Lectionary Commentaries for October 9, 2022
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 17:11-19

Francisco J. García

This passage follows the trajectory of geography, healing, and faith, pointing to the theme of reversal (or inversion) that is central in Luke and in much of the gospels (think of “the last shall be first and the first last,” Matthew 20:16). These are situations where a person or group’s social status (physical, economic, political, religious) is reversed because of an encounter with Jesus. Often it has to do with someone who is incredibly marginalized, isolated, and even condemned because of their condition (the blind beggar in Luke 18:38; the penitent criminal in 23:42). 

Through a face-to-face experience with Jesus where they are seen, heard, received, and sent, they obtain a kind of transformative and complete healing (liberation, in a real sense) that seemed impossible beforehand. Whether blindness or illness, abject poverty, or criminality, walking with Jesus in the way provides an all-encompassing healing that reflects God’s vision of justice, wellness, and belonging for all of humanity. A preacher seeking to proclaim this text in its fullness can take on this idea of healing justice in several ways explored here.

Geography and beyond: The borderlands as a thin place

Geography matters. Verses 17:11-12 in Luke state that Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem, “passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee,” and “entered into a certain village.” This means that this entire healing encounter between Jesus and the ten men with a skin disease takes place in a geographic borderland that is neither Samaria nor Galilee. The borderlands—we learn from Chicana writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa, whose context is the U.S.-Mexican border—are more than a geographic boundary. They are “a psychic, social, and cultural terrain that we inhabit, and that inhabits all of us.” She writes that while borders “are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them … ” a “borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary … the prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”1

Anzaldúa’s words help us understand why Luke places this healing encounter in a hybrid space that transcends not only geography but also culture, religion, economics, and politics. Despite the reference to Jerusalem, which points to the place where Jesus and his movement will face the ultimate earthly powers of his time, this passage centers on the borderlands of the empire. That healing happens in this locale should not be ignored; Luke is saying something theological about how this God of great reversals works, and Jesus reflects this attention to the margins in his ministry. The healing encounter between Jesus and the ten men with a skin disease, a condition that relegated them to a life of physical and mental suffering and isolation, and economic deprivation as a result, converts the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria from a forbidden wasteland to a sacred place, perhaps even a thin place where the veil between the material and spiritual worlds is lifted, and an awareness of their interconnection is more deeply known and felt. 

This is all possible because Jesus is the ultimate border-crosser. He models for us a prophetic-pastoral ministry that continuously shifts the focus away from the people and places that are typically held as sacred and worthy and reframes the margins as places where God shows up in healing and liberative power.

Healing is not a spectator sport  

In addition to the role that geography plays in the healing acts of Jesus, another critical aspect of this story has to do with the agency of the ten men seeking healing. In this passage as in nearly all healing stories in the gospels, those being healed are not mere receivers of Jesus’ healing powers. They are co-participants in their own healing. Biblical scholar Mikeal Parsons notes that the ten men seeking healing in this passage are among only three characters in the Luke narrative (recall the earlier reference to the blind beggar and the penitent criminal) that call Jesus by his name “Jesus.”2 They also call Jesus “Master” (verse 13), something usually only reserved for disciples.3 Despite not knowing Jesus personally (for this seems to be a chance encounter with him), they readily approach him with a faithful and expectant posture, as if they could sense that their healing was at hand in Jesus’ presence. 

There’s a powerful connection here to explore further in a sermon between the act of being seen and heard by Jesus, and in seeing and speaking up to Jesus. Healing takes place not by some miracle, but by an act of mutual agency—divinely grounded—leading to authentic human connection. Moreover, in their courage to show up for themselves these men are not only healed from their skin disease but also from the social isolation and marginalization that they had suffered in the borderlands. Jesus affirms the role of the one man (the Samaritan, whom we’ll return to later) as a catalyst in his own healing by saying to him “your faith has made you well (verse 19).” In today’s ongoing pandemic context, where anxiety, depression and other related illnesses are running rampant, it is no wonder that doctors are increasingly prescribing social activities, walks in nature, and other non-traditional forms of medical treatment that require active patient engagement.4 A just and comprehensive healing cannot happen in isolation—it requires direct participation and community.

