|Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
|2 Timothy 2:8-15
By David Lull
Our world has too many refugees and exiles, yearning to be free and restored to wholeness. With them, we also yearn for a world without refugees, exiles, and deportees. Today’s lectionary readings invite reflections on hope and faith in the face of suffering.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Our world has too many refugees from floods in Colorado, senseless random violence in shopping malls, movie theaters, elementary schools, the U.S. Navy Yard, from HIV/AIDS and hunger all over Africa, Palestinians exiled from their ancestral land, refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, deportees exiled from the U.S. by immigration authorities, African-Americans and Hispanics exiled from economic opportunities, gays and lesbians exiled from their families and churches, and… the list goes on.
What does Jeremiah say to the exiled Judeans? Jeremiah opposed the royal establishment—kings, priests, and prophets—the people who supported them, and their theology. They believed that God made an unconditional promise to Judah’s king, so that they believed that a rebellion would liberate them from Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah, on the other hand, believed in a stern God: The Judeans believed false prophets who led them to take events in their own hands, instead of relying of God, in the false hope of cutting short their Babylonian captivity. Therefore, God has punished the king, priests, prophets, and the people by keeping them exiled in Babylon for as long as God determined (“seventy years,” according to verse 10). Chapter 29 is Jeremiah’s letter to the exile community. The once urban elites must now settle down for a long, modest life of farming in a foreign land (verse 5). They must pray for Babylon’s welfare, because their welfare was dependent on Babylon’s welfare (verse 7). The lectionary stops short of Jeremiah’s “political” description of their salvation: God will see that, in due time, they return in freedom to the land that God gave their ancestors (verses 10-14).
Their Babylonian captivity was God’s punishment. We have to be clear about who sinned. Not all refugees, exiles, and deportees are victims of consequences from their own sins. Many suffer the consequences of the sins of those who sinned against them! Jeremiah’s God is a stern punishing God, but his God does not punish those who have been sinned against! Jeremiah’s God is a stern punisher of unjust leaders whose actions show their lack of faith in God and those who allowed the elite leaders to deceive them. We, therefore, cannot throw a blanket of judgment and divine punishment over all refugees and exiles. As we have seen in earlier readings in Jeremiah, disobedience to God’s commandments has concrete, empirical consequences. Jeremiah interpreted those consequences as God’s punishment.
Jeremiah’s requirement that the exiled Judeans must live peaceably with the Babylonians and, indeed, pray for their welfare sounds like a puzzling word of God (verse 4: “Thus says the Lord of hosts”)! Remember, though, that Jeremiah (or someone in his name) wrote this letter after the Judeans’ disastrous rebellion in an attempt to free them from captivity. It would have been far better had they lived peaceably and trusted God to find a better way to liberate them and return them to their ancestral land. That is precisely what happened when the Persian King, Cyrus, defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans to return to their land and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Because history proved Jeremiah was right, he, and not the false prophets, has a place in Israel’s sacred writings.
Here too we need to be careful to point out that Jeremiah’s advice to refugees and exiles is situation-specific. It is wrong to use it to keep women and children in abusive relationships! It is wrong to use it to discourage civil disobedience! It is wrong to use it to counsel accepting, stoically, conditions that create suffering. It is, however, worth considering whether its counsel against violent action is wise in certain, perhaps most, circumstances. For example, how is violence helping the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territories? What if people around the world followed Jeremiah’s counsel, combined with those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Jeremiah’s word from God is not only relevant to Judean and other exiles. It is primarily relevant to the elite establishment in any country. If refugees and exiles are supposed to live peaceably in foreign lands, and if they are to pray for the welfare of their captors and occupiers, the latter have a reciprocal obligation to care for the welfare of refugees and in their lands.
In addition, Jeremiah 29 is a warning to any nation that thinks it is “exceptional.” Thinking that God “blesses” the U.S. and makes it “exceptional” among the world’s nations is a modern form of the royal theology that Jeremiah opposed. Are we already seeing the consequences of this “American exceptionalism” theology? After “9/11,” some right-wing Protestant preachers said that was God’s punishment for violating God’s commandments against abortion and homosexuality. Of course, that’s bad theology! But is it possible that “9/11” was one of a series of consequences of U.S. global imperialism under the cloak of “American exceptionalism”? Under the cloak of “American exceptionalism,” the U.S. military and corporations have cooperated in making sure oil reserves beneath Middle Eastern sands flow, primarily, to U.S. and other NATO countries. In pursuit of those U.S. national interests—which the U.S. promotes as global interests—the U.S. and other NATO powers have had to engage in multiple wars in the region, of which there seems to be no end. A similar scenario applies to U.S. military presence in Africa and the Pacific (from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea to the Philippines). Jeremiah is a warning primarily against national elitism—imperialism—and its consequences.
