God’s arms are always open to all – including the marginalised
Many of the stories about Jesus were included by the gospel writers because they were not only recorded events but because they had a deeper and wider meaning and significance. They were signs pointing to the overarching story of God in the world and to the character of God – what God is like.
There is this one story in the Gospel of Luke where a group of outsiders come to Jesus and they are outsiders for two reasons. Firstly they were Samaritans and secondly they had a visible skin disease.
Samaritans were disliked by the Jewish people because they were considered to be religious defectors. They had intermarried with non-Jewish nations and therefore considered to be unfaithful to God. Their capital, in the separatist Northern Kingdom was called Samaria, hence the title of Samaritan.
Those with different skin diseases, grouped together under the banner of “lepers” were culturally isolated and ostracised. They were commanded by the law to keep their distance from people and notify people as they approached by shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” Their ailment, in the eyes of the Jewish religious elite, made them both physically and spiritually unclean and therefore only a priest could declare a leper as fully recovered and cleansed.
So here was a double whammy, a group that were both Samaritans and diseased. There could not be people less likely to receive God's grace and mercy and yet they approach Jesus, from a distance, and call out to him to show them mercy.
Jesus asks them to go and show themselves to the priest, presumably to be declared as clean, and as they go they are immediately healed. Nine of them continue on to see the priests so they can be declared clean and be reintegrated with society. One of them, however, returns to Jesus, falls on his knees, thanks him, and praises God.
Jesus points out that the whole group had been made clean yet only one returned to praise God. Note that Jesus uses the word clean. He does not say healed. They had been made physically clean and spiritually clean and who can do that? Only God.
This story in the Gospel of Luke is not just a story about healing, but hugely symbolic, sending a message loud and clear to the Jewish religious authorities about who Jesus was, and who is welcomed into God's kingdom. So, what can we learn from this story? What can be our takeaway?
The first lesson is that God is ready and willing to reach out with mercy to anyone who calls upon him, even, and perhaps especially, those that have previously rejected, slighted, or dismissed him. God’s arms are always wide open. It matters not who you are, what you have done, nor what others think of you. If you, yourself, have been rejected, slighted, or dismissed by others; if you have been marginalised, culturally isolated, or ostracised by others, even by the church, remember that the church is not God. God will never reject you. Ever.
The second faith lesson is about our need to stop and take time out to praise God; to express adoration, thanksgiving, honour, gratitude, and ascribe worth to God. Why? Because God is God, but more than that, praise does something within us too. It changes us from the inside out. It takes the focus off ourselves and helps us gain a right perspective. It is very easy to take God’s grace for granted but praise changes the direction of thought from thinking about what we are owed to what we have been given. Praise mitigates bitterness and anger and begets gentleness and thankfulness. Praise is part of having a balanced life and we need to take time to stop and praise God both corporately and individually.
The third faith lesson is something about the nature of community and what it should look like. As human beings we tend to form homogeneous groups. This means we tend to stick with people who are like ourselves – be it people of the same social standing, race, age, hobbies, or interests. However, if the church is to be a demonstration of the breadth of God's reconciliation and grace, then it must, where possible, be forged out of disparate elements. The demographics of our local congregations should cross the social, racial, gender, and age boundaries of the wider society in which they find themselves.
This week, may you know that God welcomes you with open arms, may you find time to stop, reflect, pray, and praise God, thanking him for all the good gifts he has given you, and may you find a church community that is as wonderfully diverse and as inclusive as the God we worship.
• Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm