Lectionary Reflections for October 13, 2013
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Today’s readings require much interpretation. They point to the energetic movements of God in all things. They also suggest that God may be using pain and suffering as a tool of growth. On the positive side, God is not confined by space or time, or ethnicity. God’s resurrection life gives us courage to face the challenges of life. But, do these challenges come from the hand of God?
Living amid challenging circumstances in Jerusalem, Jeremiah sends an epistle to the economic and spiritual leaders exiled in faraway Babylon. Although they are detained against their will, just as Jeremiah is living in a vanquished city, they are still called to follow God’s vision. God is not limited by geography, government, or social position. God moves through all things and God’s vision is applicable to all life situations. This is a tremendous theological leap, for it implies that God’s realm is global and not restricted to a particular time or place. We can never escape God’s care or God’s ethical and spiritual vision. They are suffering, but suffering does not excuse us from following God’s vision for our lives.
Jeremiah advises the leaders to go on with their lives, live productively, raise families, and be in harmony with their oppressors. This is challenging advice to give and to accept both then and now: Jeremiah’s life has been radically changed by the Babylonian destruction and occupation of Jerusalem and his readers have been torn away from their homeland. Still, Jeremiah sees an intricate ecology of life and economics going on beneath the surface: what benefits Babylon benefits the Jewish people.
Should we take this advice seriously? How would this play out with Christians who are attacked in Syria, Pakistan? How would this shape the experiences of the persecuted underground church in China? How should this be interpreted by vulnerable USA citizens (people on the economic bubble) whose sources of income and health care may be stripped away in the current opposition to Food Stamps and the Affordable Healthcare Act? Would this have made sense to the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is hard to connect the wellbeing of these governments and the wealthy Americans who want to destroy the social safety net with the wellbeing of the persecuted and vulnerable?
Can we love these political and economic villains and yet oppose them? Can we challenge them without demonizing them, even when we may be tempted to thing they are doing the devil’s work? These are hard words to follow and can never be mandated to those on the margins. If anything, we need to do what is appropriate in our setting to challenge religious, economic and political oppression in our land and across the globe.
Another way to look at this text is to affirm that the universality of God’s presence is a challenge to any nationalistic “exceptionalism,” whether it is Jewish or American. Nations may have unique historical vocations, but this applies to all nations and not just ours.
Psalm 66 also needs to be read cautiously. If you don’t talk about it, and reflect on its theological challenges, then you should not have it read in worship. Too many theological problematic passages are read in church, where the people nod their heads and believe the words without question, and then apply them in interpreting their lives in problematic ways. Psalm 66 begins well: praise God for God’s blessings, for this good earth, and for God’s deliverance of the people. God is at work in our lives to bring about personal and communal well-being. Verses 9-11 require theological interpretation:
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12you let people ride over our heads.
This passage works if it alludes to a refining process in which some form of success is assured for those who suffer, or failure is not irreparable; there is truth to the statement “no pain, no gain” but only if there is a likelihood of gain. But, what if the congregant is facing incurable cancer or has lost a job and is on the verge of losing their home? What if a child, being bullied at school, hears this and assumed that God permits “people to ride over our heads?” Divine permission of evil and suffering and divine education with disease and defeat have been used to silence people in pain and justify illness. These passages, wrongly interpreted, make God an enemy and not a friend. Like the counsels of Jeremiah, they cannot be forced on sufferers, although sufferers may discover God’s presence amid their trials. God can never be used as a justification for unnecessary pain and suffering.
We can assert that God is working for our growth in adverse experiences and that we can learn from illness and failure. However, attributing the adverse experiences to God has and continues to do much harm and can also inspire the “haves” to relinquish responsibility for the wellbeing of the “have nots.”
The reading from I Timothy grounds Christian hope in the resurrection. Christ’s triumph over death gives us confidence and courage in the face of every threat. In light of the resurrection, the author has hope, despite the constraints of imprisonment. As mysterious as it may be to us, resurrection is an image of hope: God is faithful when we are faithless. God will give us life in the midst of death. In light of the resurrection, we are challenged to go beyond divisiveness, much of which is the result of clinging to words rather than the reality toward which they point.
Resurrection living challenges us to rightly explain the word of truth. While Paul does not tell us the nature of this word of truth, the issue is as much “how” as “what.” Do we share our understanding of faith in ways that heal or unite, or injure or divide? The fruits of our sharing are as much relational as doctrinal.
Meister Eckhardt once asserted that if the only prayer you make is “thank you,” that will suffice. In the gospel reading, the most unlikely one returns to say “thanks,” while Jesus’ countrymen go their own way, celebrating their cures. According to the story, Jesus sends ten lepers to see the priests, verify their healing, and return home ritually and physically cleansed. While they are suffering from leprosy, they remain bonded by their outcast status. But, on the pathway to the priests, suddenly the Samaritan – and perhaps the others – discovers that with their cure, their ethnic differences again emerge. The Samaritan has nowhere to go to celebrate his cure: as a maligned Samaritan, he is unable to enter the Temple and present himself to the priest. He has only one place left to go to express his gratitude –back to Jesus.
The Jewish recipients received a cure and presented themselves to Jesus just as he’d advised. There is no reason to criticize their behavior. The Samaritan leper returns grateful for his cure. He is a model of interdependent living: he knows he can’t make it alone, he needs a power greater than himself for healing, and so he gives thanks for all that he’s received. He is transformed by relationship rather than ritual. This is our calling; to live gratefully, delighted in every good gift and giving God praise for the wonder of life.
Read together, these passages speak of hope, but hope must be interpreted in ways that support those who suffer. Our hope cannot be bought at the expense of those who are oppressed and vulnerable. Hope authentically uplifts the downtrodden and brings healing to the sick.