Finally, Jeremiah’s promise that God will return ancient Judeans to the land of their ancestors is part of a narrative that is having tragic consequences in modern Middle East geopolitics today. On the one hand, at least since the beginnings of Zionism in the late 19th century, Jews and Christians have tried to make Jeremiah’s promise come true for modern Jews on the grounds of their “right of return.” With the help of the British, French, and, especially, the U.S., Jews have succeeded in making Jeremiah’s promise come true in the form of the modern state of Israel. On the other hand, Israel’s superior military and economic power, on the backs of U.S. taxpayers, has forced many Palestinians into exile and held the rest in captivity in their own land under Israeli occupation. For too long, too many Christians have falsely applied Jeremiah’s promise, which he meant for particular ancient Judeans under specific historical circumstances, exclusively to the modern state of Israel. The modern state of Israel, and its patron, the U.S., need to heed Jeremiah’s warning against losing faith in God and turning to faith in their military and economic power. The Palestinians, for their part, might do well to consider the wisdom of Jeremiah’s nonviolent alternative. The violent option is not turning out well for them any more than it did for the ancient Judean exiles. No “Persian king” has appeared as the Palestinians’ savior. The state of Israel has a powerful one in the U.S.
Most, if not all, of what I wrote about Jeremiah 29 applies to this psalm. Instead of repeating myself, I want to address three other issues. They might seem to be unrelated to Jeremiah, but they really are related.
1. The NRSV translation committee came to accept a mandate to deal with grammatical gender as related to people. It had no mandate to address the issue of gender related to God. As a result, the psalms are overwhelmingly loaded up with masculine pronouns. Here is an adaptation of the NRSV with a genderless God (the italics identify my changes):
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; 2 sing the glory of God’s name; give to God glorious praise. 3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. 4 All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Selah 5 Come and see what God has done: God’s are awesome among mortals. 6 God turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in God, 7 whose might rules forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations—let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah 8 Bless our God, O peoples; loudly praise God, 9 who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. 10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. 11 You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; 12 you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
Masculine language for God “exiles” many women and girls from a loving relationship with God. None of the standard English translations used in our churches, including the most recent Common English Bible, has done anything about that. It is up to you who lead worship and conduct Bible studies to amend the text. Do not let the translations hold the people in captivity; rather, peaceably resist with inclusive, expansive revisions.
2. As is often the case, the lectionary left out the essential end of the psalm. After a communal praise song in verses 1-12, the psalm continues in verses 13-20 with an individual’s song of praise. The latter names deeds that will make praising God real, concrete, and empirical. Praise with words alone has limited value. Praise songs won’t keep; something must be done with them (to paraphrase one of my favorite Whitehead sayings).
It is also worth noting that praise and thanksgiving are appropriate at times of “trouble” (verse 14). Deliverance might seem to be a more appropriate time for such songs. However, times of “trouble” are opportunities to lose faith. Singing songs of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness can strengthen the sense of God’s empathetic and providential presence in times of “trouble.”
3. Verse 6 alludes to two events of deliverance: one alludes to the story of the Exodus (“God turned the sea into dry land”); the other alludes to return from exile across the Jordan to Judah (“they passed through the river on foot”). Some interpreters propose that the latter alludes to the post-exodus crossing of the Jordan into Canaan. Marti Steussy, however, argues that almost the exact same wording of a double description of crossing the sea and river in Isaiah 11.15 alludes to the Exodus, on the one hand, and the return from Babylonian captivity to Judah (Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today, 142).
2 Timothy 2:8-15
This section of the letter offers encouragement to endure suffering hardship or misfortune. The first word, “remember,” reveals the foundation for this endurance. It is not just a matter of recalling something about Jesus Christ—God raised Jesus from the dead, so he must have died; and he was a Jewish Messiah in the tradition of Israel’s King David. Even that would be useful to those who suffer misfortune. They could remember that someone as exalted as the Messiah also suffered misfortune. Say to them, “You are in good company! Be proud!”
More than that, they are not suffering alone. They are suffering with Christ Jesus (“if we have died with him”). The act of remembering calls attention to the presence of the one remembered (compare 1 Cor 11.24-25 and Lk 22.19). Christ Jesus is with them in their suffering, as their companion and comforter. In addition, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so that he lives again, so also those who suffer will also “live with him” in “eternal glory.”
