Posted on September 2nd, 2013
“God punishes one thief by means of another” (Large Catechism). So said Luther about stealing. Something similar could be said about the war between the kingdoms chronicled in today’s Old Testament reading. The Jews had divided into two kingdoms, one called Israel and the other called Judah. Judah was led by a wicked king named Ahaz, perhaps the most notorious miscreant in David’s long line of sons who ruled in Jerusalem.
Therefore just as God punishes one thief by means of another, so He punished one bad king by means of another. Israel went to war with Judah, and this is what happened, in the verses immediately preceding our first reading: “[Ahaz] was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who struck him with great force. For Pekah the son of Remaliah killed 120,000 from Judah in one day, all of them men of valor, because they had forsaken the LORD, the God of their fathers.”
Think of the scope of such a battle! How bloody the fields, with 120,000 corpses heaped in mounds. “For we are brought to an end by your anger,” Moses confesses to God; “by your wrath we are dismayed.” How many sobbing widows? How many fatherless children? It would appear the answer is about 200,000. That’s where today’s first reading picks up, with the survivors in shackles: “The men of Israel took captive 200,000 of their relatives, women, sons, and daughters.”
And then, an astonishing thing happened. The bloodlust, the euphoria of conquest, the allure of riches, all is stopped in its tracks. How? By the Word of God, calling Israel to repentance. “But a prophet of the LORD was there.” Imagine it! A lone preacher goes out to confront an army. How often does that end well?
He rebukes them: “You have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven.” The sin of Judah brought this defeat upon them; but now the conquerors are reminded of their own sin: “Now hear me, and send back the captives from your relatives whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the LORD is upon you.”
What are the odds, humanly speaking? This is an enormous fortune in human capital. They’ve won a great victory. Give it all up? At the rebuke of a preacher?
But they do. The captives go free. But not only go free; the conquerors “rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys,” they brought them to Jericho. One minute they are slaves, naked and abused; the next, they are being treated kindly, fed and clothed, given transportation back home, their goods returned to them.
What does this mean? It means that repentance changed everything. They turned, which is what “repent” literally means in Hebrew. They turned around and changed their heart, changed their behavior, changed their life. And so the prisoners went free.
Now hear this: the slaves were prisoners, but so were their captors. They were prisoners to sin, prisoners to their lust, prisoners to their rage, prisoners to all their dreams of conquest and glory, wealth and the good life.
I know these things affect you. They affect me too. That’s the curse of the fall. That’s the sin that flows through our veins. That’s the dream of control, and the fear of losing control, that fills our minds. And their is no law, no obedience, no plan of improvement that can fix this: “For if a law had been given that could give life,” St. Paul reminds us today, “then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.”
Sin holds you prisoner. Sin holds you captive to patterns of thought that are selfish, that ignore your neighbor. Israel and Judah forgot that they were neighbors, indeed that they came from the same family, all born of Abraham.
That’s true of you, too. We all come from the same family, we are all descended from the same set of parents. There is no black race or caucasian race, no Asian or Arabic race. There is one race, the human race.
And more immediately, your neighbor is not only the person you work with but the person you are married to. The lawyer in today’s Gospel sought to weasel out of the law to love his neighbor by trying to limit the definition of neighbor. He wanted to justify himself.
But you cannot justify yourself. That little-known prophet Oded’s rebuke falls down on you and me too: “The fierce wrath of the LORD is upon you.” Repent. Repent of your selfishness. Repent of trying to enslave others, using them for your own benefit, discarding them when they no longer serve your purpose. Repent of your selfish dreams, your ambitions, repent even of your fears, for they reveal that you regard God as altogether impotent.
Repent, and see what Jesus does through the parable of the Good Samaritan. For the Good Samaritan is not you, trying harder. The Good Samaritan is not you, being nicer. The Good Samaritan is not you, obeying better. You are the man in the ditch. Like the slaves, the man is stripped of everything he has. No money. No clothes. No health. No help.
That’s the story of man. Whatever you have, it will be taken away. As healthy as you are, yet you shall die. Your dark deeds, your idle words, all shall be exposed. You will be revealed, there in the ditch of God’s judgment, for the fraud you are.
But Jesus comes to you, the fraud, the liar, the adulterer, the user and abuser of others, He comes to you, becoming one of you, one of us, God clothed in human flesh, He comes into our ditch, into this hell of our own making and says, “I will help you. I will rescue you. I will redeem you.” He pours out oil and wine, He cleanses us with Baptism and Eucharist. He cleans us up thereby and brings us into the inn of the Church for healing.
You are broken by sin. You are wounded by your own pride. You are a prisoner to your ambitions. But from all this Christ your Good Samaritan sets you free. Now you are free to set your neighbor free, just like the warring parties in today’s Old Testament ended in peace, with the slaves going back home, their life restored.
Forgive your mother-in-law, forgive your wife, forgive your daughter, forgive your fellow parishioner, forgive your neighbor, forgive your coworker, forgive the driver who won’t let you into the lane you need to be in. Do they deserve this forgiveness? No. Neither do you. But Jesus gives it to you anyway. You are free. The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, but the cross set you free. All that is what we mean when the liturgy says, “Go in peace.”