Where God Works:
Foreign Places, Foreign People

For Sunday October 10, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Jeremiah 29:1, 4 –7 or 2 Kings 5:1–3, 7 –15c

Psalm 66:1–12 or Psalm 111

2 Timothy 2:8–15

Luke 17:11–19

           In his book What Jesus Meant (2006), the historian Garry Wills describes the apostle Paul as a "heroic traveler" who logged more than ten thousand miles spreading the message of God's love. But in the epistle for this week, Paul isn't going anywhere at all. He's in jail.

           Paul says that he's "chained like a criminal" in a Roman prison (2 Timothy 2:9). Remarkably, though, he's not concerned about his confinement, for he's confident that "the word of God is not imprisoned." Maybe this is because a few days after his conversion, God promised him that he would suffer much for His kingdom (Acts 9:15–16), and that "prison and hardship" awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). And so it did.

Apostle Paul by Andrei Rublev, 1410–1420.
Apostle Paul by Andrei Rublev, 1410–1420.

           Luke records at least eight murder attempts on Paul's life (Acts 9:23–24, 9:29, 14:5–7, 14:19, 20:2–3, 21:31, 23:12, and 25:3). Paul compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and in those memorable words, "the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" (1 Cor. 4:8–13). Is anyone weak without my being weak, he asked? Ultimately, he was martyred in Rome. But you'd be hard pressed to name a single individual other than Jesus who did more to shape human history.

           At the risk of oversimplification, you could say that the drama of God's elect people Israel revolves around two turning points in two places. First, after 430 years of slavery, God liberated Israel from Egypt in the exodus around 1400 BC. Then, eight hundred years later, there was tragic exile to Babylon in the year 586 BC. Exodus and exile reverberate throughout the Bible as two paradigms of the way that God works in human history, and even in our own personal histories.

           The exodus was a dramatic liberation from oppression and exploitation, a miraculous deliverance, a regal display of God's mighty acts of power. It's a story of divine intervention to shatter the enemy, work wonders, and break the powers of bondage. No wonder it's celebrated at Passover even today by Jews. The Psalmist for this week proclaims, "How awesome are your deeds!" (Psalm 66:3). The exodus gives us every reason to hope and pray for God's dramatic acts of salvation, both in the world at large and in our personal lives.

           But with exile the geography of salvation changed. For the ancient Hebrews, the destruction of Jerusalem and deportation to pagan Babylon was beyond comprehension. What had happened? Where were God's mighty acts of power? How could he surrender them to a pagan nation? Exile to Babylon began a period of subjugation, servitude, banishment and captivity. It signaled failure, isolation, loneliness, and even punishment. Certainly it meant despair, for the elite Jews who were deported and for the common people of the land left behind in the rubble of Jerusalem.

           How was a Hebrew deported to Babylon, torn from home and everything familiar and dear, to understand exile? In the lectionary this week Jeremiah offers advice that few people probably wanted to hear. Writing from besieged Jerusalem, he sent a letter to the exiles who had been deported to Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4–7):

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

Jeremiah tells the exiles to embrace their disaster rather than to resist it. There was salvation in the strange place of Babylon as well as in the familiar place of Israel. He tells them to let go of their past and to accept their new circumstances. He says that contrary to all appearances, despite the foreign geography, at that moment in their story of salvation, they were better off in pagan Babylon than left behind in holy Jerusalem. God was still working, only now in the most unlikely of ways and in the most improbable of places.

Babylonian clay tablet describes destruction of Jerusalem.
Babylonian clay tablet describes
destruction of Jerusalem.

           Celebrating God's mighty acts of power, His decisive miracles of deliverance, is easy. Who doesn't long for a personal exodus, punctuated by a divine exclamation point, whether that be for work, at home, a marriage, finances, children — the list is nearly endless. But we know that sometimes things don't work out as we wish, or as we think they should, or as we pray. History can take a bitter turn. Catastrophe can overtake us, sometimes of our own making, other times for no apparent reason at all.

           Living in exile, far from home, in a strange space or place, bereft of all one considers good and familiar, is difficult. Living in exile demands revised expectations. Courage to believe that God is still at work, no matter how bleak the circumstances. Learning a new language and grammar, much as the Jews settling into Babylon learned a new tongue, to articulate your lived experience. Perseverance over the long haul.

           Living in exile also requires hope about the future, no matter how dark the present. That, too, was part of God's message (29:11): "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." That future was far off for those Babylonian exiles, seventy years and two generations before the Persian king Cyrus would rout the Babylonian regime and permit the Hebrews to return home (a story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah). Hope for the future is also an admission that we can't have it all now in the present. Some of the exiles never returned home.

           We might imagine that God needed Paul out of jail so that he could proclaim the gospel. We might think that the God of Israel worked only in Israel, on "home turf." Jeremiah reminds us that God works always and everywhere, in exodus from Egypt, but also in exile to Babylon.

           God is at work not only in foreign places like a Roman jail or a Babylonian displacement camp, but also in foreign people like Naaman. Naaman epitomizes the foreign "outsider" for several reasons. He was a military officer from pagan Aram (= Syria), a major enemy of Israel. The narrator praises Naaman in glowing terms: "He was a valiant soldier, a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded." Then he ads a shocking detail: "through Naaman the Lord had given victory to Aram."

           God gave victory to Israel's enemy through a pagan officer? Yes. Finally, Naaman had a skin disease. This disease no doubt caused Naaman some medical problems, but his real complications were social, religious, and moral, for people with such "impurities" were stigmatized as ritually unclean and therefore excluded from God's community and its worship (2 Kings 5).

           This "great man" (2 Kings 5:1) embarked on a state visit with opulent gifts to visit the king of Israel, only to encounter a nameless "little girl" from Israel who advised him to seek healing from the Hebrew prophet Elisha. The irony is unmistakable and Naaman's response is predictable; when this anonymous Hebrew child instructed the renowned military officer not to seek help from the corridors of political power, but from a religious prophet who told him to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River, he was incensed. But Naaman obeyed, he was healed, and then he was confessed: "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel."

Naaman washes in the Jordan River, by Andreas Heidrich.
Naaman washes in the Jordan River,
by Andreas Heidrich

           So again we see God's mysterious means — Naaman the outsider joined the insider community, a nameless little girl advised a military leader, and the prophetic power of Elisha subverted social and political conventions.

           These stories confound our expectations. We should never forfeit our prayers for exodus deliverance, but neither should we forget that God can be just as present in exilic banishment. God works in exilic darkness and in exodus deliverance, in a dank Roman prison as well as in 10,000 miles of gospel itinerating.

           Anyone who considers himself an "insider" should take warning from these "outsider" stories. Paul, the consummate Christian "insider," even contemplated the harrowing possibility of his own banishment to "outsider" perdition (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). In keeping with these strange stories, in the gospel for this week Jesus heals ten lepers. Somehow we're not surprised that only the Samaritan foreigner gave thanks to God (Luke 17:11–19).        

For further reflection:

* What have been your experiences of exodus deliverance? Of exilic darkness?
* When have you discerned God working in strange places or people?
* Cf. the book by Mother Teresa in which she describes her decades of exilic darkness: Come Be My Light (2007).
* Cf. Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider; Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (2005).

Image credits: (1) Wikimedia.org; (2) TheEvidence.org; and (3) The British Museum.