Who Is Our Neighbour? The Call to Be a Peace Church.

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2010-09-05 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Marie-Noëlle von der Recke
5th September 2010
Reading: 2 Chronicles 28:1-15

2 Chronicles 28:1-15 (NIV)

1 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD.
2 He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and also made cast idols for worshiping the Baals.
3 He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.
4 He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.
5 Therefore the LORD his God handed him over to the king of Aram. The Arameans defeated him and took many of his people as prisoners and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hands of the king of Israel, who inflicted heavy casualties on him.
6 In one day Pekah son of Remaliah killed a hundred and twenty thousand soldiers in Judah–because Judah had forsaken the LORD, the God of their fathers.
7 Zicri, an Ephraimite warrior, killed Maaseiah the king’s son, Azrikam the officer in charge of the palace, and Elkanah, second to the king.
8 The Israelites took captive from their kinsmen two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters. They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria.
9 But a prophet of the LORD named Oded was there, and he went out to meet the army when it returned to Samaria. He said to them, “Because the LORD, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand. But you have slaughtered them in a rage that reaches to heaven.
10 And now you intend to make the men and women of Judah and Jerusalem your slaves. But aren’t you also guilty of sins against the LORD your God?
11 Now listen to me! Send back your fellow countrymen you have taken as prisoners, for the LORD’s fierce anger rests on you.”
12 Then some of the leaders in Ephraim–Azariah son of Jehohanan, Berekiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amasa son of Hadlai–confronted those who were arriving from the war.
13 “You must not bring those prisoners here,” they said, “or we will be guilty before the LORD. Do you intend to add to our sin and guilt? For our guilt is already great, and his fierce anger rests on Israel.”
14 So the soldiers gave up the prisoners and plunder in the presence of the officials and all the assembly.
15 The men designated by name took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow countrymen at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria.

You might have noticed that one expression appears three times in the story we just heard: the word “countrymen”. In other translations we would have found “kinsmen”, “brethren” or “relatives”. Who are our kinsmen and kinswomen? Our brethren ? Or as we find the question put in the New Testament in the introduction to the story about the Good Samaritan: Who is our neighbour?

Judah and Israel have been 2 separate states for a long time as war broke out between them. Judah has been defeated and many soldiers have died. Prisoners and plunder have been taken and are being brought to Samaria, the northern Kingdom. There, an unknown prophet of Samaria, Oded interferes and warns Israel for wanting to keep these people and the spoil. The story takes an unexpected turn as the victors take care of the prisoners and give them their freedom back. In this story it is a question of human guilt and of God’s anger and judgement but it all ends beautifully. If we look at it closely we discover that it speaks to issues that are quite important even today.

The first issue raised in this story is: Who is the wicked one?

If we have a conflict we usually sort things out quite neatly:  the others are guilty, they are the problem. For example: Duncan Morrow spoke at a Church and Peace international conference in 2007, as reported in Resisting the Temptation to Be Powerful – Church and Peace Network Gathers in Corrymeela to Explore the Relationship between Vulnerability and Security by Timothy Huber (scroll down to bottom of linked page for the relevant article). Morrow described at length the situation in Northern Ireland and showed how all concerned by the conflict speak about “them” as being the cause of all the difficulties.

This is the way we function at the personal but also at the political level. Actually it has become a routine way of thinking in the propaganda of the Western world in past years. The world is clearly divided between the good and the bad guys. Here is truth and right, freedom and democracy. There are the rogue states. Here Christian values. There evildoing Islam and terrorism. This clear cut construct justifies war in Afghanistan as it has in Iraq.

What does our text say about this?

It describes quite bluntly the king of Judah’s guilt: he has abandoned the ways of David, he has brought offerings to foreign gods, he has ordered human sacrifices. But the guilt of Israel is shown just as clearly: the rage with which the Judeans have been killed has reached up to heaven. And the guilt of the Israelites becomes even heavier as they take the Judeans as slaves. The Southern kingdom has followed the path of the Nations and run into a catastrophe, the Northern kingdom has been successful at war and has done what people usually do in such a case.  God’s judgement falls on both Northern and Southern kingdoms: both people are declared guilty. Both people have deserved to be struck by God’s wrath. Our text seems to be saying: the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, that just does not exist!

Another current issue is also spoken to in our text:

What is God’s will ?
And, first of all, are wars God’s will?

There are quite a few reports on wars in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus himself says that wars are inevitable. In this story we see that Judah is being held accountable for the war and for the defeat. One might easily think that God wanted this war to happen and wanted Judah to be defeated. Our story contains at two places an important nuance which is to be found at other places in Scripture: twice it is said that this war happened because “God has let Judah suffer at the hand of its enemies”. One gets the impression that Judah hasn’t been under God’s protection any more, that Judah had to bear the consequences of its disobedience. God has not prevented these consequences from happening through some magic device. God has allowed this war to happen but this does not free Israel from its responsibility. Israel has not been allowed to assassinate and turn its enemies into slavery. Israel is being held accountable for its deeds just as Judah is. If the Bible says that there must be wars it is not in any way fatalistic and it is not to say that God wants it that way. It just means: the world is that way. People run to their own loss. That is the reality of war, a reality that reaches to heaven – today more than ever.

But the wonderful thing about this story is that it shows in the words of the prophet Oded what God really wants. It shows the way out of the deadlock. Oded puts his finger on the evil that is happening but he also  gives recommendations as to what the will of God really is:

What is the will of God?

