The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 23, 13 October 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 11

II Timothy 2:8-15
St. Luke 17:11-19

Background:  Leprosy
The first evidences that we have of leprosy are in Egypt ca. 4000 BCE.  There is also evidence, verified by DNA analysis, taken from a tomb near the Old City of Jerusalem that dates to ca. 1-50 CE.  Mentions of leprosy in both the Hebrew Scriptures probably relate more to the Hebrew term, tzaraath, than to the disease studied by G. H. Armauer Hansen in Norway in 1873.  The disease mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (see Leviticus 13-14) is now seen to be something else.  Indeed, in modern translations, the word leprosy is not used, but is represented by the term “scaly infection”.  This condition is actually several, referring not only to skin disease, but also to fungal infestations of fabric and of walls.  Such skin conditions may represent psoriasis, mycotic infections, eczema, or pityriasis rosea.  All were tied to the ritual impurity codes of the Hebrew Scriptures.  In the Gospel reading today, Jesus encounters ten lepers, and their condition may be more connected to the ancient understanding of tzaraath than to our modern understanding of leprosy.  It is interesting that the “leper” (a Samaritan) who returns thanks exhibits a double problem of ritual purity – his skin and his race.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The initial expectations of the prophet expressed in the first chapters of Jeremiah were succinct, root up, tear down, and destroy.  With this chapter the outlook has changed.  Indeed, the outlook is one of determination.  God said that he would punish Judah for their forgetfulness of God.  Now it becomes apparent to Jeremiah that God has sent them (the exiles) to the place where they now exist and live.  We need to remember that there were multiple sendings of people into exile.  Jeremiah changes his stance as a prophet, and now by means of a royal messenger, sends them messages of hope and endurance.  We are reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 5:35 – “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”  Here Jeremiah embraces two things: the condition of exile as a means to righteousness, and the future as something lived out in a place other than Jerusalem.  This is an important company that Jeremiah addresses – elders, priests, prophets and such.  They are in their office the future of Judah, but they also in their bodies and lives are its future as well.  So now in opposition to the initial commands that orbit the notion of destruction, Jeremiah presents new verbs that describe the life in Babylon.  Listen to them: build and live, plant and eat, take wives and have sons, and multiply there.  This is the same Babylon, the there where last Sunday in the psalm (137) they were bidden not to sing songs of joy, but rather to long for Jerusalem. 

What is being signaled here is Jeremiah’s increasing sense of the universality of God – that God is not just the national god, but also the God who rules over all nations.  The hidden hope is that Babylon itself will become aware of not only the people who call upon God, but of God’s care for God’s own as well.  Jeremiah now becomes more of a pastor to these people, convincing them from afar, that they still remain in the land that God has given them.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. Have you ever been separated from family, or forced to live in a difficult or different situation?  Was it an exile?
  2. How did you accommodate yourself to the situation?
  3. How did it become an accepted part of your future?

Psalm 66:1-11 Jubilate Deo

Be joyful in God, all you lands; *
sing the glory of his Name;
sing the glory of his praise.

Say to God, "How awesome are your deeds! *
because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you.

All the earth bows down before you, *
sings to you, sings out your Name."

Come now and see the works of God, *
how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.

He turned the sea into dry land,
so that they went through the water on foot, *
and there we rejoiced in him.

In his might he rules for ever;
his eyes keep watch over the nations; *
let no rebel rise up against him.

Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;

Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.

For you, O God, have proved us; *
you have tried us just as silver is tried.

You brought us into the snare; *
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.

You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; *
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.

Once again the psalm serves as a commentary on the first reading from Jeremiah.  Here, in a thanksgiving psalm, the author recalls God’s awesome deeds.  The deeds that are recalled are the miraculous crossings of water, both at the Red Sea in the deliverance from Egypt, and a similar act at the Jordan River when Israel enters the Promised Land.  The God that is portrayed here is not the universal God of Jeremiah and Isaiah, but rather a national God who lords it over other nations, proving to them that the God of Israel is capable of bringing the people out of great difficulty.  Beginning with verse 9 we have words that are evocative of exile.  Some have proposed that the initial verses (1-11) represent an exilic psalm talked onto an earlier psalm that still is aware of an existing Temple (verse 13) and most have been written prior to 586.  The trial of fire and other ordeals seems to speak to the situation in Babylon.  Indeed, Jeremiah’s notion of trial producing refinement is also hinted at here.

Breaking open Psalm 66:
  1. The psalm speaks of a refiners fire – in what fires have you been refined?
  2. What difficulties have actually been of benefit to you?
  3. Did you thank God for them?


