Perhaps one of the harshest commands of the Lord pertains to the cleanness or uncleanness of a man. As important as community is to God, as essential as it is that His people live and work and love together as one, He has quite a few rules about who can be part of that community and who can't, and when those who are a part of that community have to step out and stop being part of it for some time.
Read through these rules, and you start to wonder who was actually in the community of Israel at any given time. Women were cut off from it for at least two weeks a month, one week for their period and one week for cleansing afterward. Men were cut off every time they had an emission, including nocturnal emissions, which are not at all uncommon. Anyone who came upon a dead body or had someone die near them was cut off, so every time someone in your family died, if you tended to them, you were cut off.
If you got a cut or a scratch or a sore that even halfway looked like a skin disease, you were cut off until it could be proven that it was just a cut or a scratch. If you were balding in a weird pattern, you were cut off until you were actually totally bald. If your house had mildew in it, you had to move out of it for at least a week and all your stuff was unclean. That leaves you with not a lot of places to go.
If you really pay attention to this section of the Scripture, you can't help but start to think how often you yourself would even be cut off from the people. And it seems like such a lonely life, living outside the camp. Isolated. Unable to be among your people.
But that's not exactly the case.
See, God says you're not allowed in the camp, but He never says you have to be alone. And given the sheer number of Israelites who had to be cut off at any given time, just by nature of being human beings, the truth is that even in your uncleanness, you were probably never alone. You may not be allowed to be among your people, but you're in a new kind of community nonetheless. And these are your people.
It takes some of the sting out of it, doesn't it? It's terrible to be a woman cut off from her community for at least two weeks a month, but when you realize that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other women cut off from their community for two weeks a month, you can't help but know you're going to run into each other. You're going to gather water together and cook food together and live in unclean tents together. And not just with yourselves, but with the men who have had emissions and have come to join you. With those who have lost loved ones and who grieve outside the camp because they are unclean. With those who have a potentially contagious skin disease, but even probably not, who have seven days to watch their scars form.
All of a sudden, "cut off" doesn't seem like such a bad place to be. It's kind of like home, just...different.
And then when you think about Jesus, when you look at the kinds of persons He interacted with most, you see that they mostly belong to this community. They were the unclean, the defective, the rejected. They were the ones least likely to be "in;" most decidedly "out." They were the blind, the deaf, the lame, the demon-possessed. They were the liars, the thieves, the sinners. They were the ones with reputations, and not really good ones. The last ones to be invited to any party, the ones not actually invited at all.
Yet we spend so much of our time, so much of our energies, creating the "in." Pretending to be the community. Pretending to have it all right, and willingly, violently, firmly cutting off those who don't fit, condemning them by our own decree into a life of isolation. We think.
But there's always been a second community. Always. There's always been a place, together, for those cut off. There's always been an unclean place teeming with life abundant nonetheless, teeming with grace and mercy. And it's often these "outcasts" that are getting it most right.
Maybe we could all use to be a little more unclean. I don't know. Maybe we could all use this kind of broken, ugly, discarded, uncertain community, where persons come in and out, come and go, stay and leave, weave themselves in and walk out, but where Jesus, too, walks freely among us. A place teeming with life abundant, even if it looks like death. Teeming with grace and mercy, though it seems to have started in judgment.
A place where the people of God are getting it right.