Social distancing is causing some interesting behaviours; queues outside supermarkets; neighbours having conversations across the street; pedestrians literally ‘crossing over to the other side’ when seeing others coming towards them; walkers finding the equivalent of the passing places more usually associated with single track roads; and, generally, people engaging in a kind of stately gavotte as they seek to maintain the recommended two metres apart.
While our experience of this may feel new, social distancing has always been with us – and it’s even in the Bible. Once, as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and travelling through the region between Galilee and Samaria, he entered an unnamed village where he was met by ten lepers, (see Luke 17:11-19). I say ‘met’, but Luke tells us they kept their distance and, like a conversation I recently had with a neighbour of mine, had to raise their voices to be heard: ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’
Jesus responds by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests, since according to the law only a priest could pronounce someone clean from a skin disease, (see Leviticus 13). As they set out to do exactly this all ten were cured, but the real impact of the story for now comes in what happens next.
One of the ten, a Samaritan and, therefore, considered an outsider, is the only one to come back to thank Jesus. Now there is no need for distance, not for illness, nor ethnicity, nor even religious scruples, and he throws himself at Jesus’ feet in adoration and praise. I can’t tell from the text if Jesus is dismayed, or angry, or perplexed (answers on a postcard!) that only one of the ten returned to thank him – and he a foreigner! – but the interlude ends with Jesus telling the Samaritan, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I simply want to make a couple of comments for us to be thinking about arising from this episode.
Firstly, while I believe the current social distancing is an important and necessary safeguard, I hope our society learns enough never to go back to that kind of social exclusion based on prejudice, or fear, or indifference. Often it’s only when something has been taken away that we fully appreciate it and, if there is one thing the present situation has brought home, it is the value of human interaction and connection. That brief conversation, that casual encounter, may have seemed relatively trivial at the time, but now we know these are the things which can give life and are far more vital than those differences which drive people apart.
Secondly, no matter how isolated we may be feeling today, God is always with us, ready to be approached in praise and worship. This lockdown may be the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time to reconnect with God and his word, to rediscover the depth of prayer and, through it all, to find that peace which only Jesus can provide. Social distancing is something we’re all learning to live with, but holy nearness may well be one long-lasting benefit.
Rev Dr Jim Coleman, Synod Development Officer