Listening to the faith of the borderlands

Given the theme of reversal in Luke, the fact that a Samaritan participates in God’s healing justice, offering praise to God and gratitude to Jesus should not surprise us. As this story challenged people in Luke’s time to expand their understanding of who is worthy, who has access to God, and who can claim healing in the name of God, it should also challenge us to think outside of the norms of dominant religious contexts today. In the wake of rising White Christian nationalism5, Christians of conscience must actively resist supremacist interpretations and practices and listen to the many faiths of the borderlands that cry out for recognition and redemption, to restore the spirit of compassionate justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings.


Notes

  1. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Book Company, 1987), 3.
  2. Mikeal Parsons, “Luke 17:11-18:30, Jesus’s Teaching about the Kingdom,” in Luke, Padeia, Commentaries on the New Testament, edited by Mikeal Parsons et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 257.
  3. Parsons, Ibid.
  4. Rachel Chen, “Why Some Doctors Are Prescribing Ballroom Dance or a Day at the Museum,” in Time https://time.com/6187850/social-prescriptions-improve-health/, June 25, 2022, accessed September 5, 2022.
  5. Mike Cummings, “Yale sociologist Phil Gorski on the threat of white Christian nationalism,” in YaleNews, March 15, 2022, accessed September 5, 2022.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Rachel Wrenn

Commentators often focus on Naaman the Aramean as the main character of the text.1 Naaman’s story offers a powerful witness to humility and God’s ability to heal. The text takes pains to emphasize the importance and influence of Naaman, repeatedly calling him an ’ish gadol and gibbor chayil (influential man and powerful warrior).2 Naaman’s prominent status makes his skin disease not just an inconvenience but a liability.3 How do powerful people deal with their liabilities, especially ones that trigger their shame? Why, by seizing control of the situation. 

Naaman does just such a thing when he appears before Elisha for healing. Dressed to impress (quite literally; see 2 Kings 5:5), Naaman struts up to Elisha with all of his wealth on display and with horses and chariots at his fingertips. Horses and chariots in the ancient Near East were not just for show; they were war machines. Unable to control his own body, Naaman instead tries to manipulate the terms by which he will receive help. He brings the tools he needs to either woo the help from the Israelites or to force it, if necessary. Either way, Naaman is in the driver seat.

Elisha is having none of it. He ignores Naaman’s attempts to control the narrative through coercion or seduction. Instead, Elisha takes Naaman’s peacock presentation and raises it to the level of the divine, where a Living God needs none of his show. Elisha places Naaman in the role of submissive recipient, and teaches Naaman a truth about bodiesand spiritsthat are in need of healing.

It is a great story. Such a reading, however, remains at the surface level of the pericope and ignores what the text takes pains to highlight. Humility is not the only point of this passage. The interplay between this ’ish gadol and those of lesser status around him draws out the real preaching point of this story, one that revolves around a dynamic of listening and speaking.

The first two “minor” characters reveal this dynamic: an Israelite slave-girl (here, Anna) and her Aramean mistress, Naaman’s wife (here, Tabitha).4 Anna the slave-girl takes pride of place when it comes to speaking. That she is the first person to speak seems remarkable; that she speaks at all is extraordinary. The exceptional nature of this attention and honor are easy to miss. The only people who are called na‘arah (girl) and speak in the Hebrew Bible are Rebekah (Genesis 24), Ruth (Ruth 2), and Esther (Esther 2). A Matriarch, the Great-Grandmother of King David, a Slave-Girl and a Queen; these are the only na‘arah who explicitly use their voice in the Hebrew Bible. 

