Sunday, October 13, 2019
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Access Sunday & Disabilities Awareness Week
The walls between peoples and nations are all around us. We put them up along literal and figurative borders (“Reflections on the lectionary,” Dennis Sanders, Christian Century, September 25, 2019, page 19).
They are meant to indicate who is in and who is out. “We don’t want to mix things up. Americans here, immigrants there [although except for Native people in the U.S., everyone else came from immigrant families]. Democrats here and Republicans there [and Independents and others over there]. We want things and people in their proper places” (Op. cit.).
We are not alone. Turks here. Kurds there. The Han people here. The Uighur people there. Rohingyas here. Bamars there. Jews here. Palestinians there.
The divisions along racial and ethnic lines are evident. Xenophobia or the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners dominates the social and political landscape here in the U.S. as well as in many, many countries around the world. Some may say that is an exaggeration, but generally such statements are made by those who do not see themselves as either stranger or foreigner.
Yet at the end of the day, we all yearn for healing. We all yearn for wholeness.
On his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus goes through the region between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17:11; 9:51). He often seems to frequent boundary spaces that are literal (Op. cit.), but in this case he is about to also cross a social boundary - not a geographical boundary - through his encounter with ten lepers.
What was known as leprosy in ancient times we now call Hansen’s disease. But in Jesus’ day, leprosy referred to a variety of infectious skin diseases. Today, leprosy has been classified as a disease of the nervous system because the bacterium that causes leprosy attacks the nerves and until the discovery of sulfone drugs after World War II, the disease remained incurable.
The story is told that as Jesus enters a village one day, ten people approach him who it seems were afflicted with Hansen’s disease and not just any infectious skin disease. They keep their distance because they are “unclean.” Jesus does not appear to do anything except to send them immediately to show themselves to the priests to confirm that they have been healed.
I imagine for the ten lepers, Jesus instruction to go and show themselves to the priests was almost laughable. Some of them were probably wondering, “What good would that do?” But desperate for a miracle, they do not question his instruction. They immediately go on their way. Soon they notice a change. They know whatever Jesus did to heal them, the change will need to be confirmed by the priests. It will be the priests who will declare them “clean.”
When one of the lepers notices he has been healed, he turns around and praising God with a loud voice returns to Jesus. He lay down on the ground at Jesus’ feet to thank him and to praise God. (Luke 17:15-16).
Scholars tell us that the verb thank is the one used when Jesus offers thanks to God for the bread and cup at the last supper (Luke 22:17, 19; Acts 27:35). It is the same verb (eucharisteo) that is the basis for the word Eucharist or Lord’s Supper and emphasizes the importance of the Samaritan’s expression of appreciation for being healed. Out of his own brokenness, he is made whole.
We know from the story that it is only after he returns to Jesus that he is identified as a Samaritan. In our lectionary reading, he is referred to as a “foreigner.” In other Bible translations he is referred to as a “stranger” – one who is literally “a man of another race” or someone who is an “alien.” The Greek word that is used here (allogenes) is found nowhere else in the New Testament.
What distinguishes the Samaritan leper from the others is Jesus response to him as he lay on the ground at his feet, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:11-19), which literally means “your faith has saved you.”
It is as though Jesus was saying to him, “It is not anything that I have said or done that has healed you. What has made you well, what has saved you is your faith – even if that faith is as small as a mustard seed.”
It must be said that the ten lepers share a common disease that unites them despite deep divisions of religion and history. But what is often overlooked in our reading of the text is the uncomfortable acknowledgement that one of the lepers was literally “a man of another race.”
When we seek to apply the lessons learned from Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers, we are prone to emphasize how important it is for us to give thanks and praise for God’s mercy, whatever our circumstances in life may be. I would not deny that that is one of the lessons we would do well to heed.
But what strikes me about the passage is the Samaritan’s response. He is the one who is ignored, scorned and untouched (Op. cit.) even more so than the other nine lepers because he is also a “foreigner” yet he is the one who is filled with gratitude.
In a commentary on our reading from Luke, the Rev. Dr. Meda Stamper, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) writes: “There is no doubt something is to be understood here about the people who live on the margins of our communities, who are treated as invisible or unlovely because of how they look or who they are or where they come from. Jesus clearly notices and loves them and calls us to do the same” (“Commentary on Luke 17:11-19,” Meda Stamper, workingpreacher.org, October 13, 2013) – whether they are Somali refugees fleeing the violence of war to seek a safe haven in Minneapolis, Minnesota or Mexican migrant farm workers working the apple orchards of Charles Town, West Virginia (“A more diverse Appalachia, Michael Bonfigli, The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, October 14, 2019, pages 42-43).
We would do well to remember that it was Ruth, a Moabite, who remained faithful to her mother Naomi after her Boaz, an Israelite, died (Ruth 1:16-17). We would do well to remember it was Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria, who was healed of his leprosy by Elisha, a prophet of Judah (2 Kings 5:1-15).
We would do well to remember the magi who made the journey from their own countries in the East to pay homage to the Christ child born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12). And we would do well to remember that it was the Roman centurion who declared upon Jesus’ death, “Truly this man was God’s son” (Matthew 27:45-54). All foreigners.
Clearly, we are called to heal and to love the strangers, the foreigners whom we encounter on the Jerusalem road we must all travel as his disciples. Mahalo ke Akua.
Thanks be to God. Amen.