Who is the foreigner?

13 October 2013
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23C (RCL)
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

The passage in Jeremiah presents a bit of a surprise. Throughout the period after Pentecost, in the Old Testament track, we have been reading about the final events of the Kingdom of Judah. The passages we have read from Jeremiah have been particularly pessimistic. As opposed to other prophets at the time, Jeremiah sees no hope for the kingdom: God is not going to protect Jerusalem just because of the Temple. In fact, God is angry because of this misuse of God’s name. The people have sinned and punishment is coming.

Now that the end has come, and the people have gone into Exile, including the artisans (that’s in the verses we leave out), Jeremiah tells them to work for the good of the city of Babylon. Contrast that to Psalm 137, whose author praises those who will eventually overthrow Babylon and dash her little ones against a stone. No such retribution for Jeremiah.

It would be easy enough to understand that the conquered and exiled people would want to draw the boundaries very tightly, maintain the distinctions between them and the conquering culture. Instead, Jeremiah counsels accommodation. Take wives for yourselves, take wives for your sons, give your daughters in marriage. When the Exile was over, and the people returned, Ezra/Nehemiah took the opposite approach: any of those (men) who had remained behind and taken foreign wives had to divorce them and send them back. One of the uglier biblical events.

The reading from Luke’s Gospel also presents a surprising story of a foreigner. The story presents several formal and linguistic peculiarities. First, it does not take the standard form of a healing story. We are not told how intractable the illness is. We are not told of the reaction of the crowd. Both of these are important elements to the healing story form. Also, when the lepers approach, they call Jesus “Master” (in Greek, epistates). It’s an unusual word, occurring only six times in the New Testament, all of them in Luke (once in the story of the miraculous catch of fish, twice in the calming of the storm at sea, twice during the Transfiguration, and then here). The lepers recognize something about Jesus that most don’t recognize.

And finally, the word for foreigner (in Greek, allogenes) occurs exactly once in the New Testament – here. The word was used in the inscription above the gate to the Court of the Jews in the Jerusalem temple: “No foreigner may enter here.” The Samaritan leper could not have shown himself to the priests! So, why does Jesus tell him to do so (presuming Jesus knew he was a Samaritan)? Keeping in mind that Luke’s Gospel was composed after the destruction of the Temple, the story may serve to point out how exclusionary the Temple system was. In fact, the restorations that the kingdom brings take place in the presence of Jesus, not in the Temple.

Both Jeremiah and Luke are making the point that wherever we happen to be, and among whoever we may be living, God is active, even in the most desolate of times and circumstances. God’s plan includes the whole world. It may be carried out through us (whoever “us” is), but we should never make the mistake of thinking that it applies only to us. The Jews in Babylon are there for the good of that city. The restorations of the kingdom, which include the restoration of “lepers” to their place in community, happens outside the Temple and even in the absence of the Temple. What restorations are needed where we are now?

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