Part 3: Jesus and the WOA Principle
The WOA principle drives the mission of Jesus. He constantly moves to meet people on the margins of the social world of Galilee and Judea. The lack of direct references to widows, orphans, and aliens as vulnerable social groups does not negate our premise that the ethics of the gospel requires us to consider moral issues from the perspective of people in the borderlands.
The following examples show the two features of WOA ethics. First, Jesus moves to the margins to meet people. Second, he acts in ways that offer transformation and restore dignity. The examples below are drawn from the different streams of the synoptic tradition. A more comprehensive list is provided at the end of the article.
The Markan tradition provides the example of leper who takes advantage of a deserted space to approach Jesus Mk. 1.40-45). Jesus has the moral right to send him away with a blistering censure for threatening to spread the dreaded disease. Instead, Jesus touches the man and cleanses him from his impurity. He instructs him to show his healing to the priest and to re-enter into the life of his family and community. The transformation is physical, emotional, and social.
The shared material unique to Matthew and Luke, commonly called Q, is composed largely of sayings of Jesus. From the prison of Herod Antipas, John the Baptizer sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the expected deliverer. Jesus sends them back to John with the report that he has restored sight to the blind, healed the lame, cleansed lepers, given hearing to the deaf, raised the dead and proclaimed good news to the poor (Mt. 11.5-6 par.). These kingdom actions allow people to re-enter their communities as active participants.
Matthew’s special source includes summary statements of healings, exorcisms, teaching, and proclamation (Mt. 4.23-25; 8.16-17; 9.35). Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who would take up the infirmities and heal the diseases of the weak and marginalized (Mt. 8.17). He feels compassion on the crowds that are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd ((9.36). The Lucan special tradition includes an emotionally charged narrative in which a woman from beyond the margins of respectability intrudes into a Pharisee’s home to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears (Lk. 7.36-50). She experiences the hostility of the host and his other guests. Jesus treats her tenderly and responds with firmness to the others in the room. Her faith has saved her and she may go in peace. Her dignity is restored.
Each of the narratives and sayings contained in the appendix could be analyzed in depth. We believe that they illustrate the feature that Latin American liberation theology called the preferential priority of the poor. The point was not that God loved the poor to the exclusion of those that enjoyed wealth and security. Rather, the God of the Bible expresses his redemptive love and concern for the most vulnerable members of the community. Their needs are to be given importance. We see this in a narrative contained in all three synoptic gospels. Mark 5.21-43 contains two healing accounts. Jesus is approached by an elite member of the community whose twelve year old daughter is critically ill. Jairus is named in the story and is described as a ruler of a synagogue. As Jesus moves toward the home of Jairus, his way is impeded by a crowd of people. An unnamed woman in the midst of the crowd has been ritually impure for twelve years because of uncontrollable vaginal discharges. Anyone who makes contact with her will share her impurity. The woman is desperate and destitute. She touches Jesus and is immediately healed. In spite of the urgency of Jairus, Jesus stops to meet the woman who with fear tells him her whole story. Instead of censuring the woman for breaking the laws of purity, Jesus pronounces a blessing on her. Jesus does not neglect Jairus and his daughter. However, priority is given to this poor woman who has been marginalized in her community.
Part 4: Defining the WOA of Our Age
An ethical challenge of our time is to identify those people that are vulnerable, marginalized and powerless. Each context will be different. Strident voices are not always a reliable indicator. Often those who live in the borderlands are without voice and representation. Zygmunt Bauman (2011) uses the expression “the underclass” to describe people that are viewed as a social problem and deprived of meaningful roles in their communities. They live in a “horrifying wilderness” in communities where they are silenced, excluded, and humiliated. The words portray the painful experiences of people that struggle on the “outside,” with few prospects for moving into a life of dignity, stability, and security.
The horrifying wilderness of the vulnerable exists in our local communities and the nations of the world. The WOA of our time include:
- People that flee their homelands for reasons of persecution, poverty, or environmental degradation and live as aliens in another land.
- Minimum wage workers trying to balance two or three jobs.
- The sick, and in particular those without medical insurance.
- Victims of racial or religious prejudice.
- Indigenous people that hold on within a dominant settler culture.
- Women that live in fear of violence.
- People that depend on food banks for their nutrition.
- Hungry people in South Sudan, Yemen, Northern Nigeria, and the Middle East.
- Survivors of mass violence that can never find freedom from the trauma of abuse, torture, and the loss of loved ones.
This list is, of course, partial and incomplete. Each context requires analysis and discussion. The voices of those in the borderlands need to be heard so that their experiences enter into public discourse.
The WOA approach to ethics requires that we move deliberately into the borderlands to meet with those who are vulnerable and excluded. The new relationships that we establish will enable us to see the world from the perspective on those who live on the underside. Through the challenge of sharing friendships, meals, and prayers we will engage in mustard seed projects that give hope and dignity to the poor. Our ethic approach seeks to restore the dignity of people created in the image of God and to enable them to contribute to the shared life of their communities.
In a subsequent article, the authors will offer a criterion for ethical actions in the borderlands based on the virtues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23.23).