The kingdom has come near

3 July 2016
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9C (RCL)
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Apparently, the kingdom looks like accepting the hospitality and help of others. The lesson from 2 Kings makes the point with some delicious irony. A slave girl, captured as the spoils of war, remains faithful to her God — more faithful in fact than the king of the land she was taken from. And Naaman, her captor, ends up being faithful to her instructions.

It’s a great story, and a shame we don’t read the rest of it, with Gehazi’s faithlessness as a bookend to the slave-girl’s faithfulness. Also ironic is that Elisha shows up neither for king of Israel (unnamed) nor Naaman, but sends messengers — he is unimpressed with power as it is usually understood. The fact that the king of Israel remains unnamed suggests this would be a story easily transportable into exile. It fits the category of stories like Esther and Ahasuerus and Judith and Holofrenes. In those stories a Jewish woman overcomes a foreign king’s evil designs. In this story, a Jewish slave-girl gains the conversion of a foreign commander.

When Naaman shows up at the court of the unnamed king of Israel, the king tears his clothes, asking “Does he (the king of Aram) think I am God!” Elisha hears, and has the king send Naaman to him. When Naaman arrives, he sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times. This time Naaman is outraged: Surely for someone as important as me, he would come out and say some magic words and wave his hands! Again, it is Naaman’s servants who talk sense into him — the nobodies in the story. The act of bathing in the Jordan makes of Naaman an Israelite.

This is confirmed by the fact that he wants to take two mule-loads of earth back to Aram with him, so that when he sacrifices, he can sacrifice over earth from YHWH’s land. He understands his own conversion. For Naaman, healing consisted in accepting the help of Elisha, and thereby becoming a citizen of Israel. God does not dwell at the court of the king, but out on the fringes of the kingdom, at the Jordan. Baptism in the Jordan will show up again with the ministry of John the Baptist, an Elijah/Elisha – like figure.

In the Gospel, Luke sends out the seventy (or seventy two), a number reminiscent of the seventy + two who received some of the spirit of Moses in the book of Numbers. The instructions Jesus gives requires that they are absolutely dependent on the beneficence of others. Even the Cynics could carry a bag and beg food for the next day. The seventy are to arrive in a town and bid it peace. If there is a son of peace, their peace will remain with the household; if not, it will return to them. They are to eat what is set before them — it may or may not be kosher, they are not to ask.

And then they are to heal the sick and proclaim that the kingdom has come hear. For Luke, table-fellowship plays a central role in the kingdom and its proclamation. in response to a question about why he eats with sinners, Jesus replies, “The well do not need a physician, but rather the sick.” Bringing people to the table both heals them and reconciles them. If the seventy show up (by twos) and invite a kind of stone-soup meal, then perform something like the sermon on the mount (or plain) as a covenant-renewal ceremony, those people pushed to the edges by the Roman occupation would be restored to their place in the covenant community. This, for Luke, is the kingdom.

For those towns which reject the message, the seventy are to announce as they leave that the kingdom has come near. It comes near, whether we can see it or not. It’s presence looks like the unquestioning acceptance of the hospitality of the outsider, the other, the despised, the broken. There’s a cheesy video on the internet of a young man giving a homeless man $20. The homeless man asks him to sit down, and then runs off to buy lunch for both of them. The video is one of those set ups, but I think it took the maker by surprise. He at least had the decency to accept the lunch from the man he had just given the money to. I think this is a good approximation of what Luke had in mind. Accepting the hospitality of the outsider, the homeless man, rehumanizes him.

Mary Douglas says that true poverty is having no favors to call in, to have nothing anyone wants in return. Charity is demeaning, because it tells the recipient that they have nothing to offer. For many, all they have left is their story. The kingdom looks like hearing and valuing their story. All the covenant renewal meals of the OT are based on a retelling of the story of God’s saving acts in the context of a meal. Weaving in to that story the story of those usually excluded, in the context of our covenant renewal meal, is precisely the kingdom. When we refuse to hear those stories, the kingdom has come near in judgment.

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