St Paul’s Woldingham
4th October 2015
Have you ever wished life could be simple? I certainly have. Sometimes there are so many options it’s hard to know which is best. What will bring abundance? What will bring blessing and fruitfulness and success?
The reading from Deuteronomy this evening seems to offer an answer: worship God and no other gods, follow all the commandments diligently, and blessings “shall come upon you and overtake you”. The list is comprehensive and compelling. And if we had continued reading tonight, we would have found that the text goes on to speak not only of blessings but of curses: the punishment for failure to follow God’s commandments. There is a carrot, and there is a stick.
It all seems a bit too simple. What is going on?
It’s important to understand the context of Deuteronomy to answer that question. The book tells the story of three speeches delivered to the people of Israel by Moses on the plains of Moab, shortly before the enter the promised land. These speeches tell people how to live, but also who they are. This identity-forming aspect is important, since the text was probably written down for the first time in the late 8th century BC, when what had been the Promised Land was under the power of Assyria. The book was further developed a few centuries later during the Babylonian exile. The military defeat that resulted in this second exile was interpreted as a punishment for not following the laws of God, especially that of idolatry. The story of a people about to enter the Promised Land for the first time was especially relevant for those about to return to the land they called home. This is partly why the legal code in Deuteronomy is so specific, dealing not only with a comprehensive system of religious reform, including prohibitions on idolatry, but also a whole raft of rules: obligations to appoint judges, civil law matters like the regulation of debt and laws against usury, exhortations to pay workers fairly and provide for the poor. The blessing of God, the Israelites are told, depends on doing all these things.
Tonight we heard about the blessings; the context of our passage from Luke tonight is also placed between two very different subjects. Just before our passage, Jesus had been speaking about faith and obedience. After the healing of the ten lepers he goes on to tell of the coming of the Kingdom in starkly frightening terms. But there is an important difference between the two readings we heard tonight. In Deuteronomy, the blessing is a reward: it’s dependent on humans getting their behaviour right. In fact, this attitude is why the healing of the ten lepers may have been seen as a shock. Illness was often blamed on those suffering from it, based on the assumption that they must have done something wrong – perhaps we see some of this echoed today, too, in the way people with disabilities or illnesses are sometimes assumed to have caused their own condition, or the way the rhetoric against so-called “scroungers” questions whether anyone would really be living in poverty if they just tried hard enough. We wish that life couple be that simple – we want to know that if we just make a solid effort at doing the right things, we’ll be okay.
But Jesus turns that upside down. The lepers ask for his mercy and he heals them first, not as a reward for good behaviour but as a gift. There is no interview to find out whether they really need healing. There is no background check, no work capability assessment. “Go and show yourselves to the priests” isn’t a conditional instruction, but an invitation to return to full participation in society. We don’t get to follow the lepers to the Temple but we can safely assume that the nine who didn’t turn back weren’t suddenly stricken with leprosy again on the way there: the invitation, the gift, once given, was not retracted.
But the invitation is not just to physical healing, but to wholeness – the wholeness displayed by the one ex-leper who turned back and praised God with joy and thankfulness. Maybe the words “Your faith has made you well” apply here: being well is not merely the absence of disease but the ability to recognise all that God does for us, and to be thankful.
So, as the passage from Deuteronomy is about the people of Israel finding their identity in relation to God, in Luke’s gospel we are told of a leper Samaritan – someone who would have been an outcast from society – recognising on some level the identity of Jesus and expressing gratitude for the relationship he now has.
For us, too, this passage can be about identity and relationship. As Christians we are not called to follow the laws of Deuteronomy, or to seek the blessings or victories described there. Instead we are to follow Jesus, to let our own identities point to Christ. We are not given a simple list of rules for success, however much we might want one! We have something better: a physical demonstration of the completely unconditional love Christ has for us.
For this love we should be thankful; and this love is the example that should inform the pattern of our own lives.