Last Sunday I shared with you my take on Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality gifts. With such background, today we are going to see how Jesus embodied in his life and ministry what it truly meant to be welcoming to all and sundry – Including you and me!
By the time our Savior was born, the original Ten Commandments had grown to a long list of over six hundred and thirteen precepts (“Mitzvot”) for the Jewish daily life.
As understood, the precepts stressed the need of separation. Physical from anything that was not ritually pure, moral from practices that would negate the teachings of the Torah and, finally, spiritual from those things that would make the human spirit to stray away from the Creator.
Trying to follow the intricacies of a cumbersome legal system required supreme effort, full-time dedication, and money, lots of money! For unless one had a lot of money, one could not afford to pay for all the required sacrifices and for servants to do chores and task that by perchance would jeopardize one’s ritual purity.
“Who then can be saved if even such kind of people cannot make it?” (Matthew 19:25) was not only a question in the disciples’ lips. It was also in the heart, mind, and voices of the many who came to follow Jesus.
Enter Jesus. It shouldn’t be surprising that our Savior’s teaching and practice caused amazement, then uproar and then, ultimately, violence. For what Jesus was teaching and doing run against the fiber of a society organized at all levels – social, religious, and economic — around a myriad of the precepts. His was a radical challenge.
How radical? In today’s Gospel we read, “If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28). And in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus doubling down his welcome, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to me,” (John 6:37).
But Jesus was not only sweeping in his teaching, but in what He did. He mixed with the wrong crowd (Matthew 11), He touched lepers (Matthew 8), washed dirty feet (John 13), crossed ethnic and cultural barriers (John 4), challenged the “know-it-alls” of the Law (Matthew 7), broke purported Sabbath laws (Mark 3), and spoke truth to power (John 18) and, as I said before, rather than to keep himself from those who surely would defile Him, He invited them to come. “Come as you are, for I will not turn my back on you.”
Writing to the early Christians in Rome, almost as if thinking aloud, St Paul makes the following confession, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Indeed, he continues, “something in me keeps me from doing what I know is right. With my whole heart I agree with God’s desires. But in every part of me I discover something fighting against my mind, and it makes me a prisoner of sin that controls everything I do,” (Romans 7:15,22).
I believe that St Paul’s words reflect human nature. At least, my own nature. I know what it is right, and yet, for some reason or other I find myself compromising and, eventually, doing what in my heart I know it is not right. Sounds familiar?
This tension between what we ought to do and what we finally end doing permeates our lives and beyond. For, if some “peccadilloes” could be classified as private and hidden from public view, we are social beings and so as it has John Donne properly asserted, not a single human being is an island. Or, as St Paul himself would write, “We do not live to ourselves.” Or, if you allow me to quote my father, “The only limit to my rights are the rights of my neighbor.”
Thus, the battle that sometimes rages in our minds and souls often ends up engulfing others. Even, if it is far from our minds to hurt someone else, in the end, our individual decisions may end up hurting others.
Our unprecedented season that we are living through has laid bare the reality of what I just described.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is what we know it is right – and what we just are celebrating during this July 4 holiday.
I cannot believe that anyone under the sun would find anything wrong with such assertion. And yet, like St Paul writes, time and again we find ourselves acting against such cherished principles – both individually and corporately. Today, and as it was done so many times in the past.
If we wish to move forward into “a more perfect union,” we should not look farther away than ourselves. Both the return to the original vision of the Founders, and our path to a better future – to “The City on the Hill,” can only be found in assuming our failure to live up to those ideals. For in the end, my liberty cannot hinder someone else’s path to his or her happiness, nor my happiness can be built on the back of someone else’s life.
What should we do then? First, like St Paul, we need to acknowledge our predicament, our own tendency to slack off, compromise, yield, turn our backs and yes, actively acting in a way we know we should not. And then, here is the Good News, come back home to the loving embrace of our Savior Jesus, for He surely will receive us, and He would not turn His back.
I will leave to the theologians to argue if our nature can and will be changed while we are on this earth or if not. But I do know this – true freedom, healing and peace in our hearts, and the power to do better, to try harder, and to move forward can only be found in Christ’s loving embrace. “Come unto me,” invites our Loving Healer. Won’t you accept His invitation?