By The Reverend Ben Brown
In our heart of hearts, we often feel we are fundamentally unlovable, that there is something awful about us. We exist in a kind of secret loneliness. We wait to be found, recognised, known. We long to be loved but we fear we are unlovable.
One of the realities of Christ’s ministry was how he met, loved, touched and healed those who were living in a zone of exclusion in their own society. ‘There was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean. He stretched out his hand and touched him’ (Matthew 8:3). ‘He stretched out his hand and touched him.’ In that moment God’s love crosses the boundary of existential loneliness which we all sometimes live within; it is the touch of divine love drawing us back into relationship.
Jesus crossed the boundary between those considered morally acceptable and those considered morally unacceptable. Lepers were feared outsiders. But soon after his healing of the leper, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus meets a Roman centurion who tells him that his ‘servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress’ (6). Jesus answers that he will come and cure him, but the centurion says, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed’ (8). Jesus responds, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith’ (11), and he cures the centurion’s servant from a distance.
The leper and the centurion were, in their very different ways, feared outsiders in Jesus’ time. A centurion was a figure of imperial oppression, a dangerous, hated figure. In this chapter of Matthew (Ch 8), Christ brings two outsiders into the heart of God’s kingdom. Jesus then reveals the reach and generosity of God’s love. ‘I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’ (11).
When you read the gospels, Jesus again and again brings the despised, the outcast, of his society right into the heart of the new community he is building. The people he confronts most fiercely are those who are morally self-assured, who feel they know and understand the workings of God better than God does; they are the Church hierarchy. As Jesus says in this chapter, ‘the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness’ (12). By this he does not mean God is going to do something furious and terrible to the morally self-righteous, rather that if you are morally self-righteous, if you judge others harshly, you will find you are on the outside of grace looking in. You have excluded yourself from God’s mercy with your exclusive morality.
The Church today needs to think very soberly about how it has treated, and continues to treat, people that it considers unworthy or morally dubious. The Church has shown astonishing coldness, cruelty and lack of compassion (to put it mildly) towards the LGBTQ+ community, for example. It is only recently that the Church of England has been given the legal powers to bless same-sex couples.
Jesus was a figure who transformed the old law, the hypocritical morality of his time. He reached out across the walls of prejudice and ignorance and touched the other with love.