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The ecclesiological, ethical and missionary weight of the “margin”

At the ends of the earth

 Ai confini della terra  DCM-008
02 September 2023

The work of John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus was met with great acclaim. The book was published between 1991 and 2016, and the five volumes -each of hundreds of pages-, is the fruit of monumental research by the American Catholic priest. He was a biblical scholar who died at the age of 80 on  October 18, 2022, before completing the sixth volume. His magnum opus makes us consider Jesus for the first time in the way his contemporaries must have considered him, which is as “a marginal Jew”, revealed in the deliberately provocative title.

The theme of marginality and, in a very special way, the marginality of Jesus, has animated heated discussions among scholars of biblical texts. For Maria-Luisa Rigato, who is also a biblical theologian, and an authentic Roman Catholic, she is the first woman to have had access immediately after Vatican II to the Pontifical Biblical Institute and who felt the full weight of that universality to which the title “Catholic” refers. It was difficult to accept the reduction of the Church to marginality and, even more so, the attribution to Jesus of Nazareth of the title as “marginal”.

That of the “margins” is in fact a category that has entered fully into public discourse, including theological and ecclesial discourse; however, precisely for this reason it needs to be handled with great care.

Besides describing a social or religious location, it in fact contains a strong ideological charge and conveys contradictory thrusts. It indicates exclusion or inclusion. Moreover, even if it is not explicitly found in the gospel, the terminology of marginality well defines its parable.

Jesus of Nazareth only occasionally overstepped the boundary within which he inscribed his mission because he felt that he had been “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). However, he demanded with all his might to put back at the centre of the people amidst all those who, for the most diverse reasons, had been pushed outside the margins established by the institution; for example, the sick, sinners, children, and women. Starting from the Risen One’s mandate to make “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), then, throughout the Church’s history, the Christian mission has always gone beyond the centre, be it in Jerusalem, Antioch or Rome, until it reached “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), always seeking, in every situation, not to neglect the marginalised, the poor, the widows, and the sick.

The “margin”, in short, can be considered as an indispensable theological category because of its ecclesiological, ethical and missionary weight. It indicates a movement that is both centrifugal and centripetal, a dynamic that is intrinsic to the gospel itself and the history of its dissemination in the world.

If for many centuries, the movement was predominantly centrifugal because the disciples of the Risen Lord overcame border after border, and managed to contribute, albeit sometimes to a greater extent than others did, to overcoming forms of social as well as ecclesial marginality. Today, the Roman Catholic Church experiences strong centripetal thrusts.

The progressive globalization of the episcopal college and the pontificate has meant that from the lands, cultures and churches to which Christian missionaries have gone, there is now a push to make their voice heard at the centre of the church. A theological, liturgical, spiritual voice that comes from hitherto marginal believing communities into which, however, the gospel of Jesus has arrived and penetrated because the Word continues day after day to become flesh and to make every people on earth his people (cf. John 1:14). The story of the “marginal Jew” is a parable that repeats itself and will continue to repeat itself, composing in ever-new ways the dynamic between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Of all this, Pope Francis is witness and emblem. On this, and not on shop-floor skirmishes, he will be given his place in the great story. His family story of emigration and personal vocation is a metaphor for a world in which the centre-periphery relationship has profoundly changed.

History is also teaching churches that the margins are thresholds that can be crossed in either direction. Crossing them, however, is never painless.

What does it mean, for example, for a Roman-centric Church, which has always only exported its own beliefs and customs, to listen to the theology that comes from the “borders of the empire”, to welcome the requests that come from the “marginal churches”

In addition, what does it mean for Christian communities scattered throughout the world to overcome the many forms of marginalisation due to inequalities, that is, to call back beyond the margins beyond which life has pushed them, the poor first and foremost, be they men or women or entire peoples? Who knows how many generations it will take to decline the word “synodality”. However, Francis has shown the way and is trying to trace it. He is pursuing his dream of a church, but also of a humanity, where all voices can sing in the same choir.

By Marinella Perroni