Lent 1, Year C Holy Communion
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1–11; Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16; (Romans 10:8b–13); Luke 4:1–13
What would you do if you found yourself a slave, a prisoner? Hollywood loves stories involving heroic resistance and escape. In reality, slavery is suffocating. Why didn’t she just walk away? Gather up the kids and head for the shelter? What wouldn’t that young woman from name of country here just go to the cops rather than let herself be exploited that way. She’s in a free country now. It’s hard for most of us to imagine the hell of slavery, the psychological control enjoyed by the captor, the slave owner, Pharaoh. The recent film on slavery, Django Unchained, may not do it justice. Black film directors such as Spike Lee and John Singleton have criticized it. Lee said it is “disrespectful to my ancestors.” Singleton calls it a great western, but says if he were making a movie about slavery, it would be “a horror movie.” It angers him that a white director got $100 million budget to make it when he doubts that such an amount would ever be available to a black director.
The reading from Deuteronomy squishes a great deal of a history of slavery into a few short sentences:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there she became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the God of our ancestors; God heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. God 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 she brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut. 26:5-9)
We cried to God, God heard our voice, and brought us out of Egypt with a terrifying display, and with signs and wonders. Boom. That was easy. Mind you, this is just the recap for worship purposes. Genesis and Exodus take over sixty chapters to tell the same story. The risk for people who are not slaves at present is sliding by this central theme of the bible too quickly. We start off Lent by reminding each other of how terrible it is to live in fear, what it means to be harshly treated, afflicted, with hard labour imposed. No one know exactly how long Hebrew people were in Egypt. Many generations. The status seems to have devolved over time, from refugees. And this story has a happy ending, after all those years of suffering.
Jesus lives within this story. It’s the story of his distant ancestors. His people have tried, with mixed results, to live as free people ever since, to live without fear, to live with deep respect for each other. Mixed results. One empire after another rose up to interfere with the Hebrew people. Egypt’s Pharaoh was not the only bully in the neighbourhood. Even when Israel and Judah were not being oppressed by anyone else, they didn’t always do right by one another. Jesus sees the way things are in his day, under Rome, and the way they were meant to be. What he saw made him upset, and also launched him on a prophetic ministry.
And the bible explains it wasn’t a piece of cake for him, either. Temptations abound. It’s tempting to go for total food security. “Turn these stones into bread.” It’s tempting to go for power and glory. “I will make you Pharaoh.” It’s tempting to go for immortality. “I will make you safe from all injury, even death.” Jesus wasn’t a slave himself. He seemed to have a fair amount of freedom to go around preaching and teaching. He knew this wasn’t true for everyone. He is committed to those who are hungry, those who have been driven into poverty by the economy of the day, people with mental illness.
But lots of people make the same commitment. Lots of people are tempted, too. Forget the struggle. Look out for number one. Kick back. Don’t have a cow. Go shopping. Jesus resists temptation. Why? How? He is always mixing with different kinds of people. After a while, they start pouring out to swarm him when he shows up. He keeps taking on the authorities, even when it’s clear he getting their dander up. He believes the psalmist that those “who live in the shelter of the Most High,...will say to God, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ Because you have made God your refuge, the Most High your dwelling‑place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” (Ps. 91:1)
Clearly, he doesn’t believe that literally, either for himself, or for those around him suffering oppression. He senses that, for him, trouble is coming. But he realizes that whatever the authorities can do to him is not to be feared. It is not evil. What would be evil is losing his way, giving up on The Way, letting slavery and oppression be the norm. Slavery has not been legal in this country for a hundred and eighty years. Lucky for us it was never a major part of our economy. We have problems aplenty concerning inequality in our land, but we are not mired in the legacy of this crime against God and humankind. It makes us uncomfortable to think that our much of our coffee, our chocolate, our diamonds and who knows what other products are produced by slaves, even child slaves.
So we still take on Jesus’ orientation, in search of a world where people are respected, all kinds of gifts are recognized, and all kinds of needs are met. There are still many reasons to hear the call of the gospel, and still temptations to turn a deaf ear. We remember the instructions in Deuteronomy: “When you have come into the land that God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that God will choose as a dwelling for her name.” (Deut. 26:1-2)
For those who possess the promised inheritance, who have land, and a harvest, and a basket, it’s about remembering a former condition, and choosing to respond to a new condition with gratitude, offerings, and celebration. After the ritual actions of bringing the basket of first fruits, the rehearsal of the liberation story, comes the joy: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that God your God has given to you and to your house.” (Deut. 26:11) It’s tempting, so tempting, to skip some or all of those steps.
And if things are reasonably well with you, imagine the people, meet the people, walk with the people who need to hear the reassurance of the psalm: “I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” Wonder with them when their liberation is coming, and how that will happen.