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Pastoral ponderings . . .
When I was growing up, Kevin Costner and Sean Connery were the stars of the movie “The Untouchables”: the real-life story of the toughest guys of the FBI in the Roaring Twenties whose fidelity, bravery, and integrity (FBI) made them “untouchable” to the Mob who up to then had been able to bribe, coerce, or intimidate every law enforcement officer that tried to stop them. Until Elliott Ness came along. The Untouchables were cool. Even as cool as the Incredibles today! But before Elliott Ness came along, being an untouchable wasn’t cool at all. Untouchables were what the lowest caste of people in India are still called. They’re the ones who do all the dirtiest jobs that no one wants to do by hand, without gloves, without running water to clean themselves off. You don’t volunteer to be one of the Untouchables in India. You’re born into it and you have more barriers to changing your life’s work than we could ever possibly imagine. You’re born in poverty as an Untouchable, and most likely you’ll die an early death in poverty.
The vast majority of people struggling to survive in the Third World today, would be considered “untouchable” by us First Worlders if we visited their homes. Most of the poorest of the poor around the world are becoming garbage pickers. The First World, the U.S. especially, is consuming and throwing away so much plastic that it’s like the planet is starting to drown in it. So much plastic is being sent to the Third World and dumped in the garbage pits there or just washing up on their shores, that there are people who have no other survival option than to live in those pits and pick out the plastic, sorting it according to color in most cases, that the plastic recyclers then scoop up and take to the recycling plant to resell to the First World, (to us), who buy it, and throw it away again. The discouraging part of this cycle for the Planet herself, is that recyclers can no longer keep up with the amount of plastic that’s accumulating in the environment. The ships loaded with garbage heading for the Third World to be sorted are losing plastic over the side in great storms, and the ships bringing the same recycled plastic back to us are also losing unsecured cargo in the same way. Aside from this, we keep making more and more new single-use plastic water bottles, soda bottles, plastic bags and single meal food containers in the First World, and so much of that simply isn’t being sorted or recycled in any way, so it just goes directly into the environment. We are drowning in plastic garbage world-wide. And the untouchables are the ones living in these ever-growing piles of garbage and plastic that we are using and throwing away without giving it a second thought.
About 10 years ago, I decided to try and take myself out (as best I could) of this single-use plastic bottle cycle I just described. I bought my first metal, reusable water bottle, and I carry it wherever I go. But I still buy food and chemicals in plastic containers. As a First Worlder, plastic is everywhere, and a real problem to be solved for the conservation of our planet.
The Untouchables of today are the poorest of the poor, who don’t just live on the other side of the world or across our southern border They are also the homeless people around us. Pamela Atkinson says that there are people living on the streets of Salt Lake City who haven’t been touched by another human being, physically touched, for over a year. Can you imagine what that would be like? They say that humans need 8 hugs a day. Sometimes I think we try and fill that quota every Sunday morning here when we pass the Peace of Christ with each other! It’s great! I love it. But there are homeless folks who are untouchables to the rest of us, and they don’t receive any human contact. That’s why you might see so many folks living on the street with dogs. Their dogs touch them. They show unconditional love to them. This is why Pamela Atkinson carries small packages of dog food in her car. When she stops to visit someone on the street, and they have a dog, she gives them some pet food along with a blanket, or gloves, or socks, or some other small survival item.
Dogs are generally an amazing example to the human race. Friendly dogs that is. There’s always angry ones, just like there’s always angry humans. But by and large, dogs show us what unconditional love looks like. They’ll touch us when we’re untouchable to anyone else.
Sometimes I wonder, if Jesus had a dog, what kind of dog would he have? What kind of dog do you think Jesus would have? Probably a rescue dog, knowing him . . . right? Jesus often used children as his example of faith, when he taught. I’m sure if he had a dog, he’d do the same. “Look how they love” he’d say, “without bias, without conditions; without respect to anyone’s beliefs or status.”
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we gave an untrained dog to every member of Congress when they were sworn in? And they’d have to keep their untrained dog with them everywhere they went. And if they didn’t, they would lose their job, and there’d have to be another election. But nothing would get done, you say! Right. And how’s that any different? I think if every member of Congress had a dog, and had to take care of it and train it themselves and keep it with them always like people with therapy dogs do, maybe they’d start to find more in common with each other. And think of the example their dogs would be teaching them!
I don’t mean to be disrespectful or irreverent but I think maybe our Lord Jesus had a dog’s heart. Do you know what I mean? There was no such thing as an untouchable to him. He went out of his way to ignore borders, status, taboos, and even the moral codes and laws of his day to encounter the fellow human being in front of him. Maybe God’s trying to teach us something here, right? Those of us who pride ourselves on being law-abiding citizens? Our problem is that we’re using that “law-abiding citizen status” today to separate ourselves from the modern untouchables on our southern border. If you’re law-abiding you have human rights. If you aren’t, you don’t. Simple as that. Makes sense right? Who can argue with being law-abiding?
The problem for us as the modern disciples of this Jesus with a dog’s heart, is that he wasn’t the most law-abiding citizen. Jesus got excited in a good way when he saw people crossing boundaries and borders to be real with each other. To meet each others’ needs. To treat each other as equals in his kingdom. If he had a tail, I think he’d wag it like crazy!! The woman bleeding for 12 years, who reaches out to touch him in the Gospel of Mark is an untouchable. Jesus is on his way to help the most prestigious law-abiding citizen in town whose daughter is dying, but before he gets there this anonymous woman who is bleeding touches him. This just wasn’t done. First of all, she’s a woman, and women in that culture were forbidden to initiate public contact of any kind with men. Second of all, and even more importantly for good, decent, law-abiding folks: she’s bleeding. She’s been bleeding off and on for 12 years. Everyone knew that! She wasn’t a stranger. And finally, she was probably now a street person. A beggar. She’s spent all her money trying to get well, to no avail. In every respect, she’s an untouchable. No respectable, law-abiding person would have anything to do with her, except Christ, our Lord.
And she tells herself if she breaks all the laws, reaches out her hand, and just touches Jesus’ clothing (with the lightest graze of her finger), if she crosses the border that must not be crossed, she will find healing. She does it. And Jesus tells her that her faith in God has been her guide. Her faithful action that caused her to cross every boundary and break the most fundamental laws of the society of her day is what brought her to the wellness she was seeking and that Jesus offered to anyone. It seems like there’s a not too subtle lesson for us today who rely on citizenship and a law-abiding status to define who we are and who the untouchables are. The Lord Jesus Christ knew what this woman did. And he was pleased.
If we hear any friends and neighbors quoting the Bible these days as a way to justify de-humanizing others as a way to decide who has rights, who is “touchable,” and who does not, feel free to share Mark 5:21-43 with them. And tell them you’re trying to follow Jesus with a dog’s heart. It might lead to an interesting conversation! God bless us all, without exception.