Hookworm. Largely eradicated in the U.S. for nearly a century, these tiny parasites are one of the leading causes of maternal and child mortality in the tropics and subtropics. Debilitating the immune system, they are a known cause of anemia, and hookworm infections can make the body more susceptible to malaria and HIV.
But in 2004, David Pritchard, a British immunologist, applied a bandage to his arm covered in hookworm larva, intentionally infecting himself. This wasnât an act of self-destruction but was the beginning of years of study into the possible benefits of the tiny parasites.
The hookworm, like all of our earthly co-habitants, evolved alongside us, and in this case, within us, in an intricate balance. As it turns out, hookworms, in small amounts, can work to keep our sometimes overactive immune system in check. A small hookworm infection can serve to prevent certain allergic reactions in humans, to reduce asthma, and eradicate hay fever. Allergies, in their modern ubiquitous array of manifestations, may be, in part, a result of our attempt to sanitize our world and rid ourselves of this and other tiny parasites.
In our culture, we are obsessed with sanitation and control. For many of us, our vision of the reign of God, whether we call it that or not, is one of simplification, where there exist no unknowns, where the world is a mechanical, predictable, responsive, finite network, and where justice is a system of equal give and take.
The signs of this vision are all around us, as are the signs of its destructiveness. In our attempt to groom Godâs creation into a controlled environment, weâve cleared millions of acres of forestland, prairie, and meadows for single cash crops. Weâve dramatically reduced the biodiversity of our most populated areas in order to make them safe for a handful of domesticated species. Weâve developed simplistic systems of labor, talent, and currency equivalences. Weâve envisioned a world as white as individually plastic-wrapped disposable cutlery; the whiteness of a single-use fork to accompany our individually packaged organic spinach salad.
But todayâs readings remind us that the world is a complex, messy place. Consider the reading from Isaiah. The Jewish people of the prophetâs time had a vision similar to ours: a world where simple exchanges could right the spiritual disorder, where quick cures would undo long-term spiritual decline and disease. Their hands were bloodied with their burnt offerings, their schedules were filled with church-stuff without really engaging the broken world surrounding them. But the justice of God asks more: âCease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.â
One would think that these commands would be clear enough. Stop doing bad; do good. But God, speaking through Isaiah, admits to the fallacy of any system of symbols, even language. Isaiah, interpreting Godâs revelation, speaks the beautiful line: âCome now, let us argue it out.â Or in other translations âSit down. Let us reason together.â In an invitation, God, through Isaiah, admits to humankind that even Godâs commandments, when written in human language, are insufficient to know and envision the reign of God.
God calls us into conversation, even argument, over what it is to follow Godâs will, to resist, to listen, to adapt, to contest, to move forward in relationship with God. God speaks to the continuing revelation of Godâs will in the world, a revelation dependent on relationship, on placed-ness, on the past and the present realities of human life from which we speak, and read, and act. It is in this âarguing outâ of justice that God offers us the possibility of redemption, of the cleansing that makes us âlike snow.â
But the whiteness of snow can be a slippery slope into the vision of a dry-erase world, where the past is forgotten in an attempt to not be bound to it. Who has not heard or sang of the cleansing power of the blood of the lamb? We are to be washed as white as snow by the blood of the lamb, by claiming him as our personal Lord and Savior. Sometimes we imagine that Jesus is the ultimate re-start button, that to find and be found by Jesus is to forget the past and simply live by love into the future. But that is not the Jesus we encounter in todayâs gospel reading.
Thereâs a fun childrenâs song to tell the story:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, âZacchaeus, you come down;
âFor I'm going to your house today, for I'm going to your house today.â
But the story is not quite so simple. Zaccheus is a tax-collector and a rich man. His money had been made through the extortion of the people by the ruling empire, and by his own wickedness, as he tells it, in âdefraudingâ others. Having welcomed Jesus into his house, having come into personal relationship with him, having not only seen Jesus, but having been seen by and recognized by Jesus, he was transformed. As a result, Zacchaeus took it upon himself to make restitution for his past.
This is not a case of âGo and sin no more.â Zaccheus had to confront those he has wronged, paying them back four times what he has wrongfully taken. The restitution, the resurrection, is in the confrontation with God that results in a confrontation with ourselves, our pasts, and our world. The âarguing outâ of Godâs justice is a complex invitation.
âCease to do evil.â What is the evil we turn from?
âLearn to do good.â Who will teach us the good?
âSeek justice.â How will we know justice when we find it?
âRescue the oppressed.â Who, indeed, are the oppressed and how are we called to rescue them?
âCome now, let us argue it out.â
As a faith community, we have often found it sufficient to say we are âopen and affirmingâ or tolerant or inclusive. We have hung banners and said, âAll are welcome.â
But have we truly wrestled with the reality of the experience of people who are oppressed? What might it look like to pay back fourfold what we have wrongfully taken in terms of dignity, social place, relationship, and of life? Not just to this community at this time in this place, but to all those we have wronged and continue to wrong? What might this type of justice look like? We must âargue it out,â with God, with each other, and ultimately with God present in those we have wronged.
The question is not whether we should stop trying to eradicate hookworm or move forward into more inclusive communities. The issue at hand is confronting the reality that we are not operating in the artificial whiteness of a lab, or in the mansions of an imagined hereafter. The vision that we share with the ancient Hebrews, that vision of a sanitized and simple world that can become a productive, predictable, controllable machine operating within the confines of human logic, will always be a violent and destructive dream. At the end of the day, we will always be called from real lives with real relationships to make real sacrifices for the sake of real justice.
The crumbs will always fall to the linen, the wine will always drip from the chalice, and, by grace, the body will always be broken open and shared. Come, let us argue it out.