Anna the slave-girl, who is no longer in control of her life and liberty, exercises her voice. Anna the slave-girl refuses to be in bondage to silence. Anna’s courage in speaking has an astonishing effect on those around her. Her mistress, Tabitha, listens to her. She then amplifies the voice of her slave, bringing Anna’s words to her husband.5 Naaman also listens, bringing the words of Anna the slave-girl to the king himself, who listens as well! Naaman’s first lesson in humility is not on Elisha’s doorstep, but on his own, where he listens to his wife and her slave-girl and honors both of their voices. Before humbly washing in the Jordan, Naaman learns to listen to the humble around him.

Preachers might ask their congregants with whom they identify in this text. Are they an ’ish gadol, who is called to healing through listening to the lowly of society? Are they Tabitha, called to both listen and speak, amplifying the voices of those who would otherwise go unheard? Are they Anna, from the lowest ranks of society, called to speak, to use their voice, to claim their ideas and their right to be heard?

Though we do not get it in our pericope, in verse 15, we hear the whole shocking impact of Anna’s speech: Naaman, this ’ish gadol, now knows that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Who else do you suppose came to faith in God because of this act of healing? What healing for Anna might have occurred because of her determination to speak? The blessings and new life in this story all happen because the slave-girl Anna was willing to use her voiceand, because people listened.


Notes

  1.  Israel and Aram were neighboring countries that vied for power in the region, much like neighboring Spain and France used to compete over their shared border territories.
  2.  If you would like to use some Hebrew in your sermon, here are some pronunciation tips: ’ish gadol would be “eesh gah-dole,” as if one is disgusted with a certain type of banana: “Eesh! Gah! Dole!” Gibbor chayil is pronounced “gee-bore high-yeel.” “Gee” takes a hard-g sound, like at the start of the word “go;” “high” gets an extra throaty hh sound at its beginning, like the second half of the exasperated cry, “Aachh!”).
  3. For more on this skin disease and on the pitfalls of preaching about healings, check out Brian Jones’ Working Preacher commentary from 2019: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14-3/commentary-on-2-kings-51-14-7.
  4.  The topic of slavery deserves at least a moment of attention in your sermon. The lived reality of slavery and its generational ramifications have been rushed passed, ignored, and glossed over in most powerful Western countries. One of the benefits of a text like this is it allows uscalls us, reallyto speak about slavery and its ramifications in our lives today.
  5. Tabitha’s recitation to her husband is not included in the text, but it can be assumed by the fact that Naaman somehow hears Anna’s words.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Melissa Ramos

Stop waiting and live. 

This is the main thrust of the message delivered in a letter from the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to those who had been exiled in Babylonia. 

The narrative setting and context of Jeremiah 29 is the capture and destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE and a series of deportation and forced migration of Judeans into the Babylonian Empire including the deportation in this passage in 597 BCE. The exile of Judeans into Babylon did not happen all at once, but in waves and phases, which is why King Jeconiah, the queen mother, and various court officials, artisans, and craftspersons were forcibly migrated to Babylon (29:2) while Jeremiah and others remained, for the time being, in Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 43, we read that Jeremiah eventually migrated to Egypt, along with Johanan the son of Koreah, other military officers, and residents of Judah who were still in Jerusalem after the wave of deportations in 597 BCE.

The contents of the letter in Jeremiah 29:4-9 and following specifically address the situation of the royal court and the upper class who experienced the trauma of exile from their homeland and their forced resettlement into Babylon, a place where they were strangers. 

What was the situation like for exiled members of the royal court and upper classes in Babylon? Historical sources, including cuneiform documents from the state archives of the Babylonian Empire, tell us that King Jehoiachin of Judah and his descendants were held prisoner in Babylon, along with some Judean artisans and craftspersons who worked there. Palace archives from Babylon include lists of goods from the royal palace that were delivered to people from Judah, Tyre, Ashkelon, and other locations in Media and Egypt. These archives also reference a large number of immigrants from the Levant from the years of Nebuchadnezzar II.1

From these records, we can also surmise that soldiers, craftspersons, and court officials worked in the palace and received rations from the royal palace for their work. Immigrants from many places that were forcibly relocated to Babylon worked in boatyards, carpenters, sailors, as royal messengers, and as mercenaries as hired swords (Alstola, 64-66).

