Today’s text begins in loneliness.
As he entered a village, Luke writes, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out. It is, John Buchanan writes, “difficult to exaggerate the social alienation and isolation of these ten men. People lived in dread of leprosy…thought to be radically contagious, [and making one ritually unclean]. The result was that people with leprosy lived in total isolation: banished from their homes, from the loving touch of spouses, children, parents, from the faith community… Sometimes they banded together to become a small company of misery.”1
I’ve been thinking about this loneliness this week. We have watched, painfully slowly, Hurricane Matthew work its way across the Caribbean up to the US. We watched Haiti, this place that is excruciatingly poor and ill-equipped to handle something like this with more than 300 deaths, a number which will rise. The storm moved up the coast, leaving us with rain, wind, flooding, hitting those who are poor and homeless, older people who are alone, worst of all. I saw a woman yesterday at an intersection, wrapped up in a coat in a downpour, still out asking for money for the day. I thought of the video that came out Friday with one of our candidates saying abhorrent things about women, with the newscaster sickeningly chuckling along. This candidate didn’t start all this, he is merely a reflection of a larger culture, of sentiments shared by too many, that is incapable of seeing women as something other than object, devoid of humanity. Some of us were at a funeral yesterday for a teenager, a recent graduate of Jordan and friend to many of our youth, who had battled eating disorders and depression for years.
With loneliness and isolation comes fractured community. No matter what Luke says, most maps show there isn’t a region between Samaria and Galilee. There is a border, but no Jew would go out of her way to go through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem – they are bearers of a centuries-old conflict. John Carroll says, “The…ambiguity of the geographical reference in 17:11, is suggestive. Jesus is walking through a liminal zone, a place of transition, a place “between,” where neither Galilean nor Samaritan is at “home.”2
It is in this in-between, where nothing works and no one is at home, that Jesus enters a village, any village, ten lepers approach. The lepers themselves were responsible for the enforcement of their ostracism.3 Leviticus tells them to cry out, whenever people are near, “Unclean, unclean.”4 These ten, after maybe years, of “unclean, unclean,” cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Without batting an eye Jesus says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They turn and then, Luke tells us, on the way, they were