Exclusion, discrimination in the name of religion distances us from God

To understand this Sunday’s parable, we need to consider the situation back in the time of Our Lord. Very often, farms and vineyards were owned by foreigners or by wealthy Israelites who lived a great distance away, usually in foreign countries.

Oct 06, 2017

By Anil Netto
In any religion, there is a tension, a certain dynamic, between a deeper more spiritual, a more inclusive understanding of religion on the one hand and a more exclusive understanding, which may even have discriminatory, bigoted tendencies.

Let us look into our own spiritual tradition to see how Jesus was constantly breaking barriers between those who tried to divide religious followers especially along grounds of purity, ie the state of being clean and unclean.

During the time of Jesus, those with the closest association with the Temple and its holiest of holies were, for the most part, regarded as clean — a class above the rest.

On the other hand, lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors were among the social outcasts. Even women, in general, were not spared being regarded as unclean during certain times of their life.

The Book of Leviticus is full of rules governing what is clean and unclean and the elaborate rituals that needed to be done.

But what did Jesus do? He set about to break the barriers between those regarded as clean and those seen as unclean — right from the start. Jesus himself was born among shepherds. Now, shepherds ranked low in the social ladder, even outcasts. They were generally considered to be unclean and in need of ritual cleansing before they could worship.

And here was Jesus, born among them.

Even to this day, we tend to think that those of us who are religiously clean or ritualistically ‘holy’ will somehow get express tickets to heaven.

But Jesus turned the tables on the prevailing notions of purity and what is regarded as clean and unclean. If anything, he reserved the harshest criticism against the scribes and Pharisees who regarded themselves as religiously pure.

Jesus broke down the barriers between clean and unclean in a couple of key ways. He made it a point of visiting the homes of social outcasts. He often shared a table — eating and drinking — with the marginalised and the ostracised — the forerunner of the Eucharist, the sharing at the table where everyone would be regarded as equal in God’s sight.

He healed people of diseases that some considered to be unclean, eg the lepers and the women who had suffered a loss of blood for a long time. In this way, some believe his miracles were not just physical healing but also social healing. He was also shattering the notions of what made a person unclean and keeping them apart from the rest of society.

Certainly, he said, it was not the food that people ate that made them unclean but the evil, the injustice, that they imbibed and later manifested in deed, thought and action.

At the end of his ministry, his harshest words and action were directed at the seat of the institutional religious structure of his time — the Temple — and all the burdensome ritualistic procedures imposed on the people.

The hypocrisy must have been too nauseating for Jesus to stomach. Consider this: here we had the Temple extracting taxes and tithes from the peasantry that supported a lavish lifestyle for the temple aristocrats. The Temple elite carefully and meticulously enforced burdensome rituals for cleansing people from their impurities, their state of being ‘unclean.’

And yet, these elite had nothing to say about the elephants in the room. Worse, the religious elite and the Roman occupying powers via tyrannical local rulers (eg client puppet kings like Herod and despotic prefects like Pilate) were collaborating with each other in oppressing the people.

Think of the exploitation of the peasantry through the confiscation of their land after they had fallen into debt and the imposition of taxes to finance prestige projects such as the Temple itself and Roman edifices dotted across the land. Think of the taxes and tithes they paid to support the superficial cleansing rituals.

No wonder Jesus bellowed in the Temple that the presence of the money changers (who were central in the propping up of this exploitative ‘economic system’) had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves.

How is this relevant for us today? We are all called to break down barriers and challenge the prevailing notions of what is clean and unclean in our world today.

If we instead put up more barriers and discriminate against our fellow human beings, how can that be pleasing in God’s sight?

If we keep people of other faiths at a distance, even exclude them through discriminatory practices, how can this be pleasing to the Father who created everyone of us?

If we fail to embrace the human family — including migrants and refugees and the oppressed — wouldn’t we be failing to love our neighbour the way God wants us to, the way he himself loves all of us?

If we think that we are holier than others because we observe all the commandments, we could be in for a surprise. (Remember how the young man walked away sadly after Jesus told him to sell all that he had and follow him.)

If we are petty and obsessed over rituals of what is clean and unclean, what is ‘holy’ or not, while ignoring the elephants in our room today — grand corruption, kleptocracy, nuclear proliferation, genocide, exploitation of workers, needless famine and poverty — wouldn’t that also make us part of the exploitative system in our world?

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