What this seems to mean is that those who were forcibly exiled to Babylonia, and especially those from the royal family and court, were provided for and were given opportunities for meaningful work. For example, the oil rations given to King Jehoiachin were sizable, and much larger than the average ration given to others (Alstola, 69). Additionally, their well-being as hostages would have ensured the cooperation of the vassal king ruling for the Babylonian Empire in Jerusalem and Judah. So, although their freedom was curtailed, it does not seem that members of the royal family, merchants, craftspersons and others were permanently incarcerated or mistreated (see also 2 Kings 25:27-30 for the release of King Jehoiachin from captivity), but, rather, many were put to work in productive jobs for the empire.

This does not mean that life was easy or without great hardship in Babylon, even after amnesty was granted to the king and the royal family. A lack of agency and control over one’s situation has deleterious effects on one’s well-being. Yet the letter from Jeremiah that brings a prophetic word from YHWH to the exiles offers a word of hope, encouragement, and a call to take agency in ways that were possible during the time of exile. 

The letter plainly states (29:10) that the situation of exile will not be over quickly and that only after seventy years will a restoration come, implying that the exilic community should not put their hopes in a quick end to their exile and separation from their homeland. Rather, they should embrace the good in their current circumstances and strive toward prosperity for themselves, their community, and, indeed, for the welfare of the city of Babylon itself.

The prophetic word in the letter encourages the exilic community not to abandon themselves to despair or to linger waiting for divine deliverance back to Jerusalem in the near future. The exiled Judeans are called to build, plant, eat, marry, have children, and make productive contributions to the city in which they currently live, rather than pining for the now-distant city of their homeland.

In seeking the prosperity and well-being of their city and indeed even their enemy captors, they could still honor and serve God. The letter further promises that when they do so, “then when you call upon me, I will hear you.” The prophetic pronouncement of Jeremiah in the letter also encourages that God has not abandoned them entirely, for “’I know the plans I have for you,’ says YHWH, “to give you a future with hope’” (29:11-12). 

In the midst of difficult circumstances, sometimes the call of God is to dig in and find ways to thrive rather than waiting for a change in our current situation.


Notes

  1. Tero Alstola, Judeans in Babylonia: A Study of Deportees in the Sixth and Fifth Centuries BCE, 58-63

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 111

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

Book V of the Hebrew Psalter (Psalms 107-150) is an extended collection of psalms brought together in the ongoing traumatic aftermath of the Exile, and yet, the opening psalm is a call to thanksgiving and Psalms 111-112 continue that call. Psalms 111, 112, and 113 begin with the central call of the psalms of praiseHallelujah! (a transliteration of “Praise YHWH”). Psalms 111-118 constitute a “Hallel,” a collection of psalms associated with the Passover and emphasizing the word “Hallelujah.” 

The praise of God continues even in the difficult aftermath of exile for the community of God’s people. Psalms 111-112 are also alphabetic acrostics (each line beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet), a method of composition characteristic of Wisdom literature. For readers and hearers, an alphabetic acrostic can also serve as a mnemonic device and suggest the literary view that everything has been said on the subject, from A to Z. The concluding verse of Psalm 111 is also a Wisdom comment. Psalm 111 is a hymn of praise used in corporate worship and which also has some teaching dimensions about the mighty acts of YHWH in history; however, there is much more to the text.  

The heading of the psalm is “Hallelujah,” an imperative call of the community to praise the Lord.  The praise is offered “with my whole heart.” The heart is the seat of the will and so the speaker brings the full self to the praise of God in the community’s worship. The reason for the praise is the mighty acts of God (verses 2, 4, 6, 7). These marvelous acts are renowned and brilliant in the memory of the community. The memory brings delight and also reflection. These mighty acts of YHWH initiated a right relationship between the covenant community of ancient Israel and YHWH.  

