Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Challenge to Be Different

2 Kings 5.1-16, Luke 10.1-20
Our two Bible readings today are about people who were prepared to break the rules of their society in order to do what they felt was necessary. Naaman was persuaded by his wife’s slave girl to go on a madcap mission to see the famous Israelite prophet, Elisha.  Fortunately, he enjoyed the high favour of his master, the king of Syria, who was only too happy to write him letters of safe conduct. To him this seemed like an example of positive rule breaking. Normally he wouldn’t expect his generals to fraternise with the enemy but, on this occasion, only positive change could come of it.
To the king of Israel, however, the mission seemed to be a devious attempt to pick a quarrel and reopen the festering conflict between the two countries. But then Elisha heard about Naaman and recognised that God sometimes uses rule breakers, or unconventional methods, to achieve his own greater good. So for example, the editor of the story - following Elisha’s example - notes that God has previously used Naaman to give victory to Syria over Israel, and now he was using him to demonstrate that, nevertheless, there was a mighty prophet in Israel.
But Elisha also had the last laugh in the story. He didn’t come out to meet the great man. Instead he sent a messenger to tell Naaman that, in order to be healed, he must strip naked and go and swim around in a dirty stream. It was beneath Naaman’s dignity to do this and he was already heading for home before his servants managed to persuade him to change his mind and break one more teeny tiny rule. Just because generals don’t usually splash about in muddy water, that doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes good reasons to flout the rule.  
The Bible goes on to tell the related contrasting story of Elisha’s own servant, Gehazi, whose rule breaking was destructive and deceitful and who ended up by reaping the just reward for that kind of negative rule breaking.
Jesus’ disciples were challenged to engage in a different kind of rule breaking. They were to give up their ordinary ways of making a living for a while in order to go throughout the land preparing people for Jesus’ imminent arrival. But, in a striking departure from the normal rules for running an effective mission, they were to take no resources with them - no spare clothes, no spare sandals, not even any money. Instead they were to rely entirely on receiving hospitality from the strangers they visited. And they were to travel with such urgency that there wouldn’t even be time for the normal civilised greetings to be exchanged when they met a fellow traveller on the road. This is fairly trivial rule breaking at one level, but it also seems a rather unnecessary challenge to convention.
In contrast, the towns they visited were confronted with a different kind of challenge, of a totally different order of magnitude. The visit of these missionaries might have seemed unimportant, and their offer to help people prepare for Jesus’ coming might have seemed like a ‘take it or leave it’ sort of deal, but in fact it was a matter of life or death. To reject these disciples  was to become the ultimate rule breakers and to cross a line from which there would be no way back because the disciples would then shake the dust from their feet and, by implication, these towns would miss out when Jesus passed through that part of the country.
Jesus seems to be saying that compared to some of the things we get so excited about, observing the right dress code when we go out to a party or to a posh restaurant, deciding whether we’re for or against gay marriage, and even where we stand on human rights’ issues, the decision whether we are for or against Jesus is far more important, because it’s an apodictic rule. Jesus expects us to decide - in every age and every place - whether we are going to follow his agenda and be exalted in heaven, or  to reject his agenda and - ultimately - be brought low. Even when we run with the wolf pack, if we follow the rule of life laid down by the Lamb of God we need fear no evil, for the story ends with one final and memorable illustration of what it means to obey Jesus’ eternal command to be his disciples.  If we live by his rules within our family, at work, in our community and in our church, then even demons, snakes and scorpions will be unable to separate us from his love.

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