This is part 5 in a series on sanctuary, in response to the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly designation that the ELCA is a “sanctuary” denomination. You can read the other parts at the links below:
Today we turn our attention to Sanctuary and Jesus. Let’s dive in. We are going to look at five passages of Scripture that pertain to Jesus and Sanctuary.
We’ll start with Matthew 18:21-22 – “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
You could argue that this passage only pertains to forgiveness. In a literal sense, yes. However, as we explored in Part 1, seeking sanctuary is exactly what we do when we participate in confession and forgiveness during our worship. Here in Matthew 18, Jesus is telling Peter that we are to offer sanctuary – to forgive someone over and over again. Through forgiveness, we show mercy. And mercy is withholding what a person deserves. Through forgiveness, we withhold the judgement they deserve, thus offering them sanctuary.
Still not convinced this passage of Scripture has anything to do with sanctuary, then we should read on to the next passage in Matthew 18. Versus 23-35 follow immediately after the short conversation between Jesus and Peter. In this case, Jesus offers a parable as a way to teach Peter what he mean by forgiveness.
“‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’”
Verse 27 specifically showcases the idea of sanctuary – “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.” In the case of the parable, it is the king – the giver and enforcer of the law who shows mercy and withholds punishment for the slave. The king would have every right to punish the slave. Instead he offers him sanctuary. That is until the slave refuses to offer sanctuary to one of his fellow slaves who owed him. At that point, sanctuary is removed and the slave suffers the punishment he deserves.
In relation to this, we can turn to Matthew 25. Versus 31-45 is where Jesus tells us how the nations will be judged:
“‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”
Throughout this passage, we hear Jesus talk about appropriate ways to interact with people. But not just any people. Jesus specifically names the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. These are the least of these, as Jesus says. They are at the bottom of society. These are the people who are often oppressed and exploited because they can be abused due to their station in life. In each case, Jesus tells us that we will be judged based on how we treat the least in society. Do we mistreat and/or ignore the lowest of society, or do we provide for them? In each case, providing for the least is providing sanctuary – offering them a place, or things that they didn’t earn. Giving these things aren’t required by law, but withholding them will have dire consequences for these people – maybe even death. Sanctuary saves their life by protecting these people from the dire consequences they face.
When we think of sanctuary saving a person’s life by protecting them from dire consequences, the best example would be the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.
Luke 10:25-37 begins with a conversation between Jesus and a religious lawyer who is trying to define who is in and who can be excluded. Jesus answers his question with the famous parable:
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
Samaritans and the Jews hated each other. Too often this parable is misunderstood to mean that we are supposed to do good things for other people. Yes, but that misses the whole point of why Jesus tells the parable. He tells the parable in response to the lawyer’s question about who is his neighbor. For this lawyer, he doesn’t see a Samaritan as a neighbor. We see that at the very end where he answers Jesus question about who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers with a technically correct answer – “The one who showed him mercy.” He can’t bring himself to simply say “The Samaritan.” And why is this lawyer so mad about this parable. Because it is the Samaritan who is providing sanctuary to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers. He cares for him, cleans him up, takes him to an inn. In short he protects him. The priest and the levite leave him on the side of the road. They do this because they are following the laws around being ritually clean. They do not want to touch the man, because to touch a corpse would make a person unclean. And you would have to jump through many hoops to become clean again. Thus, following the law lacks compassion and forbids a person from living out the two great commandments that are stated before the parable begins.
Instead, it is the Samaritan who shows compassion. He shows compassion by offering the beaten man sanctuary. It is in offering sanctuary that the Samaritan can embody the two great commandments at the beginning of the passage.
Jesus offered sanctuary to his disciples. One of the best examples is when he walked on water and calmed the sea.
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” (Matthew 14:22-33)
This passage of Scripture comes immediately after the feeding of the 5000+, which is it’s own sanctuary story. In the passage that I’m focusing on though, we see Jesus save the disciples from a violent storm. He calms the waters – does something that they don’t deserve. He provides sanctuary for them – a safe place that allows them to not experience the harshness of the sea.
Likewise, Jesus offers sanctuary to Peter by preventing him from suffering the consequences of the law of gravity – drowning. Jesus saves Peter, pulling him up out of the water. He offers him sanctuary.
The last example of Jesus and sanctuary is probably the best example.
“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:39-43)
This passage is taken from the larger section of Scripture on the crucifixion of Jesus in Luke 23. Here we hear the conversation between Jesus and the two thieves who are crucified with Jesus. The thieves are suffering the punishment they deserve for their crimes. However, their earthly punishment is just that – bound to earth. The first thief insults Jesus. Jesus doesn’t respond to him. He doesn’t condemn the man – there is no need. He is already condemned and serving his punishment.
But the second man defends Jesus. Jesus, having been crucified, is like the least of these from Matthew 25 – the least in society. The second thief pleads with Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. He is seeking sanctuary with Jesus because he has offered sanctuary to Jesus in the form of rebuking the other thief. And Jesus grants him sanctuary – not from the punishment he is receiving right now, but in this case, the sanctuary of paradise, something he doesn’t deserve, but which is given to him anyway.
Throughout this series we have explored the idea of sanctuary in our worship, our history, the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and with Jesus. Providing sanctuary is in alignment with God’s will and what God calls us to do. Providing sanctuary is a part of what it means to be a disciple. The simple reason is this – we receive sanctuary and are called and compelled to provide sanctuary to others because of the sanctuary we are given.