One of the central actions that Jesus says will testify to our relationship with him is visiting the sick and those in prison. Concern for those who are homebound, locked away or removed from society has been a hallmark of Christian piety and witness for as long as there have been Christians.
Jesus commanded that his followers take care of those on the margins of society by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the foreigner, and visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). But more than that, Jesus modeled his commandments by feeding the hungry (Matthew 14:13-21), welcoming the foreigners (Matthew 8:5-13), visiting and healing the sick (Matthew 9:23-26), and visiting and freeing captives (Ephesians 4:8). In so doing, Jesus was imitating his Father in heaven.
One of my favorite passages from the Talmud shows how people are to echo God’s actions of kindness to those who have experienced some disjuncture from normal life through suffering:
Rabbi Chama, son of Rabbi Chanina, taught, “What does it mean, ‘You shall walk after the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:4)’? Is it really possible for a human being to walk after the God’s Spirit; for has it not been said, ‘For the Lord your God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)’? It must mean to walk in the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written, ‘The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21),’ so too should you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, as it is written, ‘Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre’ [while Abraham was still recovering from circumcision] (Genesis 18:1), so too should you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, as it is written, ‘After the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac (Genesis 25:11),’ so too should you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written, ‘And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6),’ so too should you also bury the dead” (BT. Sotah 14a).
In these verses God bestows clothes, visits those recovering from surgery, and comforts the mourners. This week’s lectionary readings provide two more examples of divine visits to those on the outskirts.
When Elijah’s actions against the pagan priests became known to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, they threatened to murder him. Elijah fled to the desert in southern Judah, and then continued to the Sinai Peninsula. There he fasted and hid, fearing for his life. Then God came to visit Elijah, not in an overwhelming display of force as in an earthquake or great wind, but in silence (1 Kings 19:11-13). And God comforted Elijah and told him that he was not alone in his faithfulness to the true God of Israel.
Jesus went to those on the extremities of the outskirts in order to reintegrate those who have been cast out by society.
Several hundred years later, in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, he journeyed across the Lake of Galilee. Famously, the different Gospels record different names for the place that he landed. Luke 8 says he arrived in Gerasenes, but most biblical scholars have concluded that this isn’t a place name (no village close to the Galil has this name; Jerash is way too far away). It’s more likely that this is a Greco-ization of GRShim—“the banished/exorcised ones.” The following story is all about people, demons, animals and messiahs who were driven out from one area or another.
Jesus was having a difficult time being accepted in Galilee, so he set out from his home places. Naturally, he went to the land of those who had been driven out. Once there, he met a man who had been driven out of society because of his demonic possession. As the extended play on words continues, the only thing for Jesus to do was drive out the evil spirits from the man. Then the pigs that were possessed by the demons were driven out from the land and perished in the sea. The story ends with Jesus and the formerly possessed man being reincorporated into society. Jesus undoes the banishment of humans and instead drives out evil. This story is powerful because it demonstrates that Jesus went to those on the extremities of the outskirts in order to reintegrate those who have been cast out by society.
So as we Christians follow Jesus, we should literally follow him to the lonely places on the outskirts of society. When we visit the sick or the imprisoned, and reach out to those who have less than us, we emulate our master and our God in heaven, who do the same.