Texts: Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7; Psalm 66; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19
When we read the gospels we must remember that we are reading sermons from ancient preachers. Luke, for example, is writing to an urban congregation which is struggling to understand what it means to follow Jesus in a society where many are very rich but others are very poor. Many of Luke’s stories are designed to guide his congregation in making decisions about their money, their property, and their prosperity. His overall message, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, is that followers of Jesus should regard their material resources not as private possessions that are there for their own good and wellbeing alone, but rather as a gift which has been given for the good and wellbeing of the community as a whole. According to Luke, the wealthy family finds its salvation by making its resources available to the poor, the outcast, and the widow. Someone once asked Athol Gill, a former professor of New Testament at Whitley College, if there was any good news for the rich. He replied “Yes indeed. The good news for the rich is that they don’t have to be rich anymore. It is in giving themselves and their resources away that the rich will find their salvation.”
The story we read this morning reinforces this essentially Lukan theology in two ways. First it shows a relatively rich Jesus using what gifts and resources he has, not for his own sake, or for the good of his own tribe or family alone, but for the sake of those from ‘beyond’, those who (in his society) were marginalised, sick, and foreign. We are not, perhaps, accustomed to thinking of Jesus as ‘rich’. But in several ways he was. He was a Jewish male, and a rabbi, who (as the son of a carpenter) came from the merchant classes of first century society. That meant that Jesus enjoyed a status and authority that most of his compatriots did not enjoy. Although Jesus has clearly left his family’s business interests behind, he nevertheless carried with him a great deal of that stuff which the French sociologist, Pierre Bordieu, called ‘social capital’—the confidence that you will be respected and deferred to by your peers simply because of the skills and know-how that you inherit from your social class and family. Even this materially poor Jesus was therefore pretty rich, in first century terms. One sees that in the story we read when the lepers address Jesus as “Master”, a designation indicating his superior social status.
By contrast to Jesus the male Jewish rabbi from the merchant classes, the lepers in the story have to be regarded as very poor. Whatever they had been in their former lives, they were now complete outcasts. Religiously they were no longer able to practise the outward observances of the Jewish faith, because their disease prevented them from going to Synagogue or temple. That meant that they could never purify themselves of sin after the Jewish system of sacrifices. Their community would therefore have regarded them as permanently and irredeemably ‘unclean’. No Jew would have been permitted to go anywhere near them, for fear of being rendered ‘unclean’ in ritual terms. Even their families would have cut them off. Furthermore, their disease now prevented them from pursuing whatever business interests or jobs they might have enjoyed before they became ill. This meant that they could not even support themselves as ‘gentiles’ for whom the religion of the Jews was irrelevant. Lepers were therefore entirely dependent upon the compassion of others, a compassion which was certainly not ‘required’ of any of their Jewish compatriots.
With that in mind, the action of Jesus in healing these lepers should be seen for what it is: an example of how the wealthy Christian disciple is called to behave towards the weak and most vulnerable members of our community. Listen to what Luke the preacher says to all his listeners: ‘if you have skills, or money, or property of whatever, be generous. These are given you that you might have compassion, that you may share what you have with those who have not.’
But that is not all that Luke would want to say. There is a second point in the story, a second way in which his attitude towards riches is conveyed. Note that while most of the healed lepers take themselves immediately to the priest to be re-admitted to the religious and social privileges they used to enjoy, one of the lepers turns back to give his thanks to Jesus. Instead of taking what Jesus gives him, and using that to bolster his own self-interest, this man throws himself at Jesus feet in an act of thanksgiving and obeisance. In first century terms, prostrating oneself at the feet of a teacher was tantamount to declaring that you wanted to be that teacher’s disciple, and therefore to give everything one possessed by way of money, property or skill, over to that teacher’s service.
Listen carefully to what Luke the preacher is saying: a disciple is one who takes what God has given with thanksgiving. But the form of that thanksgiving is one which does not hoard what has been given, but rather, freely and wholeheartedly makes available what has been given for God’s own intentions and purposes. The gift given is never, therefore, regarded as something to be personally possessed. For the disciple of Christ, the gift given is returned again by the act of thanks-giving, which means that what one receives is then given over to God to be given again and again and again. This is a thanksgiving which does not close its hands around the gift, but opens its hand to give once more to God’s beloved poor, orphans and refugees.
Now, we have just witnessed an election campaign dominated by the buying of votes with money. ‘If you vote for us,’ each of the major parties said, ‘you will have more money in your pocket to provide for your family.’ Well, listen to what Christ would say to all of us who fell for this message. Life is about a whole lot more than providing for your family. It is also about sharing what you and your family have with those who have not. It is about welcoming refugees. It is about working for justice and health for Aboriginal people. It is about protecting our natural resources so that they will be there for the enjoyment and use of future generations. It is about building not a society, but a common-wealth. It is about giving thanks to God for the gifts we have been given by sharing those gifts with others.
People of God, if that is not what we are about, then we are not Christ’s disciples and we have no right to call ourselves Christian. Not even if we are amongst the most senior politicians of the land. If we are Christians, I believe that we must vigorously oppose any policy which is likely to widen the divisions in our land between the haves and the have-nots, between those who can resource themselves and those who cannot. For, if we don’t, the weak and the vulnerable will become even more weak and vulnerable. And we will have ceased to contribute toward a genuinely good and compassionate society.