Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
Jeremiah is in a pickle.
The situation, which was bad when we last saw him, has collapsed into disaster. The city of Jerusalem, previously under siege, has been conquered by the Babylonian Empire and the temple, built by Solomon in ages past, has been destroyed.
Many of the elders, priests, prophets, and scribes, people, who held onto and passed on the cultural memory of what it meant to be Jewish, have been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, one of the largest cities in the world.
This is the end of the world as they knew it.
The Jewish people are now a people without a state, without an army to protect them, at risk of having their history, their culture, their people wiped from existence.
What are they to do?
Christian Ethicist and professor Dr. Eldin Villafañe lays out four possibilities, and here they are with my commentary: Revolution- the complete overthrow of the existing social or political order, which is potentially good, but is a very high-risk option with a low chance of success, and if there is a failure, the situation often ends up worse than it was before. The Jewish revolt in the year 70 is a great example of this. The kingdom of Judea became independent from the Roman Empire for a while…but only for a while. Rome soon reasserted itself in imperial domination over the tiny Kingdom, and end up destroying the second temple in retaliation, completely changing Jewish religious life forever.
The second is Assimilation- that is, trying to erase differences between one’s culture and the majority or those in power. Assimilation is tricky, as it often leaves people adrift culturally, and sometimes acceptance doesn’t even end up happening- we can look at the book of Esther, where even though a Jewish woman had reached the highest levels of courtly political power, her people were still in peril of mass murder.
The third is Escapism, in which people simply disengage from society; this is a possibility…if you’re given the social, political, and physical space to do so. The funny thing about society, however, is that it has a funny way of engaging with us, even if we don’t want to engage with it.
The fourth is what Dr. Villafane says Jeremiah preaches: critical engagement and presence. It is to stay distinct, stay engaged, not to attack or retreat, but to hold fast, to survive, to struggle, and to one day, thrive.
In the face of an apocalyptic threats, sometimes the greatest act of resistance is simply to survive, to struggle against the forces of evil not with anger, but with love and hope.
But let us take a step back and to take a broader look at our readings; as I mentioned before, in our first reading, the city of Jerusalem has fallen. The city has been ransacked, the temple of Solomon destroyed. It’s art and treasures lay in ruins, the gardens and trees despoiled.
Even more of a disaster is that many of Jerusalem’s people are in the process of being displaced. Although today the term exile might seem…almost sanitized; both ancient and modern history tells us that this type of population exchange, splitting up and forced movement of people is always brutal. If you’ve ever heard of the lost tribes of Israel, they were lost to history because of a similar program by the Assyrian Empire. In more modern times we have the examples of population exchanges in Greece and Turkey in between World Wars I and II, described by historians as a legal ethnic cleansing; that is, genocide. Similar programs happened within countries such as the USSR, where different minority groups were moved around in the hopes that their ties to the land and history would disappear.
Yet we need not travel too far to find more recent examples; how different is the exile of the people of Jerusalem from the Trail of Tears here in the United States, where tens of thousands members of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Ponca nations were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and marched westward to what is now Oklahoma, where they had no connections, no infrastructure, and little hope. Of the 60,000 indigenous people trafficked, some 10,000 are estimated to have died, either in resistance, or in terrible conditions on the westward march.
I mention these events not simply because we ought to make connections between the world and events of the Bible and Modern History, but so we can understand the brutal and traumatic nature of what Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem faced during their exile. It was no road trip, no easy friendly relocation project.
I believe this makes Jeremiah’s guidance and prophecy even more remarkable; Jeremiah could have chosen despair, or assimilation, or escapism, but instead he says survive, people of God, survive. Choose the path of life; build houses, plant gardens, get married and have children. Do not assimilate but thrive. Do not separate yourself from the people of your communities but ensure mutual flourishing instead.
If this seems like easier advice to say than to do, you’re right. Indeed, this conversation about how to be a captive people, how to be a distinct people in a hostile world we see again and again throughout the bible. The book of Esther, as I mentioned before, contains themes about assimilation and community safety. The first half of the prophet Daniel raises questions about collaboration with brutal empires; Daniel’s job is as an advisor to this same regime that sends his people into exile.
By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the situation is a bit different. Jerusalem is still not independent, but it does have a measure of self-rule under the Roman puppet kingdom ruled by folks like King Herod and his family. The area around Jerusalem, was then, just like today, a diverse place in its own way; there were Jewish dominated cities and villages, near culturally Greek and Roman dominated cities.
But the human landscape of Jesus’ ministry was much more diverse than a simple binary of Jewish and Gentile. There were also smaller minority groups, some of which straddled or blurred that line. Sometimes they had their own cities and settlements, at other times they were dispersed in other cities.
One such group was the Samaritans. They claimed to be descended from the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel and Ephraim, a region called Samaria. This has been contested by others, including Jews at different points throughout history, although today they’re considered a Jewish sect by the state of Israel.
There are some key differences, however; they use only the first five books of the Bible, the section of the Old Testament that is today called the Torah- Let’s see if we can name them: Genesis, exodus, numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy.
They also claim that the holiest sight for worshipping God was never in the temple in Jerusalem, but rather on Mount Gerizim, near the modern Palestinian city of Nablus.
The Samaritans were always a smaller ethnic group than the Jewish people, and historians tell us that the period of Jesus’ ministry and its aftermath were an extremely important time for the Samaritans in terms of their own identity formation; that is to say, they were becoming a distinct people during the time that the gospel of Luke was being written. Indeed, we can imagine an early Christian Church having a Samaritan member and there being a vigorous debate about if they should be received as Jewish or Gentile.
So enter this story about shared suffering, community, and gratitude. The Samaritan shares material conditions- poverty, isolation, sickness, with his fellow Jewish sufferers. Yet when things change, the Jewish folks have a community to go back to, they did all the right things for them, yet we see no solidarity from them toward the man who earlier that day had been suffering alongside them. So perhaps it is no surprise that this Samaritan man, who faced oppression not only because of his illness, but also because of his racial and religious identity, knows that his struggle is not over.
Although life will become better for him because his illness has been lifted- something that all people who have chronic illnesses know about- it does not mean it will become easy.
He knows that his struggle continues, that the struggle continues, and there is but one means of moving forward; to continue to survive, to struggle, and to thrive. No matter if your people are hurting or if its just you. Build, grow, connect, love, and hope.