- Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 & Psalm 66:1-12
- 2 Timothy 2:8-15
- Luke 17:11-19
First Reading: Letter to the exiles
This week the lectionary designers take us back to the scroll of Jeremiah. We are now in that period between the capture of Jerusalem and the forced flight of the prophet to Egypt. Jeremiah 29 is our first example of a letter to a Jewish diaspora community:
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. (Jer 29:5-7)
This is a most interesting example of theology on the run (as much prophecy must be), and it invites the recipients to imagine a future beyond their past—and certainly beyond their present realities.
The exiles to whom this letter is addressed are advised to put down their roots and become part of the place where they now find themselves. Indeed, they are to seek the welfare of the city (empire) which has destroyed their past and seemingly foreclosed on their future. Their best efforts are not to be directed to restoring the past, but rather to making a future for themselves in the strange new land where it seems impossible even to sing the “LORD’s song.”
For generations of Jews since Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, diaspora has been the fundamental reality. Even in modern times, and not withstanding the creation of Israel as a distinctively Jewish national state in 1948, the majority of Jewish people live in the Diaspora. Christians in the secular west are increasingly finding themselves exiles, living as disapora among the citizens of the global village. Beyond the borders of surviving outposts of Christendom we find the “believers in exile” for whom John Shelby Spong prepares his widely-acclaimed books.
When people of faith live in sustained cognitive and social disconnect from the prevailing cultural norms of the society in which they are embedded there can be a temptation to revert to sectarian dynamics. Raise the draw bridge! Draw the wagons in a circle! Reinforce the boundaries! Preserve the tradition, and reject the intruders!
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles suggests “a more excellent way.” It is indeed the way of love (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). It keeps no count of wrong, and seeks what is best for the other. It is a choice to live in ways that reflect deep generosity, and to eschew the primitive instinct to fear the stranger.
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. (1 Cor 13:4–7 NJB)
Second Reading: Formulae for faithful living
At the heart of this week’s second reading is the following set of carefully crafted lines:
The saying is sure: 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. (2Tim 2:11-13)
These lines seem to preserve an ancient Christian poetic fragment. In any case, they seem to invite us inside the faith structures of the author and his recipients. These are words that belong to a collection of “reliable words” (literally, “the saying is sure”). This is one of 5 examples of this formula, and all of them are found in the Pastoral Letters:
- 1 Tim 1:15
- 1 Tim 3:1
- 1 Tim 4:9
- 2 Tim 2:11–13
- Titus 3:8
What is it about the dynamics of Christianity at the time when the Pastorals were composed that generated such a formula for faithful living and right believing? It seems that orthodoxy has come to be an important virtue in its own right, and this almost seems to require its shadow—the murky world of deviant ideas that refuse to conform to the prescriptions of the theological thought police. In time these free souls will be tagged as “heretics,” but at this stage they are more dangerous; not as external competitors, but as alternative (internal) ways of imagining holy living.
How ironic then that the section climaxes with an appeal to avoid arguing over words:
Remind them of this,
and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words,
which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.
Gospel: Jesus and the lepers
In the NT Gospels we have two stories about Jesus healing people suffering from some kind of feared skin disease, commonly called leprosy (but more likely Hansen’s Disease). In Mark 1:40-45 (and its parallels in Matthew 8 and Luke 5) we have a report of a single person being healed by Jesus. In Luke 17 we have another story, not preserved in either Mark or Matthew, about Jesus healing a group of ten persons.
As it happens, a fragmentary Christian text (the so-called Egerton Gospel, or Papyrus Egerton 2) with a mere 87 lines of text surviving on three pieces of papyrus provides a possible additional witness to the history of this tradition. This is the second oldest surviving Christian document, being dated on paleographical grounds to the first half of the second century. Only the John Rylands fragment (P52) with its precious snippet of John’s Gospel is likely to be older than this document.
Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan have argued that GEger is not dependent on the NT Gospels. If so, then it would provide independent attestation for at least a few of the stories now known to us from the NT Gospels. It may also give us some insight into the way that the miracle tradition developed between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.
The introduction to GEger in The Complete Gospels outlines the issues:
On the one hand, some scholars have maintained that Egerton’s unknown author composed by borrowing from the canonical gospels. This solution has not proved satisfactory for several reasons: The Egerton Gospel’s parallels to the synoptic gospels lack editorial language peculiar to the synoptic authors, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They also lack features that are common to the synoptic gospels, a difficult fact to explain if those gospels were Egerton’s source.
The Egerton Gospel does have very close parallels to John, but because Egerton’s versions of these parallels show less development than John’s, Egerton may preserve earlier forms of the tradition.
On the other hand, suggestions that the Egerton Gospel served as a souce for the authors of Mark and/or John also lack conclusive evidence. The most likely explanation for the Egerton Gospel’s similarities and differences from the canonical gospels is that Egerton’s author made independent use of traditional sayings and stories of Jesus that were also used by the other gospel writers.
