The God of Israel and the Children of Other Nations: The Lectionary for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

The God of Israel and the Children of Other Nations: The Lectionary for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost June 27, 2016
An unidentified icon of the 70 apostles. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.
An unidentified icon of the 70 apostles. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.

2 Kings 5:1-14 and/or Isaiah 66:10-14

What It’s About: These passages really don’t have a ton to do with each other. The 2 Kings passage is about Naaman, a mighty warrior with leprosy, and a servant girl, unnamed, who suggests to him that he could be healed by a prophet of her homeland, Israel. The Isaiah text is a classic text of consolation–casting both Jerusalem and God’s self as mothering, feminine figures. The common thread is the feminine–in the girl’s case faithful awareness, and in the Isaiah case the protective and providing care of a mother.

What It’s Really About: The 2 Kings text is a complicated one. It combines a few different variables into a single story, but at its heart it is a fairly standard belief/disbelief story. People who like to imagine that the New Testament is somehow fundamentally different from the Hebrew Bible should take note of this story; it’s easy to imagine Jesus telling something like this as a parable. It’s a kind of enacted story about the girl’s knowledge of the truth in the face of foreign ignorance of Israel’s God.

What It’s Not About: The girl’s name isn’t mentioned, giving the impression that that bit of information was irrelevant. And it probably was, in that patriarchal place and time. We’d prefer to know it, though, because we recognize that the girl has made the most important contribution of the story. Her namelessness adds to our sense that this story is somewhat parable-like; a young servant girl stands in for “the most unlikely figure” in the catalog of anonymous narrative characters.

Maybe You Should Think About: Maybe think about telling this story from the girl’s perspective. Why is she suggesting an Israelite prophet to heal her captor’s leprosy? Is it altruism or hope? Is it a way to curry favor, or get word back home that she’s alive, or something else? There are a lot of possible reasons, but “I am a faithful Israelite and I know that the prophets of Israel and the God of Israel are the only ones that can heal you, dear master” seems like one of the least plausible ones. Why is this girl bringing this to the attention of higher-ups?

 

Galatians 6:1-16

What It’s About: This passage from near the end of Galatians is part of Paul’s final exhortation to the Galatians. The letter that has preceded this passage has been contentious and angry; Paul is defensive about his own ministry and the status of the Galatians in the letter, and here at the end he might be talking a bit to himself. “You do you” might be the best translation for the age of Facebook memes. Take care of your own business. Don’t mind others’ business so much. (Paul is one to talk, given what’s come before in the letter).

What It’s Really About: Like so much in this letter, here at the end Paul is concerned with gentile immorality. This whole section is a reminder to the gentile Galatians that they need to take seriously their responsibility to be morally upright. Like most Jews, Paul thought of most gentiles as incorrigibly corrupt, given to sin and generally unsavory things. At the end of his letter, Paul is one more time trying to remind his congregation to stay on the wagon. There is a little bit of a sense here that Paul is trading on some shared history and language–I would bet that “God will not be mocked” is a phrase the Galatians had heard before. In any case this is a reminder, not a new teaching. This is a “don’t forget” at the end of the sermon.

What It’s Not About: This is not the point of the passage, but verse 11 is one of my favorite verses in the New Testament. It’s a little insight into Paul’s writing process; he had a scribe write the bulk of the letter, but at the end he took the pen and added his own greetings. And his handwriting was not as good as the scribe’s. What a marvelous little detail!

Maybe You Should Think About: Verses 12-15 are interesting. If Paul is here writing in his own hand, in large untidy letters, and if he’s closing the letter out that way, then the stuff he writes there must be really important. He must think that it’s a kind of synopsis of the rest that’s come before. And what does he talk about? Circumcision and boasting. That’s a good indication of Paul thinks the letter has been about, and what he wants the Galatians to remember about when they no longer have the letter in their hands.

 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

What It’s About: Here we have Jesus sending out “seventy others” to preach the gospel. This is an interesting moment; it’s a pretty dramatic strategy change for the historical Jesus, who seemed to mostly teach to crowds who followed him. This looks more like an evangelism program–like something that might have belonged to the later church, and not to Jesus’ own time. The instructions are interesting; they anticipate rejection and hostility. Why? And they also anticipate acceptance and welcome in other places. Why is that? Keeping in mind Luke’s audience (Roman generally, and possibly a Roman official named Theophilus in particular), what could this story be communicating?

What It’s Really About: This is a story about what happens with Jesus-followers move beyond the friendly boundaries of the communities in which Jesus had been operating, and begin to spread the message. There are other stories like this one–the Samaritan Woman comes to mind as someone who spreads the word beyond Jesus’ normal context, and the Syro-Phoenician woman also brings up this question of the boundaries of Jesus’ ministry. It seems like different gospel writers contended in different ways with the question of how and when and why the Jesus movement slipped out of its banks and began to move into the broader world. This story is one of that genre.

What It’s Not About: This is not really a blueprint for evangelism, no matter how much some people try to make it into one. For starters, the story presupposes a world that’s fairly split between hostility and acceptance, with not much in between; our world is a lot more subtle than that. And one of the most salient facts about the world today is that there are very few people for whom Jesus is news–Jesus is a pretty well-known guy. Some people just don’t like him. That’s a very different evangelism task than the one described in the text. Shaking the dust off your feet doesn’t seem like a good response. Better to take this story in its context, perhaps as a way of explaining how Christianity began to go global.

Maybe You Should Think About: Think about verse 19 as a caution against taking scripture too literally.

 

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