Seeking the Shalom of the World (Jeremiah 29:1,4-6; Luke 17:11-19)
I don’t suppose it will do to begin two sermons in a row by saying that the passages are hard and don’t seem to go together well, so, without denying that this is so, I will say, instead, that these passages, especially the Gospel, may easily be misunderstood. It seems to me that where the passages enter into dialogue is about how those who are called to faith in God (and the Gospel adds “in Jesus”) relate, at the same time, to their culture, which is a product of human design and effort. People of faith, through the millennia, have related to their worlds in ways that stretch from an outright rejection of the world as evil and so to be shunned in every way, to those who fully embrace their culture to the point that they really become white spots on a white wall and are completely indistinguishable from any other fairly “nice” humans beings of their day. I suspect that most of us fall somewhere in between the extremes, and so, how we relate our commitments to God and to our world depends on when you ask us and about what specifically you ask us.
To turn to the Old Testament first and the Prophet Jeremiah, as I said in TEE last Thursday, I am always more excited by Jeremiah before I get into reading him than after. The Book is remarkably complex and difficult, and portrays the character of the prophet as equally complex and difficult. I do not think that Jeremiah would be an easy person to like. He thought that, pretty much, only he spoke the truth for God and wasn’t welcoming of other views. For much of his career, it seems, he clearly took a stance that was directly opposed to the politics and culture of his own nation.
The first 24 chapters of the Book of Jeremiah defend the idea that God has decreed the end of Jeremiah’s homeland, the Kingdom of Judah, in response to its failure to live up to conditions of the Sinai covenant. This flew in the face of the traditional doctrine that David’s throne would endure forever and that Judah always had it right. Now, folks in his day could “quote Bible verses” to support David’s everlasting kingship, of course. It’s still true that people can (and do) quote the Bible to demonstrate David’s eternal kingship and almost anything for that matter. Jeremiah, on the other hand, said that the pagan Babylonians were going to win. Can you imagine anything so unpatriotic and treasonous as to suggest that his nation’s enemies were going to be the winners? Imagine a preacher who said that ISIS was God’s instrument to punish the U.S., and how most of us would react. Is it any wonder that Jeremiah was threatened, beaten, thrown in jail, etc. Today we’d ship him to Guantanamo Bay. There are many sick reasons to become a minister today and Jeremiah could be the poster child for most of them (and has been, to some I’ve encountered). The question is how does such a hard-to-get-along-with preacher like Jeremiah credit a long book in the pages of Holy Writ?
Well, as Jeremiah chapter 25 along with chapter 52 and dozens of other places in the Old Testament detail, the reason is an old fashioned one. He turned out to be right. In fact, over a ten-year period the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar captured Judah, deported the people, and, finally, burnt the city of Jerusalem, including Solomon’s glorious temple, to the ground. Give the later folks who put the canon together credit; they included a good deal of stuff that didn’t do their ancestors’ historical and religious judgments much credit. These scriptures said, at length, “Wow, did we blow it!”
The part of Jeremiah 29 that we read claims to be at least based on a letter that Jeremiah wrote to some of the people that had been taken to Babylon. He did not counsel those exiles either to give up or to resist their captors to the last drop of blood. What he said, in God’s name, was:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
First, as Jeremiah does frequently, he identified himself as a speaker of God’s authentic message: “Thus says Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel…” The first thing this God of the covenant says is that “I sent the exiles into Babylon from Jerusalem.” It was God’s act. Of course, this would be a sore point with those who held that God was always on Judah’s side because it was the nation founded by King David. We always think our own country to be exceptional, even when we have evidence to the contrary.
God’s message to the exiles was that they were to fulfill Jeremiah’s own call (see 1:10), “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” God had already been about the work of destruction. This was now about building and planting. The revolutionary part of all this is that they were to build houses, plant gardens, marry, have families – children and grandchildren – in Babylon! In the heart of the dirty, rotten, pagan, evil empire. The goal was to keep up strength and not decrease as a people. Verse 7 is a bit shocking to those of us who think that the enemy is always the enemy: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Three times in this sentence the pew Bible has the word “welfare.” Each time this is the word shalom, wholeness, peace, fullness of life. Also, remember that, in the Hebrew Old Testament, verbs that we might associate with feelings such as “to love,” or as here, “to seek” (the welfare of) someone, did not refer to feelings but to real actions of affiliation. To love someone meant to do things that would show that you were affiliated, joined, yoked, to the one you loved. To seek something meant to act in the interest of something, so that “to seek the welfare of” meant actively to work for that welfare, that shalom, not just to feel it, plan it, want it, etc. This was a new model for being the people of God, which, for centuries had been living in the promised land under a chosen king, worshiping at the Jerusalem Temple as a nation and thinking that their political and religious power was what God planned eternally. Isn’t it tempting to think that the way it has been is the way it must be? Here we have the powerless people of God enjoined by God to seek the peace of the place where God scattered them. Jeremiah actually says (and it’s no wonder he would be in trouble for this) that God wants the community of faith (dare we say the Church, since this is our scripture) to seek the wholeness of the culture in which it is embedded and do what it can for the welfare of that culture. More to that, they are to pray on its behalf. The reason is very practical. “In its shalom you will find your shalom.” You cannot get along with- out it – at least in this present place where God has sent the people – and that placement seems long term from these verses. Later in the passage, we learn that it won’t be forever, but it is for now. Act and pray on behalf of the place in which you find yourselves now.
