And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out…
We’ve been contemplating how, especially in the last several weeks, in Luke’s Gospels, there is a clash between worlds, between an Old Testament world of the Law and a New Testament world of the Gospel. The parable of the good Samaritan runs along these lines, as does the account of the ten lepers. This week’s account certainly follows the pattern as well.
Each of these Gospel begins with the world of the Law, or the Old Testament. Now, just because it’s the Old Testament world, or the world of the Law, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or wrong. Jesus Himself said He didn’t come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.
Several times the New Testament talks of the Old Testament Law as a shadow, or type. Here are a few examples of that:
From Colossians: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
Two from Hebrews: “For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things”
“For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.”
The things of the Law were a shadow of “the good things to come.” They themselves could not ultimately do what needed to be done, but they pointed forward to the One Who would do those things. Insofar as they pointed forward to something quite real, and insofar as they were shadows cast by something substantially real and true, they themselves point to important truths. In fact, understanding Old Testament Law through Christ can give dimension to the substance that might be missed if all we had were the New Testament.
So, we make a mistake if we say the Old Testament Law is perverse, or profane. For example, the priest and Levite were wrong in their application of the law on corpses, but they weren’t wrong to have that law at the fore of their minds. Crossing the street, in a sense, was the proper first response – it was the second response that needed some work.
Or again, the nine lepers obeying Jesus and continuing to go to the priest wasn’t wrong – it was not only what the Law taught but what Jesus commanded! However, in not seeing in Christ the true High Priest who fulfilled the Law, they lacked in faith, and so Jesus shamed them.
In this week’s Gospel, as we learn how God’s Law places dead bodies and those who handle them outside the city gates, we might think this is cruel, or perverse, or “Old Testamental.” We might think, there goes that mean old God from the Old Testament again, banning people and “other-izing” them. He’s building walls, when He should be building bridges. He should be more like that New Testament God, Jesus!
Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is classic Gnosticism, to make such a dichotomy between the Old Testament “God” and New Testament “God.” Both “Gods” are one and the same Triune God, our Lord. Furthermore, the God of the Old Testament abounded in mercy often, even as Jesus could and will display great judgment and wrath.
The Law placed dead bodies and those who handled them outside the gates because God has nothing to do with death. God is a God of life and wants a people of life around Him. Death can have no part with life. This He showed us already in Eden, when He cast Adam and Eve outside its gates. You could argue as the doors of the ark were shut, the Lord was shutting the dying world outside of His new gates, the door of the ark. Or, in a sense the Lord shut the gates of the Red Sea as He separated His people from Egypt.
But all of this was in type, because in the end, Noah, Moses, and all of Israel remained in their sins and under the curse of death. Only in Christ would heaven’s gates be opened. Only at His birth are we given to see the angels singing “Glory be to God on high.” Only at His baptism are we given to see heaven split open and hear the Trinity revealed. And only at His ascension are we given to receive the Holy Spirit who lifts up our humanity through the open gates, to receive in Christ our status at God’s right hand at the altar.
Jesus comes into our arena of death in order to fulfill what that community of life was intended to foreshadow, and creates a real community of life. But the shadow and type remain teachers of truths. Still, there is a great cleavage going on, a separating of God’s people from the arena of death, or, the arena now of those who don not believe. As St. Paul put it, “For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?”
Throughout the New Testament, there is a great cleaving going on, a fissuring off of the new world from the old, that parallels the cleaving off of death from the community of life. The Church itself is a “calling out” of a new people from the old. This is true of Christ, His Church, and individual Christians.
As for the Church, deadly sins or doctrines should have nothing to do with it. They should be “cut off,” like the hand or eye that causes the body to sin. As for individual Christians, that which leads to death – willful and unrepentant sin, false doctrines – should be severed from the body, “cast outside the city gates.” It is very much a teaching of the Scriptures.
But why the separation? Because death has a contagious effect. It sickens the body, real bodies and metaphorical bodies. Dead teachings can lead a whole church to death. Dead behaviors can drive a soul away from Christ into eternal death.
This is why the Church excommunicates, for the good of the body, with the hope that the one excommunicated will be shocked into similarly excommunicating whatever it is in his life that is causing death in his own life.
Of course, for those who repent, who turn to Christ, Jesus is more than willing to enter into their unclean-ness and save us. That is most clearly seen in this week’s Gospel. Indeed, it is where Jesus does His work, at the place of God’s abandonment. For now, He did not come to judge, but to save.