Jeremiah 29.1, 29.4-7
Sunday 9 October 2022
Resentment is like drinking the poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.
Have you heard that expression? It is a powerful amount of wisdom contained in a simple metaphor, I think.
Resentment can creep into our lives every time we feel our worth is being devalued, our efforts ignored, or our gifts used without any care for our well-being. It can happen in churches, amongst friends, and within a family. It has the capacity to keep us trapped in a prison of our own making, isolating ourselves from others and from God. It is an utter thief of joy and life.
In 597 BCE after the defeat of Judea by King Nebuchadnezzar, a first wave of Judean captives were carried off to Babylon. There would have been great resistance to this forced exile that took the Jews away from their spiritual home, confirming their defeat and crushing any chance of resistance. That the prophet Jeremiah would stand up and tell them that God calls them to accept their new homeland and situation would likely have sparked simmering resentment. Being told to give up on the idea of returning to what they have always known, put down roots and become productive in an alien land and culture must have been devastating. Those around them were, after all, their enemies. Centuries before Jesus, here was Jeremiah proposing a uniquely practical way of loving their enemies. Far from being an aspirational goal or nice idea, this loving your enemies thing had real bite for those who found themselves in exile and were asked to live every day of the rest of their lives contributing to the well-being of their captors. Rather than being allowed to seethe in justifiable resentment and hostility, they were told by God via the prophet to plant gardens, build houses and raise families in this strange land; to live, love and create.
Do you ever have that sense of living as an exile in an alien culture? While vastly different to being taken as a military hostage, you may have experienced something like alienation from the ways of being in the world that have previously given you identity and connection. World conflicts, rapid technological change, new political ascendancies, and concerns for the future of the planet may contribute to this discombobulation, particularly when we experience the tangible effects in our relationships with friends and family. Some of our exile may be deeply personal and experienced through grief, ageing, divorce, unemployment or sickness. We live in urban settings designed for private separate lifestyles and social media isn’t helping our loneliness. The potential for isolation is great, and, alongside those feelings of disconnection, can be the creeping, life-limiting spectre of resentment.
“Love your enemies” is the challenging way Jesus offers for us to live- to recognise that our welfare is caught up in the welfare of those who are ‘other’. But how this is to be accomplished when our feelings of resistance, pain and isolation can be so compelling? The more we are made to feel like we don’t belong or that others would prefer to exclude us, the more resentment grows and the greater is our conviction that our enemies are impossible to love.
Our Gospel reading today offers both another story of exile and the antidote to resentment.
The ten who approach Jesus have been named as lepers but could have been suffering from any skin disease which would have marked them as ritually unclean. They were isolated, cut off from human community and any habitation of comfort. They cannot come close to Jesus so they cry out with a plea for mercy that is not only a longing for a cure of their body but a return to their place in amongst their relationships of belonging. Jesus responds with a healing that happens off stage, as they follow Jesus’ directions to complete the requirements of religious law which will restore them to community. This is the familiar way of doing things that the lepers understood- Jesus’ declaration of healing and command to return to the priests gave them back their old life.
But there was a second opportunity available to them, and only one of them took it. There were ten restored to physical health, but only one was healed. There was an opportunity to find a new, more life-giving future than was available to them in the old life they had known but they did not all seize the chance and the sadness of Jesus is palpable in his question, “But the other nine, where are they?” I wonder if the nine lepers who just went on their way were simply overwhelmed with the relief that their request worked and they were able to return. It is likely the opportunity to return to their old life seemed enough of a gift. Sometimes, after all, we would give anything to return to the way things were. Or perhaps some even felt that the healing of God should have been available to them, and it was about time that it happened. Entitlement is the spirit behind that whispering voice in our ear which maintains the rage of our resentment. It is there every time we get stuck in the negative loop that asks why that other person or group gets the thanks or the promotion or the wealth or the privilege or the luck. Instead of building a bridge in our isolation or sadness, resentment builds walls that imprison us. It is the poison we drink while we wait for the other person to die.
The Samaritan who returns to Jesus shows the power of turning from the old life and the hope of living into the new. There is so much power in the turning. So much, in fact, that Jesus calls it “faith” and says it has saved him. It appears that ‘healing’ and ‘salvation’ are intertwined. Perhaps for the Samaritan there were already so many doors closed to him- he was a foreigner, an outsider to the established temple community already before his illness drove him away even from his own cultural group. Luke’s Gospel shows again and again that Jesus’ message is often received with greater joy by the exiles than by the entitled establishment. If you have ever felt your own alienation, there is hope to be found here.
Faith begins in moments of received grace and is lived in thanksgiving. Faith can never be an idea or belief but must be lived, and the expression of that life is found in gratitude and praise. Resentment cannot receive the oxygen it needs when the grace of God becomes the ocean in which we swim. We come to a worship service not to receive so much as to respond to the healing and grace on our lives with an outpouring of praise and worship. “Eucharist” after all, simply means thanksgiving. Only when we work, pray and contribute from what we have with a spirit of gratitude do we know the joyful truth that it is in our giving that we receive, and that the well of love never runs dry. Praise is not an act of our own choice, will or volition but bubbles up from a recognition that all we have is gift, and the one who holds us in life is also ever reaching toward us in mercy. This is the life of faith, and it is this that the Samaritan understands as he falls at Jesus’ feet. He is commanded to go on his way, called out of isolation, healed and set free to live a life marked by praise to the one who is the source of all life and love.
This invitation to return is open to us in every minute. But it is an invitation not to cling to the old life and old ways we have known, but to take up the new life being offered. It is a call to begin again and choose life, sometimes in a strange land. It is a journey where we let go of our sense of entitlement and recognise that everything is gift…because even our life is not our own. This recognition… this gratitude… is the antidote to the resentment that poisons everything, restoring us to a life of faith lived in joyful praise to the source of all things and whose grace is both our healing and our salvation.