People of the Margins (28th Sunday in OT)

The blog is slightly behind, but we are going to catch up this week. Do you remember the gospel of three weeks ago? The Healing of the Ten Lepers. Here is our take…

Three Sundays ago (yes, we got behind) we proclaimed the gospel of the healing of the ten lepers, one of those stories we know well. Any interpretation of the gospel should not obviate that it is a story about thankfulness, as a Christian value that we have to embrace, not as a gesture but as a way of life. But there is much more in the story, more challenges that we need to uncover.

As we know well, lepers were considered impure by the Law. They lived outside of towns, outside of society, they were the truly marginalized in Jesus’ time. In the passage, they cry out for Jesus to heal them. Jesus asks them to present themselves to the priests—the individuals in charge of the Temple, following what the Law prescribed so a healing could be “certified” before the individual could re-enter society (Leviticus 13:16-17). Interestingly enough, apparently the lepers have no problem in going back to the institution that has marginalized them in the first place.

As we know well, only one goes back to Jesus—a Samaritan, and we know also about the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, who were also considered impure. Some scholars interpret that the Samaritan does not go to the priest simply because he can’t. The Jewish laws of purification did not apply to them. He is a foreigner, the Temple does not mean anything to him. Only the person who has experienced double discrimination—as a Samaritan and as a leper—the person who is still an outsider after the healing, finds it in himself to go back to express his thankfulness to the one who has healed him.

Jesus not only calls us to care deeply for the marginalized, but also he calls us to be people of the margins. It is two different calls—and we may have trouble distinguishing between them. I believe the call in today’s gospel is the latter, to be people of the margins. Pope Francis famously called us to live and find our purpose on the peripheries of society—where the truly marginalized are.

The reflection becomes a question that we have to answer in levels: What does it mean for us individually to be a person of the margins? But also, what does it mean for our Faith Community to be a community of the margins? And what does it mean for us as Church to be a church of the margins?



We Have Faith

We recently suggested it was important to see who Jesus is addressing in any given passage in the gospel. After a few Sundays when we have read Jesus’ diatribes against the Pharisees, this time Jesus is addressing the disciples, more specifically the apostles. We notice it is a tense dialogue: the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, but Jesus answers that it is not about increasing their faith; there is nothing to increase because they have none. One of the most difficult dynamics to understand in the gospels is the difficulties the disciples, and especially the apostles, experienced in understanding the identity and the mission of Jesus. We know these individuals eventually carried on the gospel and made the Church grow, but it took them a long time.

What I believe is important today is to understand what kind of faith Jesus is talking about. The way we understand faith may not always be the way Jesus understood faith, specifically in this passage. To have faith is to believe. When we think of our faith, we may be thinking about the basic question—of whether we believe in God or not. But the existence of God is never in question for Jesus, so this is not the faith Jesus referred to in this passage.

Next, we could wonder if Jesus is referring to whether his apostles believe in what has become the whole of the Catholic faith. A set of beliefs, biblically based, mostly developed through the centuries, through the magisterium exercised by the popes and the bishops, especially through Councils. While we believe in these teachings with the Catholic faith, this is not the faith Jesus is wondering about in this passage. This is not the faith he is telling the apostles they did not have. I am not questioning that our faith does include doctrinal Church teachings, it just does. Rather, that the faith Jesus is challenging his disciples to have is not doctrinal.

What Jesus is telling his apostles is that they did not believe—at this point—in him, in what he actually taught. The passage we read this past Sunday makes reference to three specific teachings. If you go to the passage immediately preceding this last Sunday’s gospel, you will find the first teaching—the one that originates the discussion. Jesus is teaching his disciples about a life of absolute forgiveness. How many times do we have to forgive, they ask him; seventy times seven—meaning always!—Jesus answers.

The second teaching is about service. Jesus uses an analogy with a servant returning from the fields, who continues serving the master. Jesus is questioning whether his disciples really believe that the one who follows him embraces service. With the story of the servant, Jesus is speaking about being servants who do not expect any compensation. Jesus speaks about a service that finds reward in the serving itself.

The third teaching—for which Jesus uses the image of a blueberry tree that could be asked to uproot itself—ancient manuscripts also contain a second image, the one of a mountain that could be moved (image retained in Matthew 17:20)—is about the incredible things they would be able to accomplish, if only they had even a little faith. The immediate implication is that faith is not just a belief, an assent to a spiritual statement, but a call to action.

What about us, disciples of today? We believe in God, we believe in the doctrinal teachings of the Church, but do we believe in Jesus’ life teachings? It may be easier for us to believe in doctrine than to believe in teachings that call us to change the way we live our faith. Specifically, looking at this passage of the gospel, do we believe in a life of absolute forgiveness? Do we believe in gratuitous service as the core mission of a disciple? Do we believe that our faith is a call to act? Do we believe Jesus when he tells us that with his faith, with faith in him, we can do great things together? I believe we do.