I live in New Jersey, and in a part of New Jersey that one might call "densely populated." What that means, effectively, is that if you leave my home and travel in any direction it would be difficult without boundary signs to tell what town or borough through which you were traveling. I live two towns over from the parish I serve, a commute of just under 4.5 miles...and unless you know the boundaries it would appear as one, contiguous community. All the same, if you ask a long-time resident about the town lines, they can tell you where they are, almost down to the meter. South River is not Spotswood. East Brunswick is not Old Bridge, etc. Sometimes those boundaries demarcate rivalries (mostly between High School sports teams), but on the whole those boundaries simply allow citizens of each community a sense of identity and connection with each other as well as with folks in the surrounding communities.
Boundaries gives us an awareness of identity in community. Boundaries help us to order relationships with our neighbors, both the intimate and the distant. Boundaries define, even protect, those relationships. They teach us about each other, while keeping enough distance to allow perspective. Boundaries are important for the good they do, and in our scriptures today, those boundaries (social, geographic, political and pastoral) set the stage even for our continuing relationship as a human family with each other and with God.
Boundaries can also limit, isolate and even harm self and community when they are abused.
In Numbers, as Moses works with God and Israel to prepare them for the crossing of the Jordan and the entrance into the Promised Land, boundaries are the order of the day. God frames the limits of the borders of the Promised Land, and at the same time the first, initial distributions of what will be the inheritance of the tribes is established. The tribes of Gad, Reuben and a portion of the tribe of Manasseh ask for pasture land beyond the Jordan, and are only given that portion when they commit their warriors to go before the other tribes as they take control of the Land. The Levites are given the cities, and portions of land around them for their subsistence and support. The conflict with the Midianites, as violent and terrible as it is, also allows God to define what contact with people who are not Israel will look like when Israel enters into the Land, and into closer relationship with those folk who do not share their faith identity.
Psalm 51 is one of the "personal" songs of David: his profound lament that asks God for forgiveness for his great sins. It recognizes a series of violations of boundaries, and trust, between David and his people (particularly Bathsheba and Uriah) as well as a brokenness between David and God. David's lament is both a confession of wrong doing and a expressed desire for restoration...and a healing of the broken boundaries between the king and everybody else.
|"Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me..."|
In a world where boundaries are continually under assault, and where the grey areas between us and others are becoming increasingly fuzzy, I look at today's readings as an invitation for us all to explore and meditate not only on how we can affirm healthy boundaries to protect ourselves; but also how in fostering healthy and holy boundaries we are able to see, love and respect the people around us in our communities with whom we share our lives and to whom we are called to witness the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.