A sermon preached on October 13, 2913 based upon Luke 17:11 – 19.
17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
Jesus travels through a no-man’s land, the border between two separate people – the Samaritans and the Jews — with a long history of hating one another. Their religious leaders taught them it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group – neither was to enter each other’s territories.
But Jesus, rebel that he was, didn’t obey such instructions. We hear of a time he sat by a Samaritan well and conversed with a woman from the village there. On another occasion, when he did not receive a welcome when passing through a Samaritan village, the disciples, heeding the ancient hatred, offered to call down fire on the Samaritans like the old prophet Elijah did in the ‘good old days.’ For such a suggestion, Jesus rebukes them like the time he rebuked Peter. On another occasion Jesus told a story in which a Samaritan travels through Jewish territory and unlike the Jewish religious authorities shows compassion on a man left beaten at the side of the road.
Despite their ancient hostility, the Jews and the Samaritans weren’t so very different from one another. Centuries back, they had been one people. They were both descendants of the Hebrew people Moses led through the wilderness on the journey to the promised land.
But what united them seemed to pale in comparison to what divided them, and as is so often the case, their divisions were given the stamp of approval by their religion.
The ancient hostility of these people reminds us of other ancient hostilities. The Jews and Palestinians, for instance. Closer to home, Democrats and Republicans. What does God think of these walls – these long nurtured hostilities?
17: 12 – 13 As Jesus entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
In this borderland, Jesus encounters a group of ten lepers. People were referred to as being lepers who suffered from a variety of skin diseases that could be quite painful, and thought to be contagious, rendering a person ritually unclean. The suffering caused by the disease was compounded by the fact that its diagnosis obliged a person to leave his or her family and village and go and camp out in the border land, as instructed by the Book of Leviticus. The disease made them outcastes, literally untouchable.
In these shadow lands, the lepers survived as beggars, crying out from a distance. It was an act of piety instructed in the Torah to give food to the lepers – but always from a distance. There could be no personal contact, for to touch a leper would render a person unclean as well.
Elsewhere in the Gospel we hear of Jesus defying this particular teaching of the authorities when he does in fact reach out to touch a leper to heal him. For Jesus, compassion trumped the keeping of the Law.
As Jesus passes by the lepers that day, they cry out to him. Presumably they have heard stories of Jesus healing people, and so they call out to him – collectively – for mercy.
It strikes me as not an insignificant point that they do NOT cry out, “Master, have mercy on me.” No, they cry for mercy on “us.” Something has happened out there in that border land whereby their common plight has knit them together. “We’re in this together.”
What is particularly striking about this togetherness is that, as we will find out shortly, the ten lepers include at least one Samaritan.
17:14a When Jesus saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
The Law instructed that if a leper should experience healing, before they could be restored to their family and community they had to first go to see the priests who would inspect them. If the priests judged them to be truly free from their disease, they would give them a certificate that declared them no longer unclean, permitting them to return home.
So in a sense, what Jesus is commanding is “putting the cart before the horse.” They are not yet healed, but they are to go to the priest, as if they were already healed.
17:14b And as they went, they were made clean.
So they obey Jesus, acting as if they were healed, and in doing so, they are healed. How did this happen? We don’t know for sure. Our first assumption is that Jesus healed them from a distance after they left him, and maybe that is what happened.
But in Luke’s Gospel, it isn’t just Jesus who has the power to heal. The seventy disciples he sends out to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near are also told to heal the sick, which, to their amazement, they find they can do. It’s as if Jesus is saying that God is more near – more willing to heal and bless – then any of us dare to believe.
And at the end of this story, as Jesus says what he said elsewhere to two other persons who received healing in his presence, “Your faith has made you well,” attributing the source of their healing within the people themselves.
Could there be more power within ourselves to claim healing than we realize?
17:15 -16 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
So all ten are healed, but only one of them in the discovery of his healing turns around and, overtaken with a powerful desire to praise God, falls on his knees to thank Jesus. The story doesn’t tell us what was going on in the minds of the other nine. We can only guess.
Presumably their focus quickly shifts to where they are going – first the priest – but then to their families, their villages. They are going back to their old life.
The Samaritan stops first. He is overtaken with the experience of gratitude. He needs to thank someone – thank God – thank this man who put him in touch with God.
We, too, have been blessed, in more ways than we can name and acknowledge. The story asks us, what is it that holds us back from experiencing the fullness of pure gratitude?
17: 17 -18 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Life has a way of taking us into that dark border land in which the ten lepers were living their lives until Jesus came along. The border land is that place in which – when we enter it — the things we count on to feel secure in life suddenly fall away.
It is the place where we feel profoundly vulnerable. We can be lead there in many different ways. The sudden death of someone we love and count on… a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness for ourselves, or someone with whom we intimately share life… the loss of a job, or other kind of financial uncertainty… a major failure at something we invested ourselves heart and soul… a love relationship that becomes unhinged.
These are just a few of the paths to what I’m referring to as the borderland – the space inhabited by the ten lepers before they are healed.
No one would willingly choose to go into that space. It is too distressing.
But there are truths that are seen in the border land that are easily avoided when we’re standing more firmly on familiar ground.
We see, for instance, how truly vulnerable, fragile, dependent we all really are. We like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, independent, in charge of our lives. But in truth, there is so much that is out of our control – things we rely on for our sense of security and stability. So much we take for granted – that is, until it is gone, or the possibility of its disappearance arises.
Here’s something to think about. If you can’t acknowledge your dependency and vulnerability, you can’t experience gratitude.
And something else. The inability to acknowledge our vulnerability is related to the need we have to look down on other people – to consider oneself, and one’s group – as superior to others.
Thrust into the borderland by the disease of leprosy, the distinction between Jew and Samaritan, and all other such distinctions, becomes meaningless. There is no mistaking the fact that they are all suffering the same way.
In the waiting room of an oncology doctor’s office, all the ways people use to distinguish themselves – race, religion, age, socio-economic status – they all fall away. The thing that they all share in common suddenly is seen as far more significant than everything that divides them.
Out on the border land, we suddenly see that we really all are in this thing called life together.
And this too. Out in the borderland simple acts of kindness that previously seemed insignificant are now recognized as profoundly important.
Nothing matters more than kindness.
17:19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The suggestion here is that the one Samaritan who turned back to give thanks has been made whole on a deeper level than the other nine. They have all received a physical healing. But the gratitude of the one suggests that his soul has received a healing of his soul as well.
Perhaps, having received their physical healing, the focus of the nine is now on the return to their “old” life. There is much to be done to re-establish their places in their families and community. To some extent, however, this means leaving behind the truths they saw so clearly out in the border land — to convince them selves once more that they are the masters of their lives. They will come to feel “entitled” again, and entitlement is the enemy of gratitude.
Before long, perhaps they will be sharing with their family and friends in the old familiar diminishing of the group to which they don’t belong. They’ll convince themselves again that they are superior: “Those Samaritans – they’re not like us, good, hardworking, honest folk who love their families.”
Perhaps the one who turned back won’t go back to his “old” life. He will go instead to a “new life” – one that keeps before him the truths he saw out there in the border land. There will be no limits on what kind of people he is allowed to feel compassion for. Having once been in the depths, he will feel compassion on any other person when they descend to the depths, no matter what it was that brought them there. He will walk in the world lightly, gently, kindly.
And although it will require him to acknowledge how fragile he is, he will experience gratitude day by day for the gift of life, and all that sustains it.