This is part five in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right to read the earlier sections.
Summary and Conclusion
The significance of Jesus' ministry to the outcasts of his day is difficult to overstate. This aspect of his mission was integral to his primary purpose on the earth, to seek and save that which is lost. His mission was to redeem sinners and usher in the kingdom of God. Jesus made it clear that this kingdom was both a present and future reality. For Jesus to usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth required a radical subversion of long-establish patterns and systems in the world. With the coming of a new kingdom came a clash of values. This explains why Jesus actions violate the cultural and religious customs of his day. Jesus was establishing a kingdom with values which were not being honored by the prevailing systems of his day.
Jewish ceremonial law taught that a leper was unclean. The disease was seen as a curse from God. Lepers were kept from certain holy places and worship opportunities because of their curse. This made sense according to their customs and interpretation of the law. In the kingdom of God, compassion is a higher virtue that obedience to customary practices. So out of compassion for the leper, Jesus overthrows the system by touching the man and healing him. Jesus restores the man to community, even at his own expense.
Jewish tradition held that the table was a place to draw boundaries and emphasize the insiders over the outsiders. Sinners did not belong at the table because they did not merit inclusion in the fellowship. In the kingdom of God, all are sinners and in need of the grace of God. Therefore, Jesus takes a method used to establish exclusion and redeems it by utilizing it as a method of inclusion. The table of Christ is a place for ALL sinners who recognize their need for a Savior.
Jews found many reasons to label the woman at the well invaluable. She was a Samaritan woman with a questionable marital history. The kingdom of God eliminates labels and social status. The only status that matters is a person's identity in Christ. In the Kingdom of God there are no social outcasts.
Many people today fail to see the actions of Jesus in light of their historical context. They interpret Jesus' treatment of lepers, women, non-Jews, and other social outcasts, as merely nice gestures of sympathy. When we understand the culture in which Jesus lived, it becomes clear that his ministry to the outcasts was radical in every way. When Jesus ate with the tax collectors and prostitutes, he was revolting against the socio-political and religious systems of his day. Jesus began a revolution, which he entrusted to his disciples to continue.
All who claim to be disciples of Jesus are called to continue the revolution that Jesus started almost two thousand years ago. Our culture may not embrace the same socio-political and religious systems that Jesus encountered, but we have our own. We may not understand what it means to hate a Samaritan, but we have our own ethnic prejudice. Perhaps our list of social outcasts may not include lepers and tax collectors, but we all have our own list. Cultures, politics, and economies may change, but human nature essentially remains the same. The situation Jesus encountered, and his mission to subvert it, is fundamentally the same for all followers of Christ. Jesus never promised this task would be easy. In fact, he promised us that we would encounter persecution (Matthew 5:11, John 15:20). We are called to pick up the cross, deny ourselves, and follow Christ (Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9).