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Cities of Refuge

Moses instructed the people of Israel to establish cities of refuge on both sides of the Jordan, so that anyone who accidentally or unintentionally killed another person might seek shelter and gain temporary asylum until their case had been heard by the elders of the city (Numbers 35). This statute was designed to protect the innocent from ‘rough justice’, and to stop a cycle of revenge killings breaking out, thereby crippling society (think Northern Ireland or Rwanda).

Joshua reiterated these instructions several years later adding that when someone who had accidentally or unintentionally killed another person fled to a city of refuge, the elders of the city were to take him into the city ‘as one of them’ and give him a place that he may dwell among them (Joshua 20).

If almost 40 years of pastoral ministry has taught me anything, it is that most people get involved in sin ‘accidentally or unintentionally’. (Think, for example, of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden). Even repeat offenders that end up in jail don’t usually start out with the deliberate intention of leading a life of crime. Other factors may be involved such as peer pressure, social marginalization, chronic impoverishment, or authoritarian abuse. I’m not suggesting that the ‘accidental or unintentional’ element mitigates one’s responsibility for one’s actions — in order to fix up the mess, one has to start by taking ownership of it. But it goes a long way to explaining how people get themselves into these positions in the first place.

For this reason the Bible uses phrases like ‘falling into various trials’, or being ‘caught in a trespass’, or being ‘overcome by sin’. And reading the history of Israel, it appears that God made provision for the weaknesses and shortcomings of his people, who ‘accidentally or unintentionally’ found themselves in trouble. Indeed, he understands our constitution; he remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103.14).

In a similar way, God has appointed the church to be a place of refuge in the community, a sanctuary to which people may ‘flee’ when they find themselves overwhelmed with the pressures of life. All too often, however, the church has proved to be a place of judgment — a dangerous place in which to find one’s self when one’s life doesn’t measure up to the status quo. Jesus warned his disciples, “Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues” (Matt 10.17). How sad! A house that is supposed to be a place of worship and prayer and instruction in the Scriptures — a safe place — instead becomes a place of scourging!

Writing to the churches in Galatia, Paul urged, “If a person is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6.1-2). The message is clear: “Don’t shoot the wounded!” Interestingly, the Greek word katartizo, translated ‘restore’, was used in secular Greek for setting broken bones in surgery, and is used in Matthew 4.21 for mending fishing nets. It means to do whatever is necessary to make something whole again and fit for service. I couldn’t think of a better definition of ‘grace’!

In essence, Paul is saying, “If you think you are spiritually mature, if you think you are a partaker of the divine nature, if you think you are filled with the Spirit of God, demonstrate it by the way in which you deal with those who have ‘accidentally or unintentionally’ fallen into sin. Be a redeemer. Be a restorer. Be a re-builder. For in so doing, you will fulfill the law of Christ which is love.”

The ‘burdens’ of which Paul speaks, are the sins that so easily beset us; the frailties of our human nature; the weaknesses of our flesh. Instead of condemning and rejecting those who have buckled under the weight of sin, we should reach out a hand and raise them to their feet, and then together, shoulder to shoulder, help them carry the load. Indeed, that’s a beautiful picture of the character and ministry of the Holy Spirit who ‘comes alongside to help’ (John 14.16) and ‘takes hold together with us’ of the load we are carrying (Rom 8.26). No wonder Paul exhorted the Galatians to ‘walk in the Spirit’!

Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises

Addressing the church in Laodicea, Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3.20). There is something terribly ironic about this picture: Jesus standing outside and knocking on the door of the church that bears his name, hoping that someone — anyone — will be attentive enough to notice his presence and invite him in.

Laodicea was a city in Asia Minor, situated on the heavily traveled road from Ephesus to Syria. An important center of commerce, Laodicea was noted for its banking operations, its linen and wool production, and its pharmaceutical industry. The church of Laodicea was one of the most wealthy and powerful, yet spiritually impoverished churches of the first century, no doubt reflecting the cultural environment in which it found itself.

Think about it: if Jesus was to actually knock at the door, what would he look like? Even Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener (John 20.15), and the disciples on the road to Emmaus assumed he was a tourist (Luke 24.18). Isaiah testified, “He has no stately form or majesty, and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53.2). It would appear from the record of scripture that he is the master of many disguises.

Several years ago I read a book entitled ‘The Holocaust: a history of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War’ by Martin Gilbert. Of the many heart-wrenching stories of courage and sacrifice, one in particular stood out to me. The author describes an incident that took place in the town of Ejszyszki in southeastern Lithuania, in the fall of 1941. On September 21st, an Einsatzgruppe (SS paramilitary death squad) entered the town, accompanied by Lithuanian auxiliaries.

Approximately 4,000 Jews from Ejszyszki and neighboring towns and villages were imprisoned in three buildings, including the synagogue, and kept without food and water. Beginning on the morning of September 25th and continuing through the next day, men, women and children were taken in groups of 250 to the old Jewish cemetery where SS soldiers ordered them to undress and stand at the edge of specially prepared pits, before being shot.

Sixteen year old Zvi Michalowski was standing next to his father when he slipped on the muddy embankment and fell into the pit a fraction of a second before a volley of shots rang out. Smothered by corpses, he dared not move or make a sound until the executioners finished celebrating and departed the scene. Hours later he climbed out of the pit, stark naked and covered with blood and human excrement, and headed for the nearest houses in the hope that someone would take him in.

Michalowski knocked on the first door desperately pleading, “Please let me in!” A Christian peasant opened the door and upon realizing who he was, shouted “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong”, slamming the door in his face. After a series of similar responses, Michalowski approached the house of an elderly widow who lived on the edge of the forest. At first she screamed at him, “Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery”, and attempted to chase him away with a burning piece of wood.

In desperation, Michalowski came up with a radical plan. Knocking on the door once again, he said, “I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me — the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” Being a devout Catholic, the widow crossed herself and fell at his bloodstained feet. “Boze moj, Boze moj,” she exclaimed as she continued to cross herself. “My God, my God,” and opened the door to let him in.

‘Jesus Christ’ aka Zvi Michalowski promised to bless the widow and her children and her farm, providing she kept his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not tell another soul, not even the local priest. In gratitude, she gave Michalowski food and clothing and warm water with which to wash himself. Before leaving the house three days later, he solemnly reminded her that the Lord’s visit must remain a secret because of his special mission on earth. Thenceforth Michalowski escaped to the forest and joined the partisans, surviving to tell his remarkable story.

As I read Martin Gilbert’s account, I thought to myself, “That’s not very good, impersonating the Lord, claiming to be Jesus.” Almost immediately I heard a voice inside me saying, “But he was right; it was Jesus.” And then I remembered the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus declared, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt 25.40). “But when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink, a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you, or sick and in prison and visit you?” they will ask. When indeed!

Describing her ministry to the ‘poorest of the poor’ in Calcutta, the diminutive Albanian nun, Mother Teresa, said, “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises.” The person standing at the door, seeking refuge, may well be Jesus in one of his distressing disguises. As Joshua enjoined, “Receive them as one of your own, and give them a place that they may dwell among you.” For in doing it unto them, we are doing it unto the Lord himself.

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