Do you know the difference between a barrier and a threshold? It’s actually quite an important distinction.
The old saying goes “good fences make good neighbors” and there’s no disputing that clear boundaries are necessary in relationships for there to be healthy communion between persons. But, what happens when a boundary gets used to diminish the value of others or even exclude someone from the “group” simply because they are who they are? Well, anyone who says there is no ambiguity here simply isn’t paying attention to real life. But there is a way to navigate this ambiguity. It just takes a little faith!
Look at our lesson today in Acts 21:26-32:
IN THOSE DAYS, Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself with them and went into the temple, to give notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for every one of them. When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up all the crowd, and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimos the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was aroused, and the people ran together; they seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them; and when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
Here, St. Paul is taking the advice of St. James to go through a purification rite of the Jewish faith to put a stop to the slander being made about Paul that he was a destroyer of the Jewish faith. Paul had been a very effectual preacher to the whole area and convinced many that Jesus was, in fact, the promised Jewish Messiah and that He had risen from the dead! Of course those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah saw Paul as someone who was destroying Judaism with his strange doctrines. St. James suggests that St. Paul perform this purification ritual to publicly display that he wasn’t destroying the Faith, but fulfilling it!
Of course, this didn’t work. Even though Paul sincerely and piously does this faithful spiritual labor to show he has no intentions of dismissing thousands of years of pious spiritual labors, his enemies are convinced he’s broken a boundary of Judaism by bringing a “gentile” (a Greek) into the Temple thus violating a sacred boundary.
What these enemies of St. Paul don’t, or won’t, realize is that God Himself has every intention of bringing “Greeks” into the Faith! The previous boundaries were meant to teach, not forever prevent!
And here is where our Faith grants us wisdom in the ambiguities of life. We have to have boundaries if we are going to be able to discern where the dangers are in life. We have to have those warning symbols to say “Be careful, you’re approaching a cliff.” Boundaries, distinctions, canon law, moral principles all serve to teach and inform and protect. That’s their purpose. At the same time we humans have proven how good we are at making boundaries barriers if we take our eye off the purpose of the boundaries. We start acting as if the boundaries are ends in themselves. And that’s never the case. These enemies of St. Paul had no intentions of ever seeing the Jewish teachings concerning themselves and the Gentiles as anything other than an eternal barrier between these two groups of people. They were wrong, and they were wrong because they misunderstood the purpose of the boundaries in the first place. By the way, this scene will see Paul arrested and him then being taken to the Roman Emperor for trial. He will be killed for his faith.
Today, it’s so easy to go into automatic pilot when it comes to the wisdom of the Faith. We assume the wisdom of the Faith is meant to exclude people when actually it’s meant to provide spiritual medicine to heal ALL people. We have no human enemies if we’re Orthodox on Purpose.