In the middle of this strong confession in praise of God’s “wonderful deeds” (verse 4) comes the confession of faith that God is “gracious and merciful.” The language recalls the famous confession of Exodus 34:6-7 that YHWH is gracious and merciful. The context in Exodus is the story of the golden calf in which the Lord graciously renews covenant with the community in the face of Israel’s covenant breaking. “Merciful” comes from a term indicating the womb-love of the mother who has given birth to the children of Israel. The gracious and merciful one has liberated the people from slavery in Egypt and brought them into covenant relationship with YHWH and with each other. This psalm of praise delights in God and God’s mighty acts on behalf of the community of faith.  

The mighty acts of God remembered in this liturgy of faith brought ancient Israel into covenant relationship with YHWH, a relationship issuing in wholeness of life and community. The last verse of Psalm 111 interestingly ties the covenant relationship and instruction (torah) to wisdom, defined in Proverbs 1 as “the fear of the Lord.” This connection is not common in the Older Testament, but this concluding verse suggests that the gifts of wisdom and understanding come in covenant keeping. The psalm’s concluding line recalls for the community the reality that the whole poem is tied to the enduring praise of God.  

Two comments are most striking in exploring this brief but intense psalm of praise. The first is the use of special Old Testament vocabulary. The list is long: righteousness, gracious, merciful, covenant, precepts, faithfulness, uprightness, and redemption among others. The psalm is a classic Old Testament recital of the mighty acts of God on behalf of ancient Israel in order to bring them into covenant relationship with YHWH. That relationship brings wholeness and hope for this people and thus redemption. 

This act of communal memory with the “whole heart” has continued through the centuries and continues even now in the troubling aftermath of exile. Singing the praise of God declares for the congregation and for our world the mighty acts and gifts of God that can bring hope and wholeness even in the midst of debilitating trauma. And the psalm makes clear with its conclusion that the worship of the covenant community continues to narrate this story in memorable ways and in ways that lead also to reflection and wisdom. “The fear of the Lord” is a defining phrase for Old Testament wisdom. The word “fear” in this context has to do not so much with being afraid of a formidable power but with respect or reverence for the Lord. Whom one reveres, one obeys. Wisdom and understanding find their origin in reverence for the one who creates and gives this kind of understanding.    

The second comment is that Psalm 111 is a robust model of the wedding of powerful intellect (wisdom) and strong emotion characteristic of the book of Psalms. The language of the psalm is uplifting and vibrant; it delights in the mighty acts of God and sings “with my whole heart.” At the same time, the psalm urges study and reflection on the history of God with the faith community and concludes with a nod to the intellectual tradition of ancient Israel, the tradition of wisdom. We have already seen that the connection of covenant and wisdom is not common in the Older Testament. The psalm weds emotion and intellect, as it also includes both individuals and “the company of the upright.” The psalm suggests that the best context for forming faith and growing in faith is that of a worshiping community. In a remarkably brief ten verses, Psalm 111 articulates much of ancient Israel’s theology in singing the praise of God. 

In the contemporary church, some sing in praise with great gusto and emotion, and some sing with the proper tempo and enunciation. Seldom do congregations unite powerful intellect and strong emotional expression as do the Psalms. Intellect without emotion can become cruel; emotion without intellect can inflict harm. Psalm 111 is a beautiful manifestation of this “both/and” way forward.  

The Psalms articulate faith in poetic and musical forms that communicate with power and with meaning and so provide contemporary persons of faith ways to sing their faith and ways to enact their faith. Such a grammar of faith as Psalm 111 reminds readers of the basis of that articulation and the power of that articulation for continuing to live fully. 


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Working Preacher

Commentary is forthcoming for this text.