God Loves People Who Do Drugs by Vicar Atticus Zavaletta
Updated: Dec 23, 2019
Proper 16C 2019
In the Name of God, Amen.
Jesus has a habit of touching unclean people.
This lady that Jesus meets, who has been crippled for 18 years, she’s ostracized from the community. In Jesus’ time, you were marginalized if you were wounded or diseased. That’s how Jewish law and custom worked back then.
And that’s because wounded people--in addition to many other categories of person or situation, which I’ll get to in a second-- were considered unclean. But what that meant was that they would have been isolated, and denied human contact.
There wasn’t a nursing home or rehab where you would be sent to get better. You were cast out to the outside of the encampment, alone.
Rodney Sadler points out that it is part of Jesus’s practice to violate Jewish custom by touching unclean people- an act that would have made him unclean: he does it when he touches a leper and cleanses him from leprosy (5:13), when he raises the widow of Nain’s dead son (7:14), when he is touched by a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage (8:43-48).
Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus has healed people with words and commands, like when he tells the man with the withered hand to extend his hand, and he is healed, or when he commands the spirit of an unclean demon to be cast out. So why the need for touch?
Jesus welcomes these people back into the community with his touch. He’s saying, it doesn’t matter if you’re unclean. I’ll be unclean with you. He’s really willing to put everything on the line in order to stand with someone in need.
"The care of people in need is at the heart of our faith."
What are the customs we have that get in the way of healing, or of bringing justice?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask the woman what she did to deserve her condition. He doesn’t even ask her what she is doing to get out of her situation. She is suffering, she is cast out and alone, and his only response is tenderness for her plight, and the powerful touch of love.
We are always looking for blame. I know when I see people in pain, I really want someone to blame. It’s almost like I feel that if only I can identify the person who’s to blame, I won’t have to deal with an uncomfortable truth of this world- that sometimes, bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. That sometimes, the universe seems to be indifferent to our virtues and our vices, and disaster strikes the saintliest people, the kindest of families.
Two typical human responses to pain: to jump to blame, or to go to fixing mode. In both of those scenarios, what we are saying is that there is a human answer to injustice. But there’s not. God is the answer to injustice, because love is the answer to injustice. And perfect love can never come from a human being. But, we can be vessels thru which it flows.
The other thing we do when we look for someone to blame?? And it’s usually the victim that we’re blaming… we obscure the role that systems play in the degrading circumstances that people live in.
Take the opioid epidemic. It is hard to look at people in the streets, sweating, in dirty, tattered clothes, and not wonder, what did they do to end up this way?
When I first came to St. Luke’s, I was shocked by the number of people in the streets affected by this illness, and even though I’m a recovering addict myself, even I, knowing how addiction can overtake you seemingly without your own approval, I catch myself falling into this thinking-- that in some fundamental way, it’s the suffering person’s fault.
It’s not natural for us to see an addict in the street and think of the responsibility of Big Pharma, the role that larger powers have had in bringing a particular person to their knees.
You know what the opposite of mercy is? BLAME. Maybe you've had someone ask you what you did to deserve certain things in your life, and know what that feels like.
As has begun to be uncovered by publications like the LA Times and the New York Times and others, the role that pharmaceutical companies had- with full knowledge of what they were doing- in the opioid epidemic is sinister, and it is vast. Purdue Pharma, the creator of Oxycontin, which has addicted so many Americans and led to countless overdoses and premature deaths, knew that its drug was highly addictive, but they told doctors and the FDA the opposite. They marketed the drug aggressively to doctors and claimed it was safe, intentionally misleading the public about the extreme hazards of taking the drug.
Plenty of people began taking these pills on the COUNSEL OF THEIR DOCTORS-- the most common stories are from post-surgical pain relief or injuries- and wound up highly addicted, through no fault of their own. Then, when the crackdown on pain pills came, these patients were left with little options but to go to street drugs to relieve their withdrawal symptoms.
I am not taking away all responsibility from human beings when we end up in destructive situations. But I am trying to shine a light on the systems that are always at work behind the scenes, shaping our choices and opportunities. Maybe you’ve also noticed how those systems limit our horizons in ways that shore up the power and wealth of the few, and disregard the health and wellbeing of the many.
When you look to systems, you’re more able to discern that the game of figuring out who is clean and unclean- who is deserving of the benefits of society and who is not- is ALSO ABOUT POWER and it is NOT ABOUT GOD.
When we find ourselves turning to blame, we are turning away from MERCY, and we are turning away from JUSTICE, which would bring the exploitative systems at work in our lives to account.
The religious authorities preferred for the ailing woman to stay sick, and unclean. Their sense of authority really rested on the notion of there being this division between clean and unclean people-- or.. Deserving and undeserving people. They separated themselves from people who don’t matter, people beneath regard, people who were unfit for society- because this left them with power.
And actually, there were tons of people considered unclean in the culture of Jesus' day: blind people, disabled people, people with mutilated faces or limbs that were too long, people who had broken feet or broken hands, “a hunchback, or a dwarf,” anyone with an itching disease, someone who had just given birth, and someone who was menstruating. Deuteronomy adds those “of illegitimate birth” and the progeny of foreign marriages. A LOT OF PEOPLE.
It reminds me of our own society that is so quick to demonize and vilify certain groups. We’ve done that to African Americans, since the first African slaves arrived on these shores 400 years ago in 1619, and STILL TODAY the freedoms and the rights of Black people are violated, BECAUSE OF the systems of anti-black racism. Our country has also done it to Native Americans, to women, LGBTQ people, to immigrants--the list of who has been placed into the category of “unclean” in some way-- is LONG.
And you can add drug addicts to that list.
Recently, my eyes locked on a fb post by a friend, Jay LaNunziata: it said, simply, God Loves People Who Use Drugs.
What is your response to that? If you had been in Jesus’s shoes, would you, instead of reaching your arms out in love, instead have asked for an accounting of the ailing woman’s life and choices?
You know, there’s something else that’s remarkable about this story. The woman doesn’t even ask to be healed. Jesus calls to HER. Isn’t that what Grace is? I’m a new Lutheran. What brought me to the ELCA was the Lutheran understanding of Grace. That there is nothing I can ever do, and nothing I ever have to do, to receive God’s grace. That that grace is bigger, and stronger and faster and deeper, than any obstacle I could ever put up. That God is always coming for us, always reaching out to us. Jesus is always reaching for our healing. May we also always be ready to reach out to our neighbors broken, bent-over, images of the one God who is LOVE, with the love that knows no bounds.