Teaching those who suffer that they must endure it has been abused, with tragic results. For slaves, or women or children in an abusive relationship, endurance does not mean “putting up” with their suffering and misfortune! It means doing what they have to do to survive it and, if possible, to get free from the abuse!
This text’s two qualifications of the suffering to be endured are significant. The focus is on suffering hardships or misfortune for the sake of the gospel and God’s beloved (“the elect” or “chosen ones”). Think of it as an answer to the question, “What, if anything, are you committed to living and dying for?” Is it amassing wealth, fame, or popularity? Is it your country? Is it the gospel and God’s beloved people?
The word “remember” also implies that those who suffer hardships (e.g., poverty, ridicule, martyrdom) for the gospel should imitate Jesus Christ. Jesus remained faithful to God’s good news for the poor and all who were marginalized and oppressed. He endured hardships and misfortune, even to the point of dying for others. He remains faithful even when those for whom he died are unfaithful (verse 13). “Remember Jesus Christ” implies, “Go and do likewise!” What price are you willing and able to pay for the sake of God’s beloved people—the poor, people of color, the uninsured, minimum wage workers, gays and lesbians, Palestinians… you name them? How far are you willing and able to remain faithful to the gospel among people who are “unfaithful”—those who commit crimes, those whose behavior is legal but immoral, in your view, and those whose politics are, in your view, unfaithful to the gospel?
This task is not for everyone! It requires the strength and training of soldiers and athletes (verses 1-5). It is for those who are willing and able to work hard, like a farmer (verse 6).
The summary of the gospel in verse 8 (“Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David”; compare Rom 1.3-4) includes nothing from Jesus’ earthly life, not even his death, except by implication (“raised from the dead” in verse 8 and “if we have died with him” in verse 11). His resurrection and his Davidic lineage are all that qualify him to be the Jewish Messiah. What is the connection between resurrection and a messiah like King David? By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus is a royal Messiah who “rules” (verse 12) like King David. Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled God’s promise to preserve Davidic royal rule forever (e.g., see Psa 132.11-12; Isa 9.7; 2 Chr 6.16). However, the expectation that a Davidic Messiah would restore Israel as a sovereign nation by defeating Israel’s gentile enemies is not in view here. What is in view is that Jesus, as the Davidic Messiah, governs the world.
The Roman Catholic lectionary stops at verse 13, because verses 14-15 belong to the next section of the letter. I can’t figure out why the RCL includes them but not the rest of that section (verses 14-19). You could leave them out, with no harm done. Or you could explain how they introduce the next step of laying out the concrete, behavioral forms of remaining faithful to the gospel. Verses 14-15 are general enough that you could fill in examples of your own, or mention the examples in verses 16-19 and 20-26.
In verses 11-14, all ten lepers called Jesus their “master” (the Greek word epistatēs occurs in the New Testament only in Luke), implying that they all considered Jesus their social superior. All ten lepers were “made clean” (also see verse 17). All ten lepers did what Jesus told them to do: “Show yourselves to the priests.” There is no expectation that they would return to Jesus.
All this makes verses 15-19 puzzling. Are these verses all about thanking Jesus? All ten lepers were “made clean” on their way to show themselves to the priests (verse 14), so that it is unclear how they were “made clean” and who cleansed them. What did Jesus do to make them “clean”? Or did God make them “clean,” as “praising God with a loud voice” (verse 15) implies?
Interpreters agree that verses 11-14 are a self-contained, complete healing story, showing how Jesus had the power (of a “commander”) to heal by mere words—and at a distance. Verses 15-19 are a later addition, with a different theme: the remarkable faith of the Samaritan, a “foreigner,” in contrast to that of the Judean lepers. Let’s take a second look at these two stories.
Verses 11-14 tell a story about the cleansing or purification of lepers. Almost all cultures, from ancient times to the present, have considered lepers—people with a variety of skin diseases—“unclean.” Their status as “unclean” is both physical and social. Most people think they physically contaminate communities of otherwise healthy people. Some skin diseases are communicable or contagious. At the physical level, healers or physicians can cure “lepers.”
Whether that is what Jesus does in this story is unclear, because the story leaves out such things as the curative technique and a description of the “cleansed” or “purified” lepers (e.g., washing in the Jordan River resulting in clean, healthy skin; compare 2 Kings 5.1-18). The language about “cleansing/purifying” suggests that the story has to do with restoring outcasts to inclusion in the community. Jesus’ instruction to “show yourselves to the priests” is not just about verifying their physical cure (see Lev 13.19 and 14.1-11; and Lk 5.14). It is also about initiating a process of incorporating them into the community.
