SJF • Proper 23d 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”+
One of the first things that Paul the apostle wrote to the Corinthians was the reminder that God uses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong. Judging from today’s Scripture readings, we can also be sure that God uses the foreigner to shame the native-born.
We see this first in the story of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. As you may recall, a man of Bethlehem in Judah takes his wife Naomi and his two sons to live in Moab. The two sons marry Moabite women — but then all of the menfolk die, father and sons, leaving three widows: Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her husband’s ancestral home in Judah, and tries to dissuade the two foreign women from following her there, as their chances for marriage would be slim, especially under the rule that required a childless widow if at all possible to marry her brother-in-law or close relative. To add to that, Moabites were looked down upon in Judah as ancestral enemies, going back to the days of Balak, and that would likely stand against their marriage prospects too.
In spite of Naomi’s urging, in spite of the unlikelihood of finding a husband, and in spite of the harsh way in which a Moabite immigrant woman might expect to be treated in Judah, one of the women pledges her loyalty in that beautiful and moving passage we heard. Ruth will neither give up nor turn back. She will cling to Naomi like a vine on a trellis, pledging that even death itself will not be able to part them. What daughter-in-law has ever pledged such loyalty to a mother-in-law?
Of course, there is much more to this story. Ruth does in the end discover a distant relative of her late husband; she finds Boaz, who because of Ruth’s loyalty to him and to Naomi marries her. She bears him a son — and that son, it turns out right at the end of the story, is none other than the grandfather of King David!
Imagine how that punch-line must have sounded in the ears of proud Judeans: David’s great-grandmother was an immigrant Moabite — a foreign-born member of one of Israel’s ancestral enemies. For Moabites had once long before treated the wandering Israelites themselves as lower than dirt and wouldn’t let them so much as set a foot in Moab on their roundabout way to the promised land; and in latter days the songs of Israel would declare, “Moab is my washbasin” — and yet here it turns out that our greatest hero, David the King, David the Deliverer, is part Moabite, and wouldn’t even have been born at all had it not been for the loyalty of a woman of Moab, Ruth, in not turning back from Naomi. And perhaps a feeling of shame might rise in the heart of any Israelite who had ever mistreated a foreigner.
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The message is brought even closer to home in the gospel passage about the ten lepers, only one of whom — and a Samaritan at that — gives thanks to God for the gift and grace of healing that all then of them receive at the hands of Jesus. And if there is any doubt at all as to the point of this incident, Luke sets the stage by specifying that this incident takes place in the border-country, between Galilee and Samaria; and Jesus spells it out: “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 the foreigner?” Remember that Samaritans were hated by the Jews of Jesus’ time as much if not more than their predecessors had hated the people of Moab. Yet the Samaritan distinguishes himself as the only grateful one among the ten, foreigner that he is; Luke emphasizes the fact, yet again, by pointing out his nationality. And Jesus hammers it home to the shame of the other nine (in absentia) but also to challenge and shame the prejudices of those listeners who would have regarded all Samaritans with contempt. That goes double for the Galileans, who, as that opening phrase in the Gospel reminds us, stand in relation to Samaria as Texans do to Mexico.
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And so it is — from the time of Abraham’s wandering from his home between the rivers to live in a foreign, strange land; through the time of Moses as an exile in Egypt; to the roundabout wanderings of the children of Israel as they sought to return to the land of promise — every last one of them a non-native immigrant; to the special grace and favor shown to Ruth the faithful Moabite; to the return from exile in Babylon; to the stranger and the foreigner and the outcast, who are promised protection by the Law and the Gospel: the message is clear. If you mistreat a foreigner or an immigrant, shame on you.
Now, in this congregation I know I am speaking to many immigrants, or people closer to being the children of immigrants than David was to his great-grandmother Ruth. How many here this morning were born on other shores? How many are the first generation native-born here in the United States, or the second, or the third. And how many of you have faced the scorn of those who look down on you for your nationality or your ancestry, for your language or your race? I know that some of you have felt this, and those who have so treated you ought to be ashamed of themselves, in this nation of immigrants — a nation in which only a tiny fraction can truly claim to be people of the land, rather than the descendants of the foreign-born who arrived as colonists or immigrants.
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You know that I rarely if ever preach on political subjects. I prefer to preach the gospel and let it speak for itself, and for that gospel to speak in your own hearts as you form your own opinions about the state of things in the world. But I hope you will forgive me as I tell you that I cannot help — both as I read our Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, that is included in your bulletin this morning, and even more-so as I read those Scripture passages and am reminded of God’s great care and love for foreigners and immigrants, and of Galilee with Samaria just to its south — I cannot help thinking of that wall being built along the border between Texas and Mexico. Of course, both our bishops and I are fully aware of the real concerns and issues, to ignore which in this era of terrorism and economic crisis would be irresponsible. But a wall! I cannot help but think of the one built long ago in China to keep the Mongols out, or the one being built to divide Palestinians from Israelis, or the one of which President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.”
There is something about a wall, you see, whether meant to keep people in or out. It seems to be the last resort, the confession that we just don’t know what else to do — as if we’d really tried everything else, every other way of dealing with the problems we face. As the great American poet Robert Frost once wrote, in response to the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors”:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
And it’s not what Robert Frost or Ronald Reagan or you or I or even the bishops of the church might say about such a construction that’s important. What is important is, what would God say about it? The United States has a very mixed history when it comes to how it has treated immigrants: and it does not take a degree in social science or American history to see how skewed and selective the flow of immigration has been, how favorable to some nationalities and races, and how difficult for others. Some of you here have no doubt faced some of those difficulties, even more stringent than the abuse my own great-grandparents faced (as far from me as Ruth from David) when they fled the Irish famine to come to a new land filled with opportunity — but also with prejudice and unfairness.
That was then, and this is now. What would God say about it now, say to this nation’s leaders, or to this nation as a whole? Or to us? “Shame on you”?
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Whatever the leaders of this land might do, whether they feel the shame or not, we at least as individuals can vow never ourselves to treat a stranger or sojourner, a foreigner or an immigrant as anything other than a fellow pilgrim in a world in which all of us are but temporary visitors and resident aliens. Our true homeland, after all, is above — at least that is our hope! But in the meantime, in our sojourn here, here in our own exile, we have the opportunity to begin to practice the gracious fellowship that welcomes all into the household of God, not as foreigners but as sisters and brothers, all of us tegether — not just one in ten, but the whole assembly — giving thanks to God, for the grace that we have known through him. We can realize our hopes for a future heaven in how we act here and now, as another great poet, William Blake, put it, to see “Jerusalem builded here...” on our own shores and see righteousness prevail through our own exercise of fairness, justice and equality. If we do this, we will, as Saint Paul said to Timothy, have no need to be ashamed.+