the playing field between Jews and Gentiles. He says that all of us are in the same boat. "God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all" (11:32). The many causes that divide humanity might abound, but Paul says these are opportunities for God's grace to abound "all the more" (Romans 5:20).

Image credits: (1); (2) The Hot Joints; and (3) Protesilaos Stavrou.