The full texts of the surviving stories of Jesus healing lepers are as follows:
(1) GEger 2b [35-47]
Just then a leper comes up to him and says, “Teacher, Jesus, in wandering around with lepers and eating with them in the inn, I became a leper myself. If you want to, I’ll be made clean.” The master said to him, “Okay-you’re clean!” And at once his leprosy vanished from him. Jesus says to him, “Go and have the priests examine <your skin>. Then offer your cleansing what Moses commanded-and no more sinning.” [ . . . ] [Complete Gospels]
(2) Synoptic Gospels
(2a) Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
(2b) Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
John Dominic Crossan
Crossan [Historical Jesus, 322] notes the significance of the unusual formulation of the request for a healing: “if you will/I will …”
It seems to underline a striking ambiguity between “declared clean” and “made (healed) clean.” This sets Jesus’ power and authority on a par with, or even above that of the Temple itself. It is not just a simple request for and granting of a cure. Jesus can, if he wants, both cure and declare cured.
Although the story of Jesus healing a leper seems to affirm the authority and power of Jesus to heal and declare clean, there is also the detail that has Jesus instructing the healed leper(s) to go and seek certification from the traditional priestly authorities.
Jesus, accordingly, is carefully obedient to the purity regulations on leprosy, as in Deuteronomy 24:8-9. Those two points [Jesus as authoritative healer and Jesus seeking certification of the healing by the priest] must derive from the common source available to the Egerton Gospel as well as to Mark, but they seem in flat contradiction with one another. How is that to be explained?
Crossan then outlines a four-step process as the tradition develooped from an original story (that did not include the referral to the priests) came under two very different influences:
The common source version had already reversed and rectified the image of Jesus as an alternative to or negation of Mosaic purity regulations by that terminally appended injunction to legal fidelity. The twin texts now available to us move that common source in opposite directions. The Egerton Gospel continues and intensifies the vision of Jesus as law-observant teacher. The leper’s opening autobiographical admission shows him as one either ignorant of or disobedient to legal purity regulations. And Jesus’ final admonition, “sin no more,” a phrase found also in John 5:14 and 8:11, indicate that Jesus does not agree with such “sinning.” Mark, on the other hand, continues and intensifies the thrust of the original story over and against that of the common source. He has the leper deeply reverential to Jesus, has Jesus actually touch the leper, and qualifies the fulfillment of the purity regulations with the confrontational challenge “as a witness (against) them,” namely, the priests. Do it, in other words, to show them who I am and what I can do. For Mark, then, Jesus is precisely not a law-observant Jew.
Leprosy and the purity code
The book of Leviticus devotes two chapters to the diagnosis and control of such skin diseases: see chs 13-14. The aim was not to cure the disease, but to control its possible dissemination within the community:
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. 3The priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body, and if it is a leprous disease; after the priest has examined him he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean. … 17the priest shall examine him, and if the disease has turned white, the priest shall pronounce the diseased person clean. He is clean.
Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them. 9Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
See also Numbers 12:1-15 (Miriam’s leprosy)
The victim of such a public health policy was the person with the skin disease, as they were excluded from the community and banned from any contact with their family. Interestingly, in this miracle story the leper does not ask to be healed, but to be made clean!
Jesus, and the compassionate holiness of God
The fact that Jesus was remembered as “healing lepers” is significant for our knowledge of his historical focus on the poor and the marginalized.
Marcus Borg cites the healing of a leper as an example of Jesus’ radical view of holiness as a contagious and transforming power, rather than as a static condition requiring protection from pollution:
In the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45, Mark reports that Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him and said, ‘Be clean.'” Leprosy excluded one from human community because it rendered one unclean and everything touched by a leper became unclean. For Jesus to touch a leper ought to have involved defilement, just as in touching a corpse. Yet the narrative reverses this: it was not Jesus who was made unclean by touching the leper. Rather, the leper was made clean. The viewpoint of the Jesus movement in Palestine is clear: holiness was understood to overpower uncleanness rather than the converse. (Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus,1998:147f)
As the story goes, the “leper” seems already to know about Jesus’ reputation for compassion, since the man approaches Jesus and kneels down to implore his intervention. In return, Jesus touches the leper. Another barrier falls.
Jesus, Francis and the lepers
Franciscan communities around the world celebrate the feast day of St Francis of Assisi (October 4), and Proper 28C sometimes coincides with those observances.
One of the turning points in the journey of St Francis seems to have been an encounter with a leper; just as much an outcast in 12C (Christian) Italy as in 1C Palestine.
There is also a suggestion that Francis himself may have contracted tuberculoid leprosy, and that this may be the explanation for the stigmata (or signs of Christ’s Passion) that appeared on his body:
- 110 A Leper Cured – (1) Eger. Gos. 2b [35-47]; (2a) Mark 1:40-45 = Matt 8:1-4 = Luke 5:12-16; (2b) Luke 17:11-19
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- God of Day and God of Darkness – GA541
- Ubi Caritas – GA324
- Lord of Creation – GA423
- Now thank we all our God – GA425
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.