The Revd Dr Colin Morris, the former BBC Head of Religious Broadcasting and Controller of BBC Northern Ireland, wrote the following words about Jesus: “Jesus is the one who puts himself outside every barrier, frontier and fence we choose to erect in order to safeguard what is our own...”
As I said earlier, this Sunday has been designated as “asylum seekers Sunday” and when I read that sentence by Colin Morris it was a bit like being smacked in the face with the blatantly obvious. Because, of course, what could better describe national boundaries as “frontiers that we choose to erect in order to safeguard what is our own”? This morning, in conjunction with our scripture readings, I would like to meditate on “the Jesus who puts himself outside every barrier”.
I don’t want to stand here for the next 15 minutes simply observing in one way or another that “this is a good cause”. As a worshipping Christian community, I want to consider how we might reflect on the issue of asylum-seeking in the light of the Gospel message. And I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than the picture of a Jesus who deliberately “puts himself outside of every barrier”.
This morning’s Gospel reading is the pinnacle of Matthew’s account of what it means to be a Christian disciple. Matthew has spent the last little while in his Gospel telling his readers to keep alert for the coming of the King of Kings, and now, in this reading, the King has come at last and the Kingdom of God is ushered in.
And it’s a very interesting picture, especially if we look at this narrative in the light of Colin Morris’ insight into Jesus. On the one hand, we have the sheep – who allegedly welcomed the King of King but didn’t have a clue that they were doing it, and on the other hand, we have the goats – who allegedly rejected the King of Kings but didn’t have a clue that they were doing it.
How can a person have an encounter with Lord of the Universe and not know it?
I suspect that, as long as we expect to find God inside the protective fences that we have erected, we will not recognise that he is actually outside the fence. I think that, like the “goats”, the “sheep” also thought that God would be found inside the fence, but that they nonetheless walked outside the fence to help the dangerous stranger, the shiftless hungry, the shamefully naked and the sinfully ill.
In walking outside the fence, the sheep were quite literally exposing themselves. Inside the fence, a person is protected by the anonymity of accepted social norms. Outside the fence, among those who do not fit in, a person stands out like a sore thumb – guilty by association.
Insiders and Outsiders
In the ancient near East, people’s travel was regulated by an intricate system of hospitality. The stranger – the outsider – was regarded as a potential threat.
Possibly a physical threat or maybe a threat to a community’s power structure, the traveller had two courses of action open.
On the one hand, he might remain a stranger and therefore remain outside the “fences” that the community had erected to protect itself. If a traveller chose this course of action – or if he was rejected in his attempts to become part of the community – he understood that his status was tenuous at best and downright dangerous at worst.
Now, the other possibility was to become a guest inside the community by having a patron host. This kind of guest is nothing at all like being a modern-day dinner guest in someone’s home. This was an intricate system of testing, formal roles and patronage that meant that the traveller really did get inside the community’s protective “fences”.
Once recognised in the formal role of “guest”, there were all sorts of mutual obligations involved but the traveller went from being a dangerous stranger to becoming a resident alien, the host’s patronage gave him rights within the community that strangers do not have.
In turn, the guest was required to be loyal to his host, to defend his honour and to reciprocate the hospitality should the host ever find himself in the community of the guest. In some ways, it was like becoming an adopted family member of the host’s family and it was a very serious obligation on the part of the host.
But here again we can see that we have the same image of those “inside” and those “outside” the fences of the community. This would have been the normative experience for most individuals in Jesus’ time.
Those inside the fence are safe, upstanding individuals who have passed the test of community. Those outside the fence are a potential threat to the community in some way – physically, morally or ethically.
The thing that I find really interesting about Colin Morris’ picture of Jesus, is that it suggests that every time the established power structure tries to claim Jesus as one of its own, Jesus steps outside the boundaries.
I don’t think that it’s so much that Jesus doesn’t want to be identified with the people inside the fence as it is that he does want to be identified with the people outside the fence. Jesus’ stepping outside the fence is not necessarily a rejection of those who are inside, but it is a recognition of the full humanity of those outside the fence – those whom society wishes to name as being without rights or of lesser rights.
Real Life Application
So what is the “real life” application of a Christian theology of asylum seekers? I will indulge for just a minute in telling you a story about a friend of mine…
[I’m afraid I’ve had to snip this bit for the sake of confidentiality.]
Now my point here is not that I think that this particular government is any worse than any other government. I think that these things happen because we are human beings. I think that, as human beings – to quote Winston Churchill quoting Franklin Roosevelt – we are afraid of fear itself.
The government denies basic human dignity to asylum-seekers because being “tough on immigration” wins them votes. We, as the electorate, are responsible for this state of affairs. It is part of human sinful human nature to divide people into groups of “them and us”, to try to designate “them” in such a way that “they” stick out like a sore thumb.
And what does Jesus do? He rushes outside of any human-constructed fence we erect and he ends up sticking out like a sore thumb too. He consorts with the dangerous stranger, the shiftless hungry, the shamefully naked and the sinfully ill. He is guilty by implication.
God incarnate, King of King, Lord of Lords, the one who ushers in the Kingdom of God, personally identifies with all who are excluded by “the system” and “the powers”.
Good News for All?
So, for whom is the coming of the Kingdom good news? Well, I think it’s good news for all people, although some may not see it that way. Those who insist that they must make an enemy of those outside the fence will not be able to see the Gospel as good news.
But, for all the outsiders, for those who are powerless in all or in some spheres of their life, it is unequivocally good news. Jesus’ message is that all people who ever lived are invited to his feast of life. My friend is a Christian and is able to endure her current status because she is certain in her Self that God sees her as an intelligent and dignified human being even if the government does not.
I also think that the Gospel is good news for those “inside the fences” of human society, although I also suspect that it can sometimes be harder to see from that vantage point what really good news the Gospel is.
The witness of Christ, his death at the hands of human fear and his resurrection at the hand of the Creator, can expand the human perception of what it means to be fully alive in God. The arrival of the King to usher in the Kingdom of God, is a “place” (a time, an event, a locus) where we will see clearly what it means that human beings are created in the image of God.
At the coming of the Kingdom, our understanding of what it means to be human will be expanded because we too will be joyfully rushing outside the fences of our human fear and suspicion to join Jesus in his holy ritual of inclusion.
"Outwitted" by Edwin Markham
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!