Prophet Oded says in the name of God: “send the prisoners back.” And exceptionally a prophet is heard and the prisoners are not only liberated but they get food and drink, they are clothed and receive medical care. Special attention is given to the weakest. In the end they are brought back home. That is the will of God. Not war, but all these signs of compassion and mercy.

Let us come back to the question we asked at the beginning of this meditation: who are our kinsmen ? Indeed there might be a pitfall in this story: its seems to be saying: Israel, watch out, those people you are taking into bondage are your own kinsmen! Judah and Israel had been 2 states for decades as the story happened but before that, they have been one kingdom, one people… It might well be that the prophet is only saying here: beware, you are taking your own kin into bondage and not your enemies. This would reduce the scope and the impact of the story and weaken its message, because it would then mean: be good to your former friends, do not treat them as enemies. It would be OK to take enemies into bondage, but not your own flesh and blood.

Now, if we turn to the New Testament and read the story of the good Samaritan, we discover how Jesus revisited this story and how doing so he blurred completely the differentiation between kin and enemy. Reading Luke 10 we find in this well known parable many parallels to our passage in 2 Chronicles 28. It is especially striking if you look at the last verse of our text. The Jewish tradition calls such a story that picks up an older one and tries to show its deeper meaning a Midrash. The story of the good Samaritan is very probably such a Midrash. The Samaritan who belongs to a people that the Jews hated in the time of Jesus is the only person in Luke 10 who behaved as a “kinsman” or relative or neighbour or brother  as he found the wounded man on the roadside. In pointing at this, Jesus abolished the  walls of separation that people raise between kinsmen and foreigners and even those raised between friends and enemies. Jesus overcomes all barriers raised between people.

We might be happy to see Europe become a political reality but the Gospel offers us here an even wider horizon. The Love of God is available to all people without exception and this means that the idea of being a kinsman or not is abolished in Jesus. We might want to formulate this first lesson out of the story we read today and out of its interpretation through Jesus as a prayer:

Dear God, stretch our hearts and our minds beyond the horizon of our family, our Church, our country and even the European Union, as great at it is, to see more and more countries join in!

The second lesson has to do with the ideologies which come and go. I’m thinking here about the ideology that tries to make us believe that it is possible to divide the world between the good guys and the bad guys. War and terrorism devastate our world in the name of this ideology. A spirit of self-satisfaction reigns over nations and individuals, suggesting that the others are always the wicked one, the others are guilty.

This story is a warning against self-satisfaction. A people’s guilt is not a license to kill them. Even if some on both sides of the divide try to make us believe that they are acting in the name of God, the God of the Bible is not such a God. We should not put the burden of guilt on others – neither in small nor in big conflicts. We have to learn to be critical about ourselves. Here too we are called to widen our horizon. It is indeed so easy to be appalled about how cruel people can be with each other way over there ( in Africa for instance) and not to see the mechanisms that rule over relationships here, and not to see that our own countries have supplied the means of committing atrocities. It is so easy not to see that poverty there has some of its root causes here. In this area as well we may want to pray:

God open our eyes so that we may see our own guilt and may live as responsible persons and as a responsible Church.

The third lesson of this story is a most practical one:  We have seen what God does not want and what he wants. God does not want wars. This is a disturbing and motivating thought. If we think that God wants war or that wars are just inevitable, it is easy to abdicate and to just feel powerless as we witness events that just overwhelm us. If we dare say that war is not the will of God, that it is not a fatality, then we have to stand up and get involved.

What is to be done is summarized in a few words by the prophet in our story: “send the captives back.”

Many situations come to my mind when I hear this sentence : I think of the kind of work Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has been doing in Iraq, raising awareness about the plight of prisoners there, I am thinking of the refugees that come to our European countries, I am thinking of the people who have disappeared in Bosnia and Columbia. I am thinking about the many many people who live in tents in Northern Iraq in Eritrea and in Chechnya. What does this “sending back” mean?

It is something very practical: to clothe them, to give them food and drink, to bind the wounds, to take care of the weakest and to bring them home… The good news is: There is enough in the booty for everybody to be comforted. That is the will of God. In Luke 10 the very same deeds are summarized with the word “mercy” which comes from the Hebrew word Rachamim which means the uterus, the womb. Such is the will of God. Of the God who loves humanity as a mother loves her child. We may also formulate this last teaching as a prayer:

Jesus Christ, you have demonstrated God’s love in dying on the cross and God in his mercy has raised you from the Dead. Help us do what mercy requires.

The story of 2 Chronicles 28 helps us to rethink our thought-patterns about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, about what God wants  and what he rejects. Jesus’ revisiting of this story shows that the word “kinsman” does not make much sense except if it means that we should behave as kinsmen, as neighbours towards each and every human being, whatever his or her origin.

God’s will is compassion. He needs us, his Church, for his compassion to become visible: he needs people like Oded who raise their voices and say, “send the prisoners back.” People who open the eyes of their generation, who point to problems and show God’s solutions to escape the deadlock. He also needs people who do the will of God very practically, those who actually take care of the prisoners in order for them to experience liberation. God needs his Church to be a Peace Church. She should be a prophet and a deacon who show the way of God’s mercy. This is the message Church and Peace tries to convey with its members in today’s Europe.

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