Several years ago I had the privilege of hearing a missionary from Palestine preach on Matt. 12:9-13, the story of Jesus getting in trouble with the usual religious hierarchy for healing a man on the Sabbath, again. Valuing people more than prevailing power structures, religious or nationalistic systems, or political correctness, again….
The quote above is from Matthew 12:12, spoken by Jesus (NEB). The speaker used this Scripture to share what it is like to live and work in Palestine where each side of the conflict considers the other “worse than animals.” He speaks as someone living the gospel he preaches. He and his family live with the people as they suffer under military dictatorship, in a place where bullets used by either side do not distinguish between the religious or political affiliation of those they kill or injure. I’ve transcribed some of it below, in case someone wants some pretty powerful words to consider, and so I don’t forget his message of hope:
“How do we, as believers, respond to these places of brutality in the world? What is the first word of the gospel that we bring into places like this? Mt. 12:9-13 ” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a withered hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” If we look beyond the issues of Sabbath and healing, and look a little deeper, we will find how the church can respond to brutality.
Jesus asked a rhetorical question….”Which man, if his animal fell into a hole, wouldn’t lift it out on the Sabbath?”. They all would have treated their animal better than they were willing to treat this man. In other words, Christ was confronting them with the reality that they were lowering this man to a status of less than an animal.
What is it that causes us supposedly sane people to treat other people as less than animals? I believe we have a suggestion here in these verses. The Sabbath had been created by God as a blessing, but over time it had become something other than what God intended it to be in Jewish 1st century piety. It had become a form that had been changed and molded by human traditions, a human construction. The end result was that they were treating this man as worse than an animal.
I would suggest that one thing that causes us to treat our neighbors as animals are human systems, human constructions that have an absolute sense of self-righteousness, the goal of which is to serve their own ends, and anything that gets in their way will be destroyed. Such human systems can be philosophies, theologies, economic systems or political systems. But I would suggest that one of the most intoxicating and dangerous is nationalism; those feelings and attitudes that surround us when we think about our nation and the system of our nation. When the church becomes entwined in a virulent nationalism, or any other human system, it can become complicit with destruction and death.
We only have to go back as far as World War II and we think of the church in Germany, the birthplace of Protestantism. Nazism rose on the wellspring of nationalist fervor, and the love for the fatherland and a return to the glory of the fatherland after the destruction of World War I. Where was the church when Nazism rose to prominence and control? Sadly, 98% of the church, the vast majority of the church, just became sucked into those nationalistic sentiments and actually became part of the Nazi regime. There was only a small group of protesting Christians who were willing to step back and say, “There is something evil taking place here.” We are called to be something different. Our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom above our allegiance to any other system or philosophy or nationalism. Dietrich Bonheoffer was the leader of that movement and spoke out, and formed an underground church and Bible college. He spoke out but most people didn’t. The remainder of the church became complicit with the destruction of the Jewish people…a terrible tragedy. Sadly, if we look at our own nation, the church provided the theology that supported the philosophy called manifest destiny, which was a nationalistic philosophy which was the engine that drove the destruction of the Native American people. The church became a complicit partner in the massacre of a weaker minority population. This is a tragic chapter in the history of the American church. When the church became part of a nationalistic system that wasn’t submitted to Christ, the end was destruction.
Speaking about our own country, one of the great gifts the founding fathers gave to us was the separation of church and state. It’s not a very popular concept with some people nowadays; it’s become almost a dirty word. It shouldn’t be. It is necessary to protect the prophetic integrity of the church. When the church becomes merged with state and the fusion of images takes place, the church becomes corrupted by the state and loses its prophetic ability to call the state to righteousness. Indirectly the state becomes sanctified and all its wars become labeled as holy wars because “God is on our side” because the church has merged with the state. So we should stand and be willing to stand separately. Our patriotism should be submitted to the spirit of God and never become a disruptive nationalism.
Turning to the Middle East, let me say, for those who love the Palestinian people and who love the Palestinian cause and understand their concern and humilitation, there is a danger of becoming an uncritical part of their quest for nationalism that can make you unwittingly complicit in your spirit with terrorism. For Palestinian Christians, it is your responsibility to stand back and to speak to the leaders of their people and say, “This is evil” and call for something else. There are those who are doing that. Similarly on the Israeli side, for those who love Israeli nationalism, whether theologically or politically or any which way, if you become so caught up in that fervor of Israeli nationalism, then you to may become complicit in the brutality of the Israeli government to the Palestinian people. They are called to something different, to speak to the leaders of their nation and call them to stop unnecessary and continued suppression of a weaker minority people.
Christ was a son of the Sabbath but he wasn’t willing to be just caught up in the blind popular affections of his day. He was willing to step out of the system and pick corn on the Sabbath, heal on the Sabbath, and stepped out of what was oppressive, and called attention to what was not of God in the human system that had been created.
How do we respond to places where people are treated as less than an animal? We respond by remaining steadfast in our prophetic responsibility as a church to speak to what is evil and call it evil and not get caught up in popular sentiment that would compromise that prophetic responsibility.
How much then is a man better than a sheep? A stunning verse. The very presence of that verse in Scripture is the most eloquent statement that humanity often cannot distinguish between human and animal. What was Christ doing in saying this? He was affirming this man’s humanity. I used to think the foundational word of the gospel was that God loves people. Having lived now in this context of the brutal dehumanization of the Palestinian people and considering the Word, I’ve come to realize there is an even more foundational word of the Gospel. It’s that you are a person, you are not an animal.
Where does that gospel need to be preached? First, it has to be preached in our hearts. When we go to serve someone, we have to examine our hearts. We have to look at how we view this person. Ministry begins in changing our hearts and our attitudes and being able to see those we serve as no longer animals, but as people just like us with the same desires and hopes and failings and interests that we have. After we have applied that word to our heart, then we look for how to apply it to those we are called to serve.
The most ennobling act of the human race was when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. When this happened, the value of the whole human race was lifted. There was no doubt—God was in man. That makes us important to him. When we share people’s concerns, weeping when they weep, rejoicing when they rejoice, we are saying by our presence, “Your humanity is important.” Whether it’s in Seattle or on the West Bank, those who no longer see themselves as humans through drugs, prostitution, abuse or oppression need someone to stand with them and affirm their humanity. It can take weeks or months or years, but they need to be able to accept their life has having tremendous value. It can be a long journey back to wholeness and hope. But there is hope….”
His words, his faith, and his example, remind me of my friends in Burma and Thailand and the faith and hope and example they live out, as they endeavor to reaffirm the humanity and the value of those living there under military dictatorship there. www.freeburmarangers.org