Archive for December, 2014

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

LUKE 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

What’s the difference between being made “clean” and being made “well”? We know from psychotherapy that alleviating the symptoms of mental disorder is not at all the same as building the strengths that promote mental order and happiness. Western medicine early on got oriented around the problems (dysfunction, impairment, injury, illness and disease) that compromise health, but only recently has attention been turning to the question of what supports higher well-being.

The ten lepers who approached Jesus for mercy were suffering from a terrible flesh-rotting disease that is still a problem in some parts of the world. Not knowing much about the physical causes and conditions of the disease, social morality back then ostracized lepers to their own colonies and regarded them as “unclean,” which carried religious connotations as a punishment for sin. Good people of society were careful to steer around lepers, reducing thereby the contagion of leprosy but also reinforcing the prejudice against lepers as accursed by God.

The question of whether this miracle story reaches back to an actual event in history misses the point, as reading the Bible literally will almost always do. Its real purpose in Luke’s Gospel is to reveal more of what the author believes Jesus was all about, where his true uniqueness and “power to save” were centered. As in other miracle stories of the Gospels, this episode presents Jesus as addressing those that society had dismissed or ignored as worthless.

But more than that, Jesus not only addressed them (i.e., acknowledged their presence), he also esteemed and honored the down-and-outs as children of God. Certainly he had compassion for their suffering, but he didn’t limit his outreach (as many of us do these days) to the effort of merely improving their living conditions. More often than not he touched them, had conversations with them, shared what he had with them, and invited them into his itinerant community of friends.

Without a doubt, many times these needy ones just took what Jesus had to give and moved on (or stayed where they were as he moved on). Their lives were changed by his love and its radiant power. Whatever their ailment, limitation, or disorder, Jesus effectively mediated and made possible their return to society. He “made them clean” by his regard for them as equals, as sons and daughters of God.

Only a small few of these, however, returned to Jesus out of gratitude for the way his love had set them free. Like this Samaritan – an ethnic identifier that compounded his stereotype as a degenerate – who turned back to offer his thanks for what Jesus had done, these grateful few not only enjoyed a new lease on life by virtue of being set free from their problem. They “reinvested” their freedom by choosing to live a more grateful life.

In making this choice, they were made well. This is what it means to be saved.