1st July, 2018
In October this year the Roman Catholic church will canonise a man named Oscar Romero, which means he will officially be recognised as a Saint. This marks the end of what has been contentious issue for the Roman Catholic church who first debated whether they could even recognise Romero as a martyr of the church let alone consider him for the process of canonisation.
Romero was a priest first ordained in the 1940’s who eventually served in his homeland of Al Salvador where he eventually became bishop and then Archbishop. During his career many priests in this part of the world were developing ideas that came to be known as liberation theology. Their reading of scripture led them to believe that when it came to social structures Jesus clearly stood on the side of the poor and was an advocate for the worst off in society. A well-known phrase often used to characterise liberation theology is that Jesus had a “preferential option for the poor”. The literature itself typically speaks of the Jesus who stood in solidarity with the poor; an expression that is slightly easier to interpret.
The idea that Jesus was a liberator of the poor was supported by many well-known Gospel passages, such as the feeding of the five thousand and the beatitudes in which Jesus states, “Blessed are the poor.” But the scriptural evidence runs much deeper and includes readings like our gospel passage this morning.
Today’s Gospel reading tells two different stories. The first story is the story of Jairus and his sick daughter. The text tells us that Jairus was a leader of the synagogue. This implies a number of things. Firstly, the text is telling us that Jairus was a man of status. As a leader of a synagogue he would have had a comparatively comfortable life compared with the majority of the population. In fact he may have been reasonably wealthy. Some scholars suggest that the suggestion of the text is that Jairus is also something of a Roman sympathiser.
So here we have a man of status, privilege and even wealth coming out to the countryside in search of Jesus’s help. It’s probably fair to say that this man was fairly desperate when it came to the health of his daughter.
Imagine, if you can, that you were hearing this story for the first time. How do you expect Jesus to respond to this request from a person of influence? What would we do in such a situation? I know that if I received a call from the bishop asking me to get over to the cathedral I’d drop everything and get over there ASAP. Forget what else I might be doing, someone of greater status has made a request, that is now my priority.
Not so with Jesus. Yes, he begins to go with Jairus, but there is a still a crowd surrounding him, and Jesus attends to them first. This is where the second story in today’s reading begins. The text takes us away from Jairus and introduces a nameless woman. The lack of a name already suggests something about her status. We are told that this woman is seeking healing because she has suffered from a haemorrhage for twelve years. Like Jairus she is also desperate, but her desperation is different.
In Jewish society there were strict rules governing who could participate in communal life. The sick were excluded as were the disabled. Women could participate in some things, but never to the extent that men could. A major reason for the difference in status between men and women was due to menstruation. In the ancient world menstruation was not understood as a natural part of the fertility cycle, but rather as an affliction from God. Some of you will be familiar with novel’s such as The Red Tent, which deal with the way menstruating women in this time were essentially exiled from the community and forced to reside in the afore mentioned Red Tent until their cycle was finished.
This brings me back to the woman in the story. The significance of the text telling us that she had suffered from her haemorrhage for twelve years is that she would have been denied participation in Jewish life for all of that time. She would have been prevented from attending temple or synagogue and may have even been cast out of her village and home. The details given in this story are clearly intended to tell is that whereas Jairus is a man of status, this unnamed woman has no status at all.
Worse still, this woman is so desperate that she does something that would also have been taboo in Jewish society. She reaches out and touches a man she doesn’t even know. It does not actually matter that it is only the edge of his cloak. If Jesus had been obsessed with Jewish purity laws, as many in that time were, he would have been incensed. Contact with an impure woman would have made him impure as well.
Again the behaviour of Jesus is not typical of men living in this world. His words are not hostile or full of rebuke. His actions are not violent. Rather he grasps what has been risked by this woman and responds with deeply felt compassion.
At a time when Jesus was engaged in responding to the request of an influential person of status, time was also found for a compassionate response to the person who has no status at all. At the conclusion of the story Jairus’s daughter was also healed, but that healing did not come at the expense of another truly vulnerable human being.
This is the kind of thinking that shaped liberation theology. It arose in countries that were typically governed by military regimes, where those who were part of the regime held a disproportionate amount of wealth and power. It was in this climate that liberation theologians dared to ask where Jesus would place himself. While they clearly understood that Jesus loved all, even those who were powerful, Jesus would have challenged such structures and championed the cause of those who were suffering under oppressive dictatorships.
When Oscar Romero became Archbishop of Al Salvador in 1977, liberation theologians were disappointed with his selection. Romero was regarded as something of a conservative, a man who was unlikely to speak out against the government. They believed that his track record did not demonstrate a commitment to the plight of the poor.
Less than a month later something happened which changed that. Another priest who was a close friend of Romero’s, who has working with some of poorest people in Al Salvador, was assassinated. This had a profound effect on Romero. He would later say that upon looking at the body of his friend he thought, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.””
From that point on Romero became outspoken on issues of poverty, social injustice and the many human rights violations taking place in his country. He suggested to soldiers that as Christians they could not stand with a government that was causing harm to so many people. This was likely to have been the step too far. In 1980 only three years after becoming archbishop Romero was shot and killed while presiding at the Eucharist.
What Romero reminds us of, is that while we often think we can separate our religion from our politics, the truth is that they exist in relationship with each other. In the last three years of his life Romero discovered that his belief in Christ compelled him to act in a political way. Jesus was critical of the political system of his time and sought to transform it in such a way that it better reflected the principle of loving our neighbour. As followers of Christ we too have a responsibility to transform unjust structures, to challenge oppression and systems that disproportionately reward some at the expense of others. It took Romero a lifetime to find that courage to do that.
There is a prayer we sometimes use here at St Andrew’s. Like many things it is open to interpretation. For me, it is in part, a Christian prayer about politics.
God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it.
To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant