Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Least of the Least

One of the most powerful things about the ministry of Jesus was that he saw the least and the last around him and made them central to his proclamation of the Kingdom.

In contrast to the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day, Jesus seemed to seek out those most outcast by society. The leper, the poor, the broken, the sick, and even the unpopular tax collector became the main disciples of Jesus. He welcomed them, he sought them out, and even greater still, he loved them.

This backwards strategy confounded his peers, bringing harsh rebuke and criticism from the Jewish leaders of the day, and yet this love for the common man, or woman, became a growing factor in his popularity among the people.

In Jewish culture, women were valued only for their child-bearing and mothering skills. Men had the authority to divorce them at will, for any reason, or no reason, at all. A woman had no such right.

At the time of Christ, women were not allowed equal access to the Temple. The court of women was further away from The Holy Place than the court of men, and in fact the court of the Gentiles was the second closest. Jewish women were valued below even the non-Jewish men in the assembly.

Jewish men, historically, did not speak to women in public, even their own wives. For a Rabbi, this would have been an even greater embarrassment.

Furthermore, a woman wasn’t allowed to even read from the Scriptures and was not counted as a member of the congregation. Even one of their most respected Rabbi’s, Judah ben Elai (A.D. 150) was quoted as saying, “One must utter three doxologies every day: Praise God that he did not create me a heathen. Praise God he did not create me a woman! Praise God that he did not create me an illiterate person.”3

Nothing could have been more backwards and counter-culture than for Jesus, an up and coming Jewish Rabbi, to honor women, and yet that is just what he did.

What we see in the Scriptures is that Jesus “…needed to travel through Samaria” a place where most of those outcast from contemporary Jewish society dwelled in community. The Samaritans themselves were an entire race of people who were devalued by God’s Chosen people. This little detour certainly caused the Disciples to scratch their heads.

Even more, the fact that Jesus only came to speak to one person in Samaria is even more confounding, especially when that one person turns out to be a woman; and not just any woman, but what most would refer to as the village tramp.

At the heat of the day, when most everyone was inside the cool of their home, the Samaritan woman is heading out to Jacob’s Well to draw water. Most every other woman would have long since completed this daily chore and that is our clue that the woman Jesus wants to talk to is an outcast in her community. She avoids the other women, probably because they tend to look down on her for her promiscuous lifestyle. Perhaps because she has been responsible for seducing one or more of their husbands.

At any rate, this woman is an outcast, even among other women who are themselves undervalued in this society. This woman has multiple strikes against her. She is a Samaritan, a woman, and a moral failure among her own people. She is the least among the least.

This is the woman that Jesus seeks out. He seems to be waiting at this well, at this specific time of the day, in order to meet with this woman that no one else would spend an idle moment with.

Many of us have made mistakes in our lives. Many of us have received condemnation from others about our failures. Our parents, our friends, even people within the Church, may have rejected us and turned us away to wallow in our shame. We need to know that Jesus does not condemn us. We need to know that, in the eyes of Jesus, we are not disqualified from Grace. We are not disqualified from ministry. Our weakness does not exempt us from participation in the Kingdom. In fact, according to Jesus, it is our weakness, our poverty, our humility, our sorrow, and our humanity that qualifies us as blessed members of the Kingdom of God. (See Matthew 5:3-12)

This, my friends, is Good News. Do you see the heart of Jesus here? Do you see how he goes out of his way to find this woman? He loves her. He spends time with her. He speaks to her and treats her with respect and dignity, even as he points out her personal failures regarding relationships with men. She is never offended by Jesus. She is never insulted. Intuitively she knows that Jesus takes her seriously and is showing real interest in her as a person.

In fact, Jesus is never seen treating people in culturally acceptable ways. Instead, he goes entirely against the prevailing cultural norms and treats people, lepers, sinners, even women, with uncommon respect, tenderness and love.

As we look closer at how Jesus interacted with this woman, I think we could all learn a lot by following his example of extravagant love. Just imagine what incredible impact we could have on people around us if we simply valued them as people, treated them with respect and took a genuine interest in their lives?

We are so quick to look for fault in others, to disqualify them from the free gift of Grace, and yet our Lord Jesus looked past the mountain of sin and the cultural prejudices of the day to see this woman for who she was. He spoke to her as an equal, not as someone who was beneath him. He looked into her eyes long enough to remember what color they were. He talked with her about the Law, even though women in that age were not allowed to be taught the Law. He listened. He took her seriously. He did not condemn her for her failures in life.

Yes, Jesus did confront this woman with her sin, but he did so in a way that did not offend her. He spoke to her as someone who was genuinely concerned for her well-being and expressed the truth without attaching judgment.

I’ve heard it said that listening to someone is so much like loving them that most people can’t tell the difference. When was the last time we listened to someone else as an act of compassion?

We should learn how to practice this sort of evangelism, because it was so successful that it impacted not only this one single person but an entire village.

If Jesus could seek out a woman and see in her an evangelist; If Jesus could have a conversation with an adulteress and treat her as a person worthy of his love; If Jesus could endure the humiliation of being seen with an outcast in order to set her free from her past failures; Then there’s hope for you and I, isn’t there?

Jesus still seeks out those who are sinners so that he can set them free. Jesus still searches for failures so he can transform them by His love. Jesus still values those who the rest of us have dismissed as worthless.

There is still hope for you. Whatever you’ve been through. Whatever your failures. Whatever your challenge. God has a place for you in His Kingdom. You are valuable. You matter. You are worth more than you know.

God longs to invite you into the ongoing story of His Kingdom here on Earth. If the woman at the well had a purpose and a value in this Kingdom, then certainly you and I do as well.

-Keith Giles
3(from “Man as Male and Female” by Paul K. Jewett, 1975)
NOTE: Taken from my book-in-progress, "The Power of Weakness"

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