The church is a gathering of the redeemed. We are made holy. We were not innately holy. The church is a place where those who know they are sick come to the Great Physician (cf. Lk. 5:31). The church is a monopoly of outcasts. It is filled with struggling ex-thieves, ex-drunkards, ex-adulterers, and ex-revilers (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
The church is (or should be!) a welcoming place for all because we have all been welcomed at Jesus’ own expense. Colossians radically says that in the church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). Who am I, who are you, to say or act any differently?!
True that it may be, the fact that the church is a place for outcasts is not easy. It brings with it, as you can imagine and know, a whole host of problems. So, what can sustain us through the difficulties? Where do we see the type of compassion we need to welcome the outcasts, the people that are not like us, do not think and smell like us, into the church?
What example do we have of compassion? What biblical model can we think of? None other than Jesus Himself! Jesus had abundant riches in heaven yet He left heaven for us and became poor that through His poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). In Philippians, we are told to look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others (2:4). Why should we do this? Because Jesus, who is God, humbled Himself and took the form of a servant to die for us (vv. 6-8). Our attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus’ (v. 5).
We know from the Gospels that Jesus had compassion on people.[i] He was even criticized by the religious leaders of the day because of the type of people that He reached out to and helped (cf. Matt. 9:9-13; 11:19; 21:31-32; Mk. 2:15-17; Lk. 3:12-14; 5:29-32; 7:36-50; 15; 19:1-10 for example). He ate with tax collectors even though they would cheat and steal from people (Matthew, who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, was previously a tax collector [Matt. 9:9-13]!). He talked to Gentiles who were basically unacceptable foreigners to many people. Jesus ministered to prostitutes and the friends that were closest to Him were not the religious elite but humble smelly fishermen. If we are to minister compassionately, we must imitate Jesus.
He reached out and literally touched lepers (Matt. 8:2-4; Mark 1:40-44; Lk. 5:12-16). Lepers were people with a severe skin disease. They had to call out “unclean, unclean” when they saw people (cf. Lev. 13:45-46), and Jesus touched them! When Jesus walked up to, let alone talked to and touched, the leper, His followers, to say nothing of the religious leaders, would have been shocked, scandalized.[ii] Yet, what is Jesus’ response? Did He turn away? Did He tell the leper to stay back? No. Jesus was filled with compassion (Mark 1:41).[iii] He cared for the outcast. He loved the unlovely even when it was the unpopular thing. Loathsome leprosy is not beyond Jesus’ loving touch.
Think of the biggest outcasts in today’s society—whether to you its addicts, illegal immigrants, poor people, unattractive people, those who have AIDS, so-called “white trash,” or whoever you think of—they are not outcasts to Jesus. He loves them. He reaches for them. No one is past His reach. No one is too sick for Him.
The most significant lesson from the cleansing of the leper story is that even outsiders can experience God’s healing grace. The church is called by this example to reach out to those on the fringes of society. Leprosy in its time was seen as reflecting the presence of sin, so reaching out to sinners is pictured here… Jesus came to save people from sin, any sin, no matter how serious. So the ministry of compassion he reveals here should be matched by the church’s efforts with those that most of society have given up on.[iv]
It is the very essence of Christianity to touch the untouchable, to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable. Jesus did and so must we.
So, are you reaching? If we define lepers as those who are isolated, unwanted, the outcasts of society then who are the “lepers” who live around you today? Who are the “lepers” in your sphere of influence?
As we seek to minister compassionately, we must remember the gospel. We must understand that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10 and see following), and this includes you, me, and the addict. All have sinned and are declared righteous by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23). In fact, the Bible says we were all once vile sinners, a.k.a. addicts, but we have been washed, made holy, and declared righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. We may not have the same addiction, i.e. sin problem, but we all have the sin problem. No, all sin does not look the same and does not have the same consequences (cf. 1 Cor. 6:18; Prov. 5:7-14) but it is all sin against a holy God. May we realize that we ourselves are sinners, even “the chief of sinners,” and say with Paul, “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). May we not be like the prideful Pharisee that puts himself over others (Lk. 18:11 cf. 13-14).
The loving and reaching grace of our humble and exalted Lord should create new Kingdom communities that transform. Even now the Lord is recreating (of course, there is an “already/not yet” aspect to it). Eric L. Johnson points out:
Shame… fosters an avoidance of self-examination and the assumption of responsibility, fear of others and of ‘being exposed,’ defensiveness and aggressive anger; it keeps people from reaching out to others… The revelation of God’s grace and mercy, his love for sinners and the broken and hurting, can therefore be profoundly encouraging and hope-giving. Direct experiences of God’s grace in the gospel can lead to reconfiguration of one’s self-representations, and one’s view of others and the world, and can facilitate a growing honesty and openness with God, oneself, and others, and so can help Christians become more willing to take risks with others.[v]
It is my prayer that we, as the church, would be more and more laid low by the profound reaching grace of God. God pulled us out of the slew of our sin. He pulled us out of death. We were helpless, lifeless. He saved us. May we understand and be humbled by Jesus’ saving work on our behalf and may we reach out as He did; in selfless humble love. We are not better or more righteous than others. We are saved. Saved by grace. We are outcasts that have been gathered for the wedding feast. We have even been given wedding garments. On our own, all of us, would be cast out on our own. Yet, through Christ we are all welcomed.
When we understand this, when the humbling grace of God courses through the veins of the church, it has a healthy symbiotic effect. It creates communities of welcoming and upbuilding.
[i] Eric L. Johnson has similarly pointed out that “scriptural teaching leads us to infer that God is especially committed to those who have psychological damage and desirous of improving their well-being (Mt 9:11-13; 11:19; 18:6; Lk 6:20; 1 Cor 1:26-28; 2 Cor 4:7; Jas 2:5)” (Foundations of Soul Care, 473).
[ii] “Jesus’ gesture made clear that he was not concerned with others’ taboos and dramatically demonstrated that God’s love extends to even the most outcast of society” (Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville: Boardman Press, 1992), 139).
[iii] B.B. Warfield points out that compassion is the attribute that is most often used to describe Jesus in the Gospels (The Person and Work of Christ [Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950], 96-97).
[iv] Darrell L. Bock, Luke in The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 165.
[v] Eric L. Johnson, “How God is Good for the Soul” in SBJT 7/4 (Winter 2003): 33. He goes on, “People who are especially burdened by their guilt and shame can become especially transformed by God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. In fact, the greater the sense of shame, the greater can be the eventual sense of gratitude and affection to God” (Luke 7:47)” (Ibid.).