Is this not a remarkable word in a day and time when many folk feel like the world around them is such a strange and lonely place? For whatever reasons, we’ve been placed here, work and pray for the welfare of those “others” among whom you find yourselves, and with whom you may not think you have much in common. Settle down, do normal things, for in the general welfare of the place where you find yourselves, you will discover your own. God’s people are called upon to give the best they have to the place where they are. It’s almost as if God were saying to Israel, “Since you would not follow me as the majority, follow me as a tiny minority within a larger culture.” And it’s not about doing it as punishment. It’s doing it to find our significance, our wholeness, our shalom, Later, in verse 11, we come to a famous verse, often lifted out of context: God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your shalom and not for your harm…” Blooming where we’re planted is not about punishment, it’s about mission. And, lest we think that this is only the ranting of one Old Testament kook, remember that a later Galilean rabbi named Jeshua said: “But I say to you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
That’s from the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew, and speaking of the Gospel, might we wonder what Jeremiah’s words have to do with the Gospel story of those Ten Lepers? This story is usually told as a parable of ingratitude. Only about one in ten is grateful enough to show it by saying “Thank You.” Ten were healed, one is saved, to take a line from a recent commentary on the passage.
In Jesus’ culture, however, the appropriate response of a weaker party to the help of a stronger one would not be thanks, but praise. If a weaker party said “thank you” to a stronger one, the cultural message was, “Our relationship is now finished, I won’t be needing any more help.” That’s why the Old and New Testaments don’t talk nearly as much about thanking God as they do about praising God. Praise for help is appropriate.
As this Gospel story is placed next to the Jeremiah text, it really becomes the story about how it feels to be that tiny community of exiles working and praying for the shalom of the culture into which God has sent them. How would you feel? Probably, like an outsider, an out-cast. All ten in the Gospel story were lepers. That was their “normal” now. They were all outcasts in their culture. But there was this one who was an outcast among the outcasts because his religion was “different.” He was a Samaritan, a half-breed, with funny doctrine, a funny Bible, and all that. If we imagine that these outcasts in their society are like those exiles to whom Jeremiah wrote his exhortation, who is that Samaritan leper? How about today?
The Torah required lepers to keep their distance, mark themselves out by certain kinds of clothes, and to let those who might come near know that they were “unclean,” which, in that culture, meant, outcasts from the majority. I’ve said before that the primary meaning of “healing” in the Bible is the social act of restoring one to community rather than simply the medical act of restoring one to health. That’s why lepers were asked to show themselves to the priest rather than the physician (if they could have found one). The priest could only tell how they looked, but could restore them from the role of outcast. Anyway, all ten did the proper thing when Jesus approached, except instead of announcing themselves as unclean, they called out to Jesus for help. Jesus directed them to show themselves to the priests. They went off, and, as they were going, they looked at themselves, and they were clean. It was only that Samaritan leper, the double outcast, who, when he saw his own healing, went back and, note the words, praised God (appropriate) and thanked Jesus, meaning that he was confident this healing business was permanent, and he had no further need of it.
If we read Luke’s story with the remembrance of Jeremiah’s, it’s as if when Jesus has called ten lepers to go show themselves to the priests, on their way, they began to look at themselves, and, all of a sudden they realize…”My Lord (literally), I’m clean”! It was in the going, in the doing, in their response to Jesus’ call, that they came to the realization that “in their shalom you will find yours.” It’s in doing what we can for others that we realize that we’ve been made whole. What a cause for praising God and thanking Jesus – not in that pious sense of “thank you, Jesus,” but in the realization that this grace is a permanent gift. We grasp, in words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, that “it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
It is true that when Jesus calls us to be disciples, he does not enable us to see the end from the beginning, nor even from the middle, of things. He calls us, as disciples, to do our best on the basis of his teachings in the scriptures, our intelligence, and the information we have. Responding to that call to do what Jesus (or Jeremiah) calls disciples to do is dangerous, difficult, and demanding, and we will fail many times to do it well. But really, is there anything worthwhile in this world that isn’t dangerous, difficult, and demanding? Why should responding to Jesus call be any different?
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.