2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy."

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."

This is a story about personal and national egos.  Most of all, however, it reflects the universalistic attitude that we have seen in the Track 1 readings above.  The background is realistic, reflecting the politics of the time.  Israel has been raided by a Syrian army and now the story turns to a captive - a young girl who now is in service to the General Naaman.  It is at her suggestion that this prominent man go to Israel for healing.  His ego and that of the king of Israel are soon damaged by the situation.  The King of Israel sees a trip that will strip him of his kingship, and Naaman bristles at the lack of hospitality he receives at the prophet’s home, and is even more insulted at the prophet’s suggestion that he bathe in the Jordan.  All of these characters and situations are lifted up for us to see in the context of a God who deigns to operate with foreigner and with Israel.  God is the cause of Naaman’s success (because by him YHWH had granted the victory to Aram) and it is God who will effect the healing through the prophet.  The agent, a young girl, shows the power of this God who uses such a lowly person.  When Naaman is healed (please read the commentary on “leprosy” in the Background above) his skin is described as that of a young man.  Thus are contrasted the agent and the recipient, both displaying the power of the God of Israel, and Aram!

Breaking open II Kings:
  1. How is the little girl wise and Naaman an innocent?
  2. What is betrayed by the King of Israel’s actions?
  3. What role does the prophet play in this scenario?

Psalm 111 Confitebor tibi

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the LORD! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.
His work is of majesty and splendor.
This psalm of praise (it is a general listing of God’s good acts, rather than pointing out a specific instance of God’s graciousness) is also a short acrostic with each half line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Here, as in the first reading, God acts amongst all the peoples – “great are the deeds of YHWH, discovered by all who desire them.”  The exact deeds are not recounted, as in Psalm 66 in Track 1 (above), but are present for all to see.  The citing of wisdom (the fear of the Lord) is a nod to the common knowledge that is given to all the nations.

Breaking open Psalm 111:
  1. Is God indeed tied to a specific people?
  2. Who? And How?
  3. In what ways do you see God active amongst all peoples?

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:

If we have died with him,
we will also live with him; 

if we endure,
we will also reign with him; 

if we deny him,
he will also deny us; 

if we are faithless,
he remains faithful-

for he cannot deny himself. 

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

In the initial verses of this reading, the author reminds Timothy of the central focus of the Gospel namely “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David”. Here the continuity of Christian teaching and the Hebrew Scriptures is underscored once again.  The next verse in which “Paul” talks about his condition of imprisonment (chained) uses the image to talk about the unfettered nature of the Gospel.  What follows in verse 11 is the quotation of an early hymn, which explores a series of contrasts (dying with him, living with him, persevering/reigning vs. denial, unfaithful vs. faithful).  Thus the author outlines for Timothy the challenges of ministry and belief.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. What does the death of Jesus mean to you?
  2. How is your own living informed by that?
  3. What do you anticipate about your own death?

St. Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

The theme of “lepers” in Luke is by design.  Luke 4:27 gives us the clue, “Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”  This is an especially helpful reference if you are using the Track 2 readings – and it provides a wonderful context for the ministry of Jesus even if you are not using those readings.  Additional background about “leprosy” needs to be taken into account (see Background above).  Were it some contagious disease we might well understand the aversion to these people.  They seem to have been painted, however, with an unfounded bias, like so many people who live “out of the norm” even in our own time.  There are other things to notice however.  Jesus is on the way to his own separation from the norm – he has set his face toward Jerusalem and continues on his way.  He is virtually standing in a no-man’s land (through the region between Samaria and Galilee).  Jesus adds to the ambiguity by sending those pleading for healing “to the priests”.  Are they intended to go to Jerusalem or to another shrine, a Samaritan shrine.  Jesus doesn’t elaborate and leaves us in a vague space. 

In an interesting turn of events, again amplified by the story of Naaman, one of the “lepers” who happens to be a Samaritan returns to give thanks.  Again God is operating outside of society’s expectations.  In Jesus’ ministry there are several outsiders who are recipients of Jesus’ healing ministry.  Faith is the distinctive behavior that separates out the Samaritan (and others) and sets them on their way to a new destination.  Jesus is still answering the request of the disciples from last Sunday, “increase our faith”.  By focusing on those seen as outside of salvation, Jesus points out God’s mercy and care for all people.  The Samaritan’s future and destination is changed and Jesus points out, like those who were in exile in Babylon, that there is a future and life in the place that God has given us.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Have you ever been an “outcast?  Why?
  2. Were you ever included?  How?
  3. How is your future made different by the place in which God has designed for you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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