The 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-12
II Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Exile (Diaspora) carries God’s blessing to the nations, and the suffering of the elect advances the message of new life.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

The reading from the prophet Jeremiah is an instruction to Jewish exiles on how to live as the Diaspora.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians involved several deportations. The city was besieged for three months and then surrendered in 597. The main branch of the ruling family and many elite and skilled people, totaling perhaps 10,000, were deported to Babylon at that time (II Kings 24:12-16). Another branch of the royal family was installed on the throne of the vassal kingdom, headed by King Zedekiah. After nine years, Zedekiah also rebelled against Babylon, and held out in a bitter siege for eighteen months, ending in 586. That led to the physical destruction of the city and another deportation of perhaps 3,000 people. There was yet another deportation of around 2,500 people four years later, after the Judean governor for Babylon had been assassinated. (See Jeremiah 52:28-30, where the numbers are probably of able-bodied men, making the total number of persons over three times as high.)

With the main line of the royal family, including the previously reigning king, and major leading families of Judah in Babylon, plans were developed there for an imminent recovery and restoration. Prophets and fortune-tellers thrived among the exiles by fostering such hopes. It is against such fomenters of false expectations that Jeremiah wrote his letter in chapter 29, from which our passage comes.

Jeremiah has been assured that God has given up on the rotten figs still fermenting in Judah (see Jeremiah 24), and just as certainly God has no plans for a quick return of the good figs now in exile. Thus, Jeremiah instructs the people in Babylon to dig in for a long stay. Build houses, plant long-term crops (the “gardens” presumably contain fruit trees, taking many years to be productive), and plan on multiple generations of children and grandchildren.

Furthermore, they should not look only to their own welfare, but also to that of their host society. They must not live in grudging resistance to their captors, but pray for them. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (verse 7, NRSV). “Welfare” translates shālōm, and the verb “seek” (dārash) is a strong and active word. They are instructed to actively advance whatever makes for good in their larger community.

The ethics of the Diaspora were being initiated by God’s prophetic message.

Psalm 66:1-12

The Psalm reading acquires a special power if we hear it as the faithful response of the people in exile to the prophet’s instruction. It is a hymn of praise, but with strong emphasis on the universality of God’s power and marvelous deeds.

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth…
All the earth worships you;
          they sing praises to you,
          sing praises to your name” (verses 1, 4, NRSV).

The folks in exile have a special reason to praise this God; they were saved because of God’s power to turn the sea to dry land. But all peoples are called to bless “our God,” and though the Israelites may be captives in a strange land, it is only a “testing” that God is putting them through. God is refining them, making them pass through fire and through water.

However, from these experiences of the elect people, the mighty nations and peoples are to learn. The God of this people sent them through trials and great distress, but also “brought us out to a spacious place” (verse 12), the broad space that represents salvation and “welfare” for the disciplined people. Other peoples are called to bless such a God (verse 8), and the people in exile are prompted to see the prophet’s instructions for the Diaspora as the fulfillment of their greater mission.

II Timothy 2:8-15.

The Epistle reading is also a voice speaking from captivity. The Apostle is in chains for the sake of the gospel he spreads. He is bound in captivity, but the word of salvation is not! It thrives among the nations calling forth the “elect,” that they might share in the salvation in Christ Jesus. This passage is loaded with comprehensive terms and declarations. There is a succinct statement of the gospel, that Jesus was a descendant of David and that he was raised from the dead (verse 8; compare Romans 1:3-4). Especially for Jewish believers, these two points were the essence of the gospel.

As the prophet (and the psalm) had told the suffering exiles that they were there to bless the host nations, so the Apostle sees his suffering as part of the message of salvation itself. As James D. G. Dunn comments, “in Pauline theology suffering is not just a consequence of the gospel, but is itself part of the gospel—sharing in Christ’s sufferings as the way in which and the means by which the resurrection from the dead comes to its full realization…” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI [Abingdon Press, 2000], p. 843).

Luke 17:11-19.

The Gospel reading presents Jesus still on his journey to Jerusalem, but now out in territory “between Galilee and Samaria,” which is a little like saying “in no man’s land” because you can’t find it on the map. (There was no other territory between Galilee and Samaria, only a border.) This may not be exile, but it is certainly unfamiliar terrain, traversed by pilgrims.

There appears a band of people bound together by their social banishment because of skin ailments generically called “leprosy.” These folks hear about Jesus passing through and gather themselves near a village on the main road, as close as the restrictions on their contact with healthy people will allow. They call out for Jesus to have mercy on them, and he calls back that they should set out on their journey to the priests to present themselves as healed. As they trudge on their separate way toward Jerusalem, their skin conditions dramatically improve and they realize that they are healed. (Presumably, if they had not believed that this would happen, they would not have set out on their trip.) Later, one of the group of ten, the only Samaritan among them apparently, returns to Jesus and thanks him ecstatically, praising God for the healing, as was proper.

Now, only after all this action has transpired, Jesus speaks. He speaks—but who is he talking to? “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” This may be said in the hearing of the tenth leper, the Samaritan, but its thrust can hardly be aimed at him. He is the only one not to be reprimanded!

There is an audience in the background here that has not been named. One suspects it may be the same arrogant masters who were addressed in the previous episode (last Sunday’s Gospel text). “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Ten persons had suffered and all ten had received the mercy of God and relief. A witness of the universal God’s work was given among the peoples, but only one out of the saved raised the proper praise and thanksgiving to God. This grateful Samaritan had gotten the message, and was proclaiming it gladly.

For every ten who benefit from God’s grace, only one praises the Lord for all to hear.

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