For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, NRSV)
Orphans, widows, strangers: what do these people have in common? They all live on the edges of their society, balanced precariously between survival and destruction. Orphans have lost the parents who might have given them the love, support, and direction they need to grow and develop into mature, loving adults. They live unprotected from the forces that would capture and warp their young lives.
Widows, in the time of the writing of the Book of Deuteronomy, would have been cast into economic and social limbo through the death of her husband. Although women in our society are no longer exclusively defined in relation to a male relative, perhaps we can think of the widow today as anyone who has been cast aside due to loss of family or other supportive social network. Strangers as well lack support: they live in a place that sees them as not belonging, not familiar, not welcomed, strange. They have problems getting what they need to live as whole human beings.
There are destructive forces out there on the margins. Lack of food, clothing, shelter, and medical care pave the road to illness and an early death. Lack of friends and social network, lack of acknowledgement that one even exists, a falling between the cracks of society: these are the acids that lead to destruction of mental health and well-being, to despair and corrosion of the soul.
To be sure, the edges are dark, destructive places. We avoid them. And yet, the good news we believe, the good news we proclaim to the world, is that God is there on the margins, that God has come especially for those on the edges. The God we worship became one of us and went to the margins of his time, to the sick, demon-possessed, despised, hopeless, even to the dead – healing them and raising them to life.
More than that, the Scriptures proclaim and, most fully and perfectly, the Word of God made flesh proclaims, that God prefers the marginalised, the shoved-aside, the ones made nothing of by those around them. Do we find that good news hard to believe? If we are honest with ourselves, most definitely. That God actually prefers those who are marginalized is not easy to swallow for us who don't live on the edges. And make no mistake about it: we in the church here live in the center, not the margins. We have status, money, connections, prestige (even in this secularised society).
We often think of missions in terms of going out from where we are in the center to someplace far away and proclaiming the Gospel to people who have not heard it before. The problem with this way of thinking about missions is that it ignores the fact that missions have as much to do with the church right here as it does with peoples geographically distant from us. We proclaim a healing word to others, but ignore the prophetic word to us that comes with God's healing love. God's prophetic word judges and heals us in the center, calling us to the margins. It challenges us as church to live more faithfully to Christ whom we proclaim and worship.
In other words, the healing word of God we proclaim in missions is directed towards us as much as it is to those we seek out in Christ's name. We may think that in missions we are somehow going out towards the place where God is absent. But in reality, when we go to the margins, we journey to meet God there and to hear what God is saying to us there, as much as we are sent to proclaim God's healing love in Christ. It is this mutuality in mission that we in the church have so often ignored. We think we have nothing to hear, nothing to learn, from the people we serve through missions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is not uncommon to hear missionaries who have returned from their work abroad say that in the place they were they experienced what church is, what church ought to be. That is a prophetic word from the margins to us living in the center. It also contains a judgment, as does all prophecy: we in the center do not manifest in our life together that same life in Christ experienced on the edges. What can we learn, how do we need to change, in order for that word to bear fruit?
For Further Reflection:
1. What would it mean in concrete terms for your church to live in the margins of your society today? What risks would it involve?
2. How does your church welcome the stranger in your midst?
Grant S. White