Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Word For the Week

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26


The theme suggested for today by the UCC worship planners is "restored". It's apt: the Old Testament reading concerns Abraham, called by God to found the nation of Israel at age 75, long past the age when sane men start families. Paul picks up on Abraham's story in the epistle lesson, telling us the patriarch

Did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred† years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.


To be restored, in these terms, means to have one's body returned to its full potential after having lost that ability.


In that sense, restoration is a hidden theme in the world, a yearning that often goes unvoiced. In America, we have entire industries devoted to it: beyond the obvious fields like medicine or health supplements (Bill in Portland recommends omega 3 fish oils), there's Hollywood, which thrives on selling stories about the magic of childhood, or how to recapture that magic once it's lost. If you have any doubts about what's at stake there, think about the number of male actors partnered with much younger female counterparts. Restoration, indeed: Viagra is a billion-dollar industry all by itself.


If you wanted to go further afield, you could look at funeral homes as being in the business of selling preservation, extending your chances of being restored even after you're deader than a doornail.


And I'm not pointing fingers here. You could make a fairly solid case that religion sells restoration as well--spiritual and emotional, if not physical. Walk down the "inspiration" aisle of your local bookstore if you don't believe me.


In any case, you wouldn't think such a concept would have political consequences, but restoration does.


You can see them at work in today's gospel lesson. In the first section, we read about Jesus' calling of Matthew the tax collector††. Through Jesus' grace, Matthew is restored socially; he goes from being an outcast to being a welcome member of the inner circle. When Jesus is challenged on this score, the metaphor he reaches for is one of physical healing: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."


I wonder who would be an equivalent outcast in today's society?


We skip over a brief controversy story, which only underlines the political divisions between Jesus' camp and the Pharisees.


And then the evangelist moves in for the kill: we read the remarkable double-healing story of the girl thought to be dead and the woman who touches the fringe of Jesus' garment as he is on his way to the child's bedside.


The implications here are inescapable and unsettling. Jesus' power to restore us, to heal us physically, are linked to his power to cut across social divisions. The same grace that allows Jesus to bring a little girl back to life allows him to reach out to those found socially unacceptable. The woman who touches his garment understands this, and so she breaks social convention.††† Her boldness earns her not just healing, but a blessing from Jesus: "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well."


It's easy to read these words and congratulate ourselves as progressives on being "accepting" types. But if we confront them honestly, the answers might not seem so comforting.


Take the issue of stem cell research, for example. It seems like an easy call, right? Democrats are the party that advocates stem cell research, Republicans are the party that rejects it on religious grounds. Open and shut.


But what are we to do with the information that egg donors for such research have been paid for their contributions? This is not an abstract question; the donation process is invasive, painful, and carries a significant amount of risk for infertility and even death. At the same time, the therapies developed from such research will almost certainly be expensive, at least initially. We therefore run the risk of paying for the restoration of the bodies of the wealthy at the cost of the bodies of the poor.


Don't misunderstand me here. I am not saying that stem cell research is unethical, or that it should not be conducted. I am identifying a potential problem, however. How is it that we restore the bodies of poor women to their full potential without exploitation, while simultaneously restoring the bodies of those who would benefit from stem cell-derived therapies? More generally, how do we honor the priorities of such poor women, who are often economically and physically exploited, while doing the same for those who suffer from terrible diseases around the world?


You tell me.

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