Blessed are the fringe-dwellers.

Jesus’ time on earth was book-ended by two seminal events: his birth and resurrection. Lately, I’ve been mulling over the wild and weighty implications of the fact that he chose to first announce both to the most unlikely people imaginable: his birth to shepherds, and his resurrection to a woman.

When Jesus was born, shepherds were a bottom-dwelling class of reviled people–maligned and despised. The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, described them as “incompetent”. Shepherds had been stripped of their civil rights and were not allowed to hold public office or serve as witnesses in court. Members of polite society refused to buy goods from them under the cruel assumption that what they were purchasing might very well, in fact, be stolen property. Shepherds were filthy. They spent long months away from people and smelled like the sheep that they tended. Their grueling work was disdained. They were ostracized and relegated to the very fringes of their society—noses pressed to the glass as they stared longingly at a world that wanted to erase them.

And women. Women in ancient Israel were nearly less valuable than the sheep the shepherds tended to—and were considered to be property every bit as much as their animal counterparts. Given no authority, they belonged first to their fathers, and then to their husbands. Like shepherds, they were considered wholly unreliable and banned from testifying in court. They were not to be spoken to by men they were not related to—and were considered dirty and untouchable one week out of every month of their adult lives. They were barred from learning—in fact, one gem of a Rabbi in the 1st century wrote, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.” Noses pressed to the glass, they stared longingly at a world that wanted them silent and subservient.

And then Jesus split the sky wide open as the joyful scandal of the universe unfolded. Carried in the womb of a poor, teenage girl when he could have entered the world any other way. The exhilarating news of his birth announced first to dirty, lonely shepherds on a hillside—the very people hungriest for good news of great joy. Reviled by the weary world around them, they were chosen to proclaim with the angels themselves that the Savior of the world had finally, finally come. God chose angels and shepherds to herald the birth of the newborn King, and in so doing, he restored their dignity and worth. Good news for all the people, indeed.

After his resurrection, Jesus chose to appear first to a woman. The breathtaking honor of this undoes me– Mary Magdalene’s testimony wouldn’t have been permitted in court–and yet, Jesus trusted her with the most revolutionary, cosmos-altering news the world has ever known: I’m alive! The curse has been undone. I have kept my promise. Jesus didn’t stop there–he then commissioned her to go tell the men. He has roared in the face of death and crushed its head. He is risen! He restored the credibility, authority and honor a patriarchal society had stripped from her.

Jesus showed fringe dwellers that they were unassailably worthy because they bore the image of God himself. His whole life showed us an unraveling of injustice and oppression and pain that will one day be complete when He comes back. The lame walked, the blind saw, the hungry were fed and the marginalized were sought out and redeployed. Every minute of his time on earth—from his birth to his resurrection, demonstrated the very gospel he’d come to proclaim and showed a watching world that everyone on the fringes belonged in his upside-down kingdom.

Jesus showed us that blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who known the splitting ache of grief. Blessed are the silenced, the ignored and overlooked—those barred from influence and authority. Blessed are the hungry, the blind and sick and dying.  Blessed are the poor, those who know the world is profoundly broken and are begging God to intervene. Blessed are those who know pain, oppression, abuse and savage loss. Blessed are those wracked by systemic injustice, the fatherless, the refugee, the widow, the lonely. Blessed are women and shepherds—everyone relegated to the fringes. He has called you his very own and yours is the Kingdom of God if you will only receive it.

Hallelujah. What a Savior. Let’s be like him.

Comments

  1. Cynthia Shigo says:

    Ashley, your writing and your thinking astound me. It is so wonderful to see you becoming Mary to your generation, proclaiming, “He is risen, indeed!” I thank God every day that he allowed us to be born into a world where we can speak of his love and be witnesses of his grace, and be heard. Once in Hungary Joel was preaching about the parable of the treasure hidden in a field for which a man sold all that he had in order to purchase it. Jesus then told us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Joel explained that Jesus himself was always our example in everything he told us to do. He could tell us to love one another because he loved us so well. He told us to forgive one another because he had already forgiven us for our sins, “and not for ours only, but also the sins of the whole world.” So how did Jesus set for us the example of laying up treasure in heaven? What treasure could he lack, the creator and king of both heaven and earth? “We are the treasure of Christ, the precious prize for which he sacrificed everything,” Joel explained.
    The young woman, Emese, who was translating for Joel said, “Mi a Krisztus kincseje.”
    Joel looked at Emese and thought she had not truly heard what he was saying, so he repeated it, “WE are the treasure of Christ.”
    Emese looked a little puzzled and repeated, MI a Kristus kincseje?”
    Joel said it a third time, speaking right to Emese, because he realized that this message was especially for her. “We are the TREASURE of Christ.”
    She began to weep. She was a pastor’s daughter, the graduate of the oldest seminary in Hungary, She had grown up in the church. But she had always considered herself a person on the fringe, not really useful or valued by God. Finally she said, through her tears, “Mi a Kristus KINCSEJE!”
    Emese became my dearest friend in Hungary. She joined Wycliffe translators and has lived and worked in Africa ever since, in Sudan and Kenya and Uganda and Nigeria and now in South Africa translating the gospels in Zimbabwe. She is laying up for herself so rich a treasure in heaven of people who will learn that Jesus values them and treasures them and lived and died and rose again for them because she is writing the story in a language they can understand.

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