The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, 3 July 2016

Track One:
I I Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30

Track Two:
Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8

Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16
Saint Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Background: Aram
Our connections to this land are several. It figures into the saga of Abraham moving from Ur of Chaldees across the Fertile Crescent into ancient Canaan. In today’s readings it is the homeland of Naaman, a commander in the army of the King of Aram. The name, “Aram” probably meant “highlands” in contrast to the name Canaan, or “low lands.” It extended from the mountains that marked the border with the areas settled by the Phoenicians, or modern day Lebanon, across to the Euphrates River, or the borders of Assyria. As with most of the states in the Levant, it was subject as a vassal to the more powerful nations to the east, the Neo-Assyrian Empire or the Neo-Babylonian Empire (911-539 BCE). Mentions of the name in various forms dates back to ca. 2300 BCE, and the people of Aram appear in the archives of Mari and Ugarit. Two different Aramean kingdoms seemed to have emerged around 1,000 BCE, Aram-Damascus and Hamath. For the most part, however, the region was really under the control of the Neo-Assyrians. It is during this period that our story emerges.

Track One:

First Reading: II Kings 5:1-14

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." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may 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.

The connections that the author explores in this pericope derive from a growing universalist viewpoint that is evident not only here but in the prophets as well. Here the God of Israel performs wonders not only for Israel, but for the commander of Aram as well. The other connection is between the young woman, a slave captured from “the land of Israel”, and Naaman the mighty agent of the conquerors. The reminiscence of the young girl about the prophet of Israel leads her to recommend Elisha as a possible source of healing for the master. Although the text is translated as “leprosy” it is probably some other disease that is described as a loss of skin pigmentation. One interesting aspect to the story is its construction using the various levels of Ancient Near Eastern hierarchy as a structure on which the healing relationship is built. First a letter to the king of Israel is suggested, which adds a sense of urgency and panic to the story. The real need is overlooked as ulterior motives are described and discarded. The prophet is represented here complete with his own connections to kingship and rule. Thus he stands as a type of mediator between Israel and Aram. In a way this is a drama of miscues and malapropos, as rules of etiquette are either forgotten or ignored. We move from the complex to the simple, from the elite to the common, from the pragmatic to the spiritual. The requests that the prophet makes are quite ordinary, and in the complex mind of the great general are almost overlooked.

Breaking open II Kings:
1.     Has God ever asked you to do something out of the ordinary? What?
2.     What is the point of this story, the healing, or the inclusion of a foreigner?
3.     Why did you answer the way you did?

Psalm 30 Exaltabo te, Domine

     I will exalt you, O Lord,
because you have lifted me up *
and have not let my enemies triumph over me.
2      Lord my God, I cried out to you, *
and you restored me to health.
3      You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; *
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
4      Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; *
give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.
5      For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, *
his favor for a lifetime.
6      Weeping may spend the night, *
but joy comes in the morning.
7      While I felt secure, I said,
"I shall never be disturbed. *
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains."
8      Then you hid your face, *
and I was filled with fear.
9      I cried to you, O Lord; *
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
10    "What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? *
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
11    Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; *
Lord, be my helper."
12    You have turned my wailing into dancing; *
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
13    Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

This psalm could be on the lips of Naaman, or that is what the lectionary hopes. The initial image, a bit blunted in our translation, ‘you lifted me up,” is that of being drawn up, as up out of a well. This imagery accentuates the later images of death and “the Pit”, or Sheol, the place of the dead. The verbs of the psalm emphasize the directionality of these ideas, “the going down” and “being raised up.”  It is verses of contrasts – going to bed weeping, and rising in joy, waling into dancing, and sackcloth becoming a cloak of joy. Most astounding is the bargaining that the psalmist engages in. “What profit is there,” asks honest questions of God.  Who will praise you? This is, however, a psalm of thanksgiving, and thus the psalm ends with a note of thanks and praise.

Breaking open Psalm 30:

1.        How has God lifted you up?
2.        When have you been down?
3.        How did your faith help you then?


Track Two:

First Reading: Isaiah 66:10-14

Thus says the Lord:
"Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her--
that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.
For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants,
and his indignation is against his enemies."

