A Wandering Aramean

This last week I stumbled across a posting on Facebook by a congregation from the Disciples of Christ, Bixby Knolls Christian Church. My initial thought based on their name was that they were somewhere in holler country, Tennessee or maybe West Virginia.

Meanwhile, here is what their posting said:

The Bible is clear: Moabites are bad. They were not to be allowed to dwell among God’s People (Deuteronomy 23).

But then comes the story of “Ruth the Moabite,” which challenges the prejudice against Moabites.

The Bible is clear: People from Uz are evil (Jeremiah 25).

But then comes the story of Job, a man from Uz who was the “most blameless man on earth.”

The Bible is clear: No foreigners or eunuchs allowed (Deuteronomy 23).

But then comes the story of an African eunuch welcomed into the church (Acts 8).

The Bible is clear: God’s people hated Samaritans.

But then Jesus tells a story that shows not all Samaritans are bad (Luke 10).

The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance and affirmation.

This resonated very deeply with me, which is why I was compelled to look up this church on the Internet to find that they are in Long Beach, CA. And yes, like us they are a progressive and welcoming community.

Then as I studied today’s readings, I noticed that our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures was also from Deuteronomy, just like several of the examples used in their post.

Deuteronomy contains the speeches of Moses with his final instructions to the people of Israel before he dies. A lot of this book from the Bible seems harsh to our ears, but today’s passage gives us another perspective.

It begins with a prescription for thankfulness, an instruction to take fruit from the first harvest to make an offering to God. It spells out a liturgy for this thank offering.

You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us."

It continues:

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God:

"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me."

There’s a lot in this recitation, so let’s unpack some of it so we can understand it better.

A wandering Aramean, Joseph, a homeless man, was my ancestor.

He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien. He was a migrant worker, a resident alien.

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, his people suffered under a tyrannical system.

We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, they called upon God for redemption.

The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders. God showed them the mystery of their faith.

…and brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. God gave them from the abundance of creation.

So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me. I am grateful for God’s abundant grace.

Moses tells his people, “…bow down before the Lord your God.”

Show your gratitude for all God gives you.

One thing that is interesting about this liturgy is that it begins with “he,” the wandering Aramean, moves though “we,” the great nation that develops from this humble beginning and ends with “I,” the grateful recipient of this miraculous story.

It’s very much like the examples I shared earlier from the Facebook posting. A story that begins one place and migrates to who we are called to be as the people of God, the Body of Christ.

It’s about keeping the covenant. Remaining obedient to God’s will.

It can be said that this liturgical recitation is also about the same test that Jesus experiences in our Gospel Reading. A test about choices; choices we too are free to make as humans with a God given free will.

Luke tells us the story about Jesus after his baptism, full of the spirit, going into the wilderness for forty days. We are travelling forty days in our own particular wilderness.

We are trying to discern what in our own lives is important as we approach the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter.

Luke changes the order of the tests that Jesus encounters. Mark only has two verses about the entire event, Matthew has the same series o f three tests as Luke, but Luke puts the test in Jerusalem last, a clue about his larger narrative and the journey to the cross in Jerusalem.

We also hear the idea that the test will return at a more opportune time for Jesus to be tempted.

I think it is important for us to understand that there is good and evil in this world. We need to know that we have the capacity in us for both good and evil.

The reason for the story of Jesus being tested is to teach us what we must do to follow him. Meanwhile, I feel that the authors of the Gospels do us a disservice in identifying evil in the person of the devil or Satan.

It allows the opportunity for people to point to some outside source that is responsible for the evil they do. It allows them to deny the choices we must all make as we encounter the situations and things that can draw us from the love of God and neighbor.

In the same vein it is important to acknowledge that sometimes we benefit from the evil our ancestors have done in the past. Our history as a nation is full of these stories.

But that doesn’t automatically make us evil or bad, because the message of Jesus resurrection is that each new day, each new minute brings the opportunity to make new choices to live into our covenant with God.

This is why I commend to you, if you have not already done so, that you chose a Lenten discipline that is more than a personal dietary sacrifice, but that challenges you to live more fully into our life in Christ.

In the end, it’s about being able, together with the Levites (the homeless) and the “aliens who reside among you” (resident aliens), to celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Moses continues in verses 12-16, which we did not hear this morning, to set forth another ritual. This time it is the triennial tithe that is mentioned earlier in Chapter 14 of Deuteronomy.

Every three years the people of Israel were to set aside a tenth of the harvest to give away to the powerless among them, to the resident alien, the orphan, the widows.

The words of this ritual set forth that the obedient Israelite will have made choices that respond to the command of God to Love the neighbor. When this is the case, when we have given from the abundance that God give us to the alien, the orphan and the widow, then it is appropriate to pray to God to “Look down and bless your people Israel, and the ground that you have given us as your swore to our ancestors.”

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