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Church News Volume 7, Issue 6 (July 2006)

Dear friends,

We can be surprised when we meet people where we least expect to find them. "What are you doing here?" is our first reaction. A second - and perhaps more considered reaction is to explain how we come to be there ourselves, and so meet people we know from other contexts in what appear to us unfamiliar surroundings.

The underlying message is how often we fall into the common human failing of putting other people into a box. We make assumptions about them. We categorise them, and then we are surprised when they do things we had not expected them to do. They have, in effect, broken out of the confines which we, in our minds, had placed upon them.

This is well illustrated in many Gospel stories about people breaking out of their 'boxes'. Jesus calls Matthew the tax-collector. There are two boxes here. First, Matthew is socially unacceptable by nature of his job. He collected taxes for the Roman authorities, and no doubt deducted some for his own profit before handing the money on. So Jesus breaks one box in calling this man from the fringe of society to share his ministry, and a second one surrounding himself. He breaks any expectations that his disciples would include only people who were respectable and orthodox. Anyone could become his follower.

As Jesus moves on following this story, he is accosted twice in quick succession, first by the leader of the synagogue, whose daughter has just died, then by the woman suffering from haemorrhages. Both these women are subject to taboos under the Jewish law. Contact with them is severely restricted. Jesus breaks through both these boxes. The woman is healed by his touch, the girl is revived. The latter, however, only happens when Jesus reveals the falseness of one last box. The crowd, including the flute-players and professional mourners, were making their ritual lamentation. The shallowness of their action was clearly shown when their weeping turned to laughter as Jesus claimed, "the girl is not dead, but sleeping". His action follows the pattern which we discern all through the Gospel.

However, we have to be careful in approaching this passage. We could find that we were creating boxes where Jesus has broken them down. We have all watched parliamentary proceedings on TV, and watched MPs from all sides shouting "Hear, hear!" when they think their speaker has made a good point. We may find ourselves doing the same. Jesus is good. He is the leader of our party. We approve of his mission statement: "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners", and we applaud the way he puts this into practice. He calls Matthew, heals the woman, brings the girl back to life. The Pharisees form the opposition, as it were, and together with the professional mourners, are rightly and satisfactorily put in their place by Jesus. But what we may have done, all unwittingly, is to put them all in their place. We have boxed them up, neatly and tidily, according to our own understanding of what is, and what is not acceptable to God. There is no room for those who do not quite fit. There is no margin for untidy edges.

What applies as we read the Bible, and especially the Gospel stories about Jesus, applies also to our views on life in general, and to the life of our Church. We are often uncomfortable with people and situations which fail to conform to the boxes we have prepared for them. We make judgements about who people are, where they belong, what they should do, what they should be. In doing so, we fail to be aware of the limitations of the boxes in which we ourselves "live and move and have our being."

Worst of all, we confine God to a box - not that we can, of course, but we have some kind of expectation that God will behave as we want, be on our side, and endorse our views. We make God in our image, and confine him to that image. We are genuinely surprised and confused, and not a little aggrieved to find that others hold, equally sincerely, a rather different image of God. This was the thrust of so much of Jesus' teaching, and he demonstrated it as clearly as he could to the people of his own time. It was difficult for them fully to comprehend and accept the meaning of his message, "I came to call not the righteous but sinners."

It can be just as difficult for us.

Revd Ian M. Finn

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Last Modified Sunday 04 March 2018