Two images are used by this Isaiah to paint a picture not only of comfort and consolation but also of salvation itself. The first image sees Jerusalem as a woman who feeds her children from the abundance of her breast. The notion of abundance as well is an over-riding image, not only for the mother who feeds but also for the nations who understand God’s abundance for and love of Jerusalem.  It is they who will send gifts to her “like an overflowing stream;” The second series of images all relate to thirst and the satisfaction of a thirst. Thus we are treated to scenes of being satisfied at a nurse’s breast, or the gift of prosperity that comes “like a river”. This abundance is like the 70 (the number of perfection times a multiple of exaggeration) disciples that Jesus will send out willy-nilly to meet the needs of the people in the Gospel.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     What other mother images do you see here?
2.     Why is God’s love like abundance?
3.     Are you ever thirst for good news?

Psalm 66:1-8 Jubilate Deo

     Be joyful in God, all you lands; *
sing the glory of his Name;
sing the glory of his praise.
2      Say to God, "How awesome are your deeds! *
because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you.
3      All the earth bows down before you, *
sings to you, sings out your Name."
4      Come now and see the works of God, *
how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.
5      He turned the sea into dry land,
so that they went through the water on foot, *
and there we rejoiced in him.
6      In his might he rules for ever;
his eyes keep watch over the nations; *
let no rebel rise up against him.
7      Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
8      Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.

We are bidden, no commanded, to shout out our praise in the psalm of thanksgiving. The deeds for which the psalmist is thankful are enumerated in the psalm, picturing God as a suzerain ruling over the nations and the peoples. In verse five there is a greater degree of specificity as our attention is drawn to the Red Sea event. It serves as a central symbol of God’s concern for God’s people so that the last phrase of today’s pericope holds true, “Who holds our souls in life.

Breaking open Psalm 66:
1.     How is Baptism central to your life as a Christian?
2.     What does this psalm have to say about that idea?
3.     How is God concerned about your life?

Second Reading: Galatians 6:(1-6) 7-16

[My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor's work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.

Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.]
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised-- only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule-- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

The question that underlies these final comments of Paul to the Galatians is, “what is it that binds us to Christ.” He argues here against the circumcision that bound the observant Jew to the God of Israel, and thus also argues that for the Gentile this is not a necessary requirement. For Paul it is Christ alone that binds both Jew and Gentile. What follows then is a sense of mutuality and of “bear(ing) one another’s burdens.”

Breaking open Galatians:
4.     What is your understanding of Jew’s relationship with God?
5.     How are they related to you?
6.     Does Christ separate us or pull us together?

The Gospel: St. Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'

"Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

There are arguments on the part of commentators as to the number of disciples that are sent out. Some versions list “70” while other note “72”. Both are symbolic numbers, but the background symbolism might give us a clue as to what is the preferable reading in light of the text. The case for “seventy” is made by its use in the stories of Moses (the appointment of elders in Exodus 24:1, 9-10, and Numbers 11:16, 24-25), the Noah story which sees seventy nations that spring from Noah’s sons, likewise the seventy offspring of Jacob. The case for “seventy-two” is made by a list of nations found in Genesis 10, and apocryphal references see seventy-two “princes and nations of the world.” Take your pick.

Luke is continuing his progress toward Jerusalem, and there is a sense of urgency here. Like the Israelites sent out from Egypt into freedom the journey is to be stripped down, possessions kept to a minimum. In contrast, however, is the initial image of abundance, the ripe harvest waiting for the laborers. Their task is somewhat like that of the Baptist in that they are to announce the coming Christ, who is moving slowly to Jerusalem. There is a sense of realism here. Not all will be ready to hear or accept the message, just as the disciples themselves have difficulty in hearing Jesus’ predictions of trials and death in Jerusalem. Thus, some places will welcome, while others will reject. Jesus supplies a methodology for both, succinct and even harsh. But then, these are urgent times. Of interest is that the usual social norms are cast aside. The disciples are bidden to eat in whatever house might feed them.

Even upon their return, when some of the disciples rejoice in their successes, Jesus provides a note of caution. What was the success – a triumph over demons, or an effective announcement of God’s kingdom? Felling demons is not worth the faithful rejoicing, and Jesus shares his own experience here, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” And now Jesus makes it very personal. The happiness and joy that extend from this experience as missionaries is their own redemption and salvation. So should be the rejoicing of the people they visit.

Breaking open the Gospel:
4.     In what ways are you an intruder into holiness?
5.     What has Jesus set aside so that you might encounter him?
6.     How do others view your faith?

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

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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