October 13, 2019
On Faith, welfare and gratitude
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Jesus in John’s Gospel says about his Disciples that they “do not belong to the world” but he then also says: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world.” In the world but not of this world. What does it mean? In essence it has to do with how people of faith relate to the world, culture, politics and economics. Now it is not always easy to know what our relationship to the world and its institutions should be.
There were times when Christian people would withdraw from the world, not wanting to have anything to do with a sinful world. And there were times when they would become so involved in the world that no one could tell that they had a belief system. Sometimes too far removed and other times to close to the world and its institutions.
There was a time when people of faith were convinced that withdrawing from the world, they could become immune to the sin of the world. In the 4th century a certain Simon, a Syrian Christian, became what was known as a Stylite. Simeon sat atop a pillar for 37 years to separate himself from a sinful world. He did not see himself as in this world. Impressive – but one could ask what impact he had on the world? And the answer of course is not much! Remember the words of Jesus that we are the salt of the earth. Salt after all can only give flavor or preserve when it is mixed in with food.
But there were also times when people of faith became so involved in the world, in politics, in the economy and culture that they did not really bring anything new to the table. They lived and participated in life in exactly the same way as anyone else. They, in the words of Jesus lived as if they belonged to the world.
If these two extreme examples are not what we are called to do, what then is? Maybe our readings could help us to see what is it what we bring to the table that is new?
The Jeremiah reading is a fascinating one: The Babylonians became the world power in about 626BCE. In 609BCE, the good King of the Jews, King Josiah died and that was when things started to go wrong for Judah.
Josiah’s successor, his son Jehoiakim, lead a rebellion against the new world power, the Babylonians. The Babylonians retaliated and attacked Jerusalem. The Jews were deported to Babylon. After about a decade, the new Jewish king Zedekiah decided to defy Babylonian authority again. Many people supported him. There were actually prophets that claimed that this was what God wanted them to do. “Oppose the Babylonians. Be strong! Then we will be free again. This is God’s will.”
So they rebelled against the Babylonians! The result was catastrophic! The Babylonians severely punished them and they finally destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 586BCE! The prophets who urged the uprising were brutally punished. In chapter 29:21-23 we see a reference to them. The Babylonians executed them by roasting them in fire – their traditional way of punishing opponents. So, these two prophets, even though they had the support of the masses, opposed the Babylonians! They made the wrong decision. They not only removed themselves from their world, they opposed it.
Jeremiah, at the time, preached a completely different message: “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.”
Let me just remind you that the Hebrew word for welfare in this text is Shalom. The word literally means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. It is a feeling of contentment, of well-being, of health and harmony, safety, soundness, fullness and the absence of agitation or discord.
And once we understand the meaning of shalom, it gets interesting: Jeremiah is saying, that as God’s people they should engage in their new city – even though it was not their own. Settle in, build houses, plant gardens, be involved in the community. He even says: “Pray for them”. Can you imagine how unpopular Jeremiah’s message must have been? People were furious and they called him a sell-out. A traitor! And yet now looking back we know that he was right!
And people of God, below the surface of this text, there is a timeless truth that still rings true. Remember that the Jewish people were the covenant people. God chose them to be God’s people. They were chosen to show their neighbors what it meant to be God’s people. And God’s people were to show the world what God wants!
This is why Jeremiah is saying that his people, while they wait for the time to go back to Judah, should be involved in a constructive way in their community. They should contribute to the society, they should work hard, they should have a family, they should be involved in the city’s economy and even pray for their captors! They should work for Shalom. Why? Because they themselves will find their welfare in the welfare of the city. If it goes well with the city it will go well with them!
The first thing we as people of faith can bring to our community is shalom: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, welfare and tranquility. Shalom has to do with being content, with well-being, health and harmony, safety, soundness, fullness and the absence of agitation or discord.
Jeremiah, spokesperson for God is saying that the city’s welfare and their own welfare are intrinsically and inherently linked. If the city is well, they as a people will be well. And one could legitimately deduct from this connectedness that if the city is not well, the people within the city will not be well.
For the Apostle Paul, the former Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, after his conversion, the Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes the major motive in everything he does. The Gospel is about Jesus, who through his death and resurrection, reconciled people with God and made everything new. The Apostle Paul thus is saying that we bring to the table faith in the One who reconciled people with God. He bring to his community this view: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”
This message is nothing to ashamed of! The way we interact with the world is to bring faith to the table. A world that is caught up with only what they see, is caught in a world that does not provide hope. Our faith says, there is more to this world- there is a loving and caring God whom we can trust for the future.
And then our last reading gives us another aspect that we bring to the table when we interact with our community. Or perhaps one could ask this question: Why should we work for the Shalom of the society? Yes, it is true that our own shalom is linked to the shalom of the society. So it makes sense because we have skin in the game. Why should we bring to the table our faith that God has reconciled the world with God?
The reason why we do this is found in our Gospel reading: gratitude! Jesus heals ten lepers from a terrible and stigmatized disease! Those who had this disease were condemned because at the time there was no cure. But was perhaps even worse was that they were shunned by their society. They were seen as cursed and by being shunned they lost their dignity. No-one spoke to them, no-one mentioned their names, it was as if they did not exist. So, one would expect that all of them would respond with an eternal gratitude towards the One who healed them. But only one turned around, praising God with a loud voice and thanked Jesus. And he was a Samaritan. He was one who was used to being shunned by Jews, he was familiar with being an outcast. Remember that Jews at the time really could not stand Samaritans. They were viewed as “Untermenschen”, subhuman or inferior people. Jews did not talk to them or interact with them. It is striking that Jesus, breaks with this custom as the Bible tells us that Jesus talks to Samaritan men and women. He also tells a parable about a Good Samaritan.
This Samaritan leper turns around and thanks Jesus. he is the one who shows gratitude. Jesus says to him: “Go, your faith has made you well!” The Greek word for well means “well in the sense of being healed but also saved I spiritual sense!” So, this man’s gratitude results in him being healed, made whole, and reconciled with God!
People of faith should have a passion about shalom! Because God in Jesus has healed us from our sins, he has made us whole and he has saved us. Therefore, we show are gratitude when we work for a society where everyone share in God’s wholeness and peace: individuals, groups, our community, our country and our world!
Jeremiah is right: without shalom in the world, no country, no state, no city, no group or individual will experience shalom! On the other hand, if we work for shalom where we are, with God’s help we may contribute to the spread of God’s shalom for the whole world. And we ought to do this for we are grateful for what we have received. This is how we ought to interact with our community: Our shalom is intricately connect with the shalom of our community. We bring a faith perspective and we do so out of gratitude. Amen.