In verses 15-19, what made the faith of the Samaritan leper, a “foreigner,” remarkable in contrast to that of the Judean lepers? It would seem that it simply was that the Samaritan’s faith was in Jesus. By going to the priests, all the lepers of this story showed their faith in Israel’s God. What concerned the author of this Gospel (and the book of Acts) is that many more Samaritans (and other “foreigners”—gentiles) than Judeans turned to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
This later addition to the story of the lepers is less about what Jesus did, and more about the Samaritan’s returning to thank Jesus, which showed faith in Jesus. Since the Samaritan had already been cleansed as he went with the other lepers to the Judean priests, Jesus’ saying, “your faith has made you well” (RSV, NIV, and NRSV verse 19), is puzzling. It is better to translated Jesus’ saying, “your faith has saved you.” This part of the story is about a representative “foreigner” (gentile) who is saved through faith in Jesus.
We need to be careful not to overstate what that means. It does not mean that the other nine lepers—representing Judeans—were not saved. It simply means that they were not saved by faith in Jesus. They were saved bytheir faith in Israel’s God. It also does not mean that the Samaritan was saved by—in, with, or through—Jesus’ death; nor does it mean that the Samaritan was saved through the forgiveness of sins or justification. The Samaritan leper was saved in the first part of the story by being cleansed of disease and incorporated into the community, and in the second, later, part of the story, by faith!
One obvious contemporary “application” of the first, original story is to healthcare in the U.S. Jesus’ healing stories make universal healthcare one of the church’s mission priorities! This story about the cleansing of lepers calls the church to speak out against the shameful underfunding of care for the mentally ill and the still widespread social marginalization of people suffering from mental illnesses. Christian, especially Protestant, emphasis, almost exclusively, on forgiveness of sins and justification overlooks how many Gospel stories are about “salvation” in the material, physical, empirical realities of this daily life on earth!
A contemporary “application” of the second, later story is to Christian understandings of other religious traditions. For example, here is an opportunity for Christians to jettison the age-old misbelief that Judaism is about self-righteousness and works-righteousness, whereas Christianity is about righteousness by faith. The Judean lepers were “saved by faith,” no less than the Samaritan was. All were cleansed while they were going to the priests, not because they went to the priests. Going to the priests demonstrated their prior faith in Israel’s God.
Moreover, what made the Samaritan’s faith remarkable was not only that the Samaritan demonstrated faith in Jesus. The Samaritan was a “foreigner”—that is, not a Judean—who traditionally would have worshiped Israel’s God, not in Jerusalem, but in the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that they preserved the original Abrahamic religion of ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile. The story about a Samaritan who acknowledged the authority of the Judean temple priests and worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem would have been remarkable!
Here also is an opportunity to reflect on multiple paths to “salvation.” Even within Christian traditions, we can see multiple paths to “salvation” and correspondingly diverse understandings of “salvation.” Largely under the influence of the Pauline letters, Christian understandings of “salvation” focused on Jesus’ death as the event in-with-through which God forgave humanity’s sins and, thereby, “justified” sinners, or made them “righteous.” This story, however, and many others in the Gospels, is about “salvation” in the material, physical, empirical realities of this daily life on earth! In the ancient pagan and Jewish world, diseases were a sign of divine punishment for a person’s sins. There is no hint of that view in this story. If there is any clue about causes of skin diseases here, it is in Jesus’ title “master” or “commander.” The evil spirits leave the lepers’ skin, because of the mere presence of a superior commander, Jesus. Of course, I am speculating, in the absence of a fuller account of the cleansing process. The title “commander” is all the text gives us. What is clear, however, is that the story gives no hint that the lepers’ sins are the issue. Their salvation is palpable: their skin is cleansed and they are incorporated in the community.
If Christian traditions speak of multiple paths to “salvation” and correspondingly diverse understandings of “salvation,” how much more diverse are the “salvations” and the paths to them in the world’s religions! Scholars like John Hick argue that the world’s religions are like multiple paths up a single mountain. A view, like John Cobb’s, that focuses on the differences among religious traditions preserves and honors their distinctive particularities. An appreciation for multiple paths up multiple mountains opens up richer possibilities of mutual respect and creative transformation!
David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is the incoming director of the Process and Faith program of the Center for Process Studies (Claremont, CA). He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA). An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Lull taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia, an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus. His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.