Deuteronomy 19-21, Psalm 59, Luke 17
Returning to thank those who touched our lives on life’s journey
Deuteronomy 19 – 21
Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy we read, “You shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deut. 19:19) What does this mean? The Deuteronomy commands us to practice lex talionis or the law of retribution, which demands that we should “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deut. 19:21) This form of punishment continues today in some Islamic societies.
Anglicans have historically abided by the via media or middle way. In terms of punishment, this means charting a middle way between lax and extreme retribution for a serious offence. Sometimes we err on the more lenient side, especially in cases where a serial child abuser, rapist, drunken driver or murderer is released after a brief sentence. The French political philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau spoke of “the social contract.” When you break it by committing a horrible crime, you are no longer covered by the social contract, which guarantees certain rights.
In a recent case, the United States government has been questioned about the morality of targeting one of its own citizens who has joined Al Qaeda while living in Yemen. What clearer case could there be for having broken the social contract? This person is clearly no longer functioning as an American citizen.
In Deuteronomy 20:10-20 we find one of the most disturbing passages of the Old Testament. We have encountered similar commands before in the Book of Numbers. God reiterates Israel’s marching orders for their conquest of Canaan. God tells Israel that if they approach a city outside the divinely allotted borders, they must offer it terms of peace. If the citizens accept, then they shall become slaves. If they decline, the men must be killed and the women, children and wealth shall be booty for the Israelites.
If, however, the city is within Israel’s allotted borders, no terms of peace should be offered. The city and everything within it must be killed and destroyed. This mandate will continue in the Book of Joshua. The question for Christians is how do we reconcile the Old Testament view of God as the “Grand Exterminator” with the concept of God as the “Great Forgiving, Loving Father” of the New Testament?
The best answer is that many of the Old Testament writings reflect ancient, tribal ways of thinking that we were shared by both of Israelites and those living in their proximity. It was a true wilderness where only the toughest survived. In contrast to this tribal concept of survival of the fittest, the New Testament presents God not as a “Warrior King” but as a “Loving Father” such as found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We will see more of the Warrior King God in the Book of Joshua. For now, know that this image is a product of a different time and culture, and it has no authority for Christians.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 informs us how not to discipline a stubborn son. It is hard to know if and how such a procedure was carried out. Disrespecting parents in ancient times, however, was a major offense. Parents today who allow their children to talk rudely and consistently disobey them might want to search for a via media between firm discipline and no discipline at all.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 is significant for Christians. We are told that “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” These verses will be recalled in the New Testament and gave incentive to Joseph of Arimathaea to remove Jesus’s body from the cross before sunset and place it in his own tomb. Early Christians worked hard to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, despite a strong-held view among Jews that any man killed upon a tree is cursed.
We live in a society far different from the Psalmist. Many readers struggle to relate when we read:
Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
from the bloodthirsty save me. (Ps. 59:1-2)
Seated comfortably in our homes, surrounding neighbors and family, these words seem foreign. As I read Psalm 59, however, I immediately thought of Titus Presler, a missiologist or expert on Church missions for the Episcopal Church. Titus is the Principal of Edwardes College in Peshawar, Pakistan.
This week we learned that he was beaten by “intelligence agents” who destroyed his visa and warned him to leave the country. There has been increasing pressure from the provincial government to take over control of the college. Founded in 1900 by the Church Missionary Society, the Edwardes College is the first institution of higher education on the northeast frontier with Afghanistan and is the only college owned and managed by the Church of Pakistan. There are, however, those who wish to change that.
“In December, Bishop Humphrey, some of my colleagues and I received threatening visits, followed by instigated demonstrations,” said Titus. “Then on February 14, while starting on a drive to Islamabad with Muslim friends, I was accosted by men who identified themselves as intelligence agents at the motorway toll plaza in Peshawar and hustled [me] into another vehicle where they pounded me with their fists, destroyed my visa and warned me to leave the country.”
Ninety percent of faculty and students at Edwardes College are Muslims, with 9 per cent Christians, and 1 per cent Hindus and Sikhs. The Church has a unique role to offer educational excellence and “foster inter-religious harmony in a polarised society,” said Titus, noting that in difficult times it is “the prayers and letters of Christians around the world sent to the Bishop and me [that] sustain us.”
I wrote Titus this week, offering him a sanctuary at St. Thomas if his wife and he need to return to the United States. He is more of an acquaintance than an old friend. But in 2011, I ask him to write three meditations to go with The Bible Challenge readings. He kindly accepted. I checked today to see what he wrote and found that he had written about Psalm 59! He wrote,
Biblical psalms befriend us by coming alongside and articulating our moods with God. Today the psalmist helps us express the lonely anguish we may feel when beset by people who wish us harm. As we cry out in our suffering, we realize that God holds our lives, and we respond with praise.
In his reflections upon chapter 19 of Deuteronomy, Titus picked up on the cities where people could flee for safety, if they unintentionally killed another person. He asked the questions, “Are there ‘cities of refuge’ in your experience? Have you yourself functioned as a city of refuge for people at odds with each other? Have you ever needed a city of refuge?”
Titus and his colleagues may need such a city soon. Pray for them, for the people of Pakistan and for Christians everywhere being persecuted. More Christians are being persecuted today than at any other time in history. While we may struggle the psalms, others surrounded by evil know their power.
In today’s gospel lesson we learn about what it means to be a disciple in God’s Kingdom. A disciple is someone who is willing to rebuke someone who sins. He or she does not walk away, shun or give up silently and create distance with the offender. The disciple confronts and rebukes the offender. That is often the only way that reconciliation can occur.
A disciple forgives again and again, up to seven times a day, if the offending party returns and says, “I repent.” We must forgive him or her, unless the situation is abusive. A disciple services without seeking any reward, being quick to say, “we have done only what we ought to have done.” (Luke 17:10)
A disciple returns to give thanks to those who have aided him or her along life’s way. Ten lepers were healed by Jesus, but only one returned to give thanks. Ironically, it was the “foreigner” or Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus. Titus Presler, a missiologist or expert on Church missions reflected on this passage and wrote, “Mission means crossing boundaries into communities that feel “foreign” to us. As the foreigner alone returned to give thanks, so we are often blessed by the people to whom we go in mission. They help us grow in understanding God and ourselves.”
In response to a question about when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, her it is! Or ‘There it is! For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) The kingdom of God is here. As we spoke by telephone late last evening after she returned from a day of chemotherapy, a dear parish friend said, “Can’t you just feel the love in our church? It’s like one great big family. Everyone is so loving, and they care for me and for others.” Indeed, it’s the kingdom of God, and it sustains us for the journey ahead.
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, her it is! Or ‘There it is! For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:20-21)
Do you have a city, town or place that is your refuge? From what do you have to get away and retreat? Who do you know who is being persecuted unfairly? Are you able to rebuke others? Who do you find it hard to confront or rebuke? Who are you most likely to have to forgive over and over and over again? Who has helped to healed you along the way that you need to visit and say “Thank you.”
This prayer was written by the Rev. Canon Dr. Titus Presler, Principal of Edwardes College in Pakistan:
Thank you, God, for inviting me to share myself with you. I offer you my trust – and do help me to trust you more. You desire for me more than I can ask or imagine. Help me to trust that this is true, through Christ Jesus the trustworthy savior. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania