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Like and Yet Unlike

We are to live among our neighbors, like and unlike. Jeremiah encourages the people exiled to Babylon to prosper in a foreign land, without becoming that foreign people. Paul counsels Christians to observe the social code of the Roman household, with its patriarchal structure and its slavery, which they are powerless to change, yet transform it. Jesus sets the example by recognizing the piety of Samaritans, a foreign people, which proves to be greater than our own.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
In the ancient world of the Middle East the gods were associated with specific regions. In those spots they were considered to be most powerful. In addition, the king was the one through whom the people had most access to the god.

The god's fortunes and the fortune of the people who worshiped that god were tied together. War on earth meant war in the heavens! If one god defeated another it was reflected on earth, with the defeat of that god’s nation as well.

God's people witnessed the destruction of their nation, their city, their temple, and their leaders. There was no longer any king. Many of them were exiled to a distant foreign land. As they lamented in Psalm 137, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" They should have lost their identity as a people and as a faith.

But God was not defeated, because there are no other gods. Jeremiah had prophesied that after seventy years God would bring them back to their land. In the meantime, they were to remain God's people. They did not need a king. They did not need national borders. What they did need to do was contribute to the economic well-being of Babylon because that would directly impact their own prosperity. They were to build houses, plant gardens, and have kids. But they were also to remain faithful to God in a foreign land as they'd proven incapable of doing in their own land. And they were not to forget that one day they'd return.

The evidence of ancient archives is that God's people made themselves at home in Babylon, in Egypt, and eventually throughout the western world — but they also faced the challenge of remaining a separate people.

Is this not a way of saying, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you?" Or the proverb, later quoted by the Apostle Paul, that the best way to get revenge is to treat your enemies with kindness?

As Christians we are tempted to identify our faith in our nation. Whatever our nation's strengths or weaknesses, whatever impact our nation's welfare has on our own welfare (and God intends good for us all), and regardless for that matter which nation we live in, we are exiles, citizens of heaven as Paul calls us in Philippians, and as comfortable or uncomfortable as we may find ourselves, this is not our home.

2 Timothy 2:8-15
The Roman household was a complex economy that included hierarchies of relatives: children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, various wards, as well as servants and slaves, and attendant trade and craft experts. Everyone — the large extended family, slaves, artisans, lived together. The household had public areas where business was transacted, work areas where the family craft took place, along with family areas where women held sway.

Slavery was an ugly fact of life in the ancient world, but unlike American slavery, slavery in the ancient world was an economic and not a race-based proposition. Therefore, it was not assumed that some races were inferior and destined for slavery. Slaves might have fallen to their position because they could not keep up with their debts. They might have been born into slavery. They might have been captured in war.

Because slaves were not considered an inferior sub-race, slaves had great responsibility for running all aspects of a business. Indeed, it was considered beneath an honorable male head of household to be concerned with profit making. That was left to the slaves. Even so, we must not forget that slavery was still horrible. Slaves were subject to the capricious cruelty or kindness of their master.

The household was headed by a paterfamiliias, an autocratic male who was the absolute authority in all things. He arranged and unarranged marriages, settled all disputes, and held the power of life and death over others. The paterfamlias also had the right to use any member of the house physically or sexually as he chose.

Though a male was the head of a family, the wife was in charge of household matters, including the management of finances and family. She was the administrator. And since churches met in houses, and indeed might have been linked with households, many historians are coming to realize that women must have run the first-century churches as well. Artwork shows women administering the Love Feast and Eucharist meals. It is apparent from all that was written, including documents such as the first century Didache, that unlike society at large, everyone — women, men, salves, free, ate at the same table. It is also clear from New Testament documents, including the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, that women such as Lydia, Mary, Priscilla, the apostle Junia, and others were leaders of house churches. Yet while some Pauline documents acknowledge women in leadership positions, others seem to silence them.

Paul and the first-century Christians were attempting to transform the household of Rome into a household of God in which there was accountability on both directions, recognition of the worth of all people, and the acknowledgement that Jesus, not any god-emperor or paterfamilias, is the overarching Lord over all. Jesus was the greater Lord and Master, who claimed priority over all other commitments. If society could not be reformed, then the church should transform its members.

(Adapted from The Household of God, by Frank Ramirez, Pp 28-29)

Luke 17:11-19
Though the skin condition described in our modern translations as “leprosy” probably was not related to the disease as described in modern medical books, this skin condition led to isolation and ostracization. If there were procedures outlined in the Hebrew scriptures for isolating those considered unclean, there were also protocols and rituals for confirming that someone was now considered cured and clean.

The miraculous healing afforded by Jesus to the ten lepers in this story did not require society’s confirmation, but Jesus shows a healthy respect for law and custom. Jesus may have healed the lepers, but in order for them — or at least nine of them — to be accepted back into society, they would need to undergo the appropriate ritual outlined in the scriptures. So Jesus sent them to the priests in order to confirm that they were well.

One of the ten returns to Jesus before getting priestly confirmation in order to thank him. Being appropriately grateful is often the aspect of the story that’s emphasized here, but let’s consider two other matters.

First — there is nothing wrong with what the other nine did. They were obeying Jesus, which is something we assume disciples of Jesus ought to do. In a sense the grateful ex-leper is disobeying Jesus. Are there times when doing the good thing is more important than doing the right thing, or the biblical thing? This is an aspect of the story worth considering.

Second — Luke tells us that the one who came back to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. Samaritans and Judeans considered themselves the protectors of the one true faith and the others to be impostors. The Samaritan was an outsider in Judean society. Outsiders do well in scripture. No one is supposed to ever marry a Moabite but it is the Moabite, Ruth, who understands the scriptures regarding gleaning in Leviticus better than native born Israelites. Ruth is like naturalized citizens who pass tests that demonstrate a much greater knowledge of the US Constitution and how the government works than most citizens either know or are even aware of. The Roman Centurion is said by Jesus to demonstrate greater faith than individuals who classify themselves as part of God’s people. And the chronicler, along with Isaiah, proclaims that the foreign emperor, Cyrus, is an instrument of God’s will.

Having said all that, one wonders if this Samaritan, this outsider, would have been welcomed by the priests and his medical recovery confirmed. Or would he have been rejected, or at the very least made to feel unwelcome? Maybe he was wise to come back to thank Jesus directly rather than go through any humiliation dished out to those considered an outsider by those who considered themselves insiders. In what ways do we project a smug and unwelcoming attitude of the insider toward those we consider outsiders. Are they driven away, going directly to Jesus to offering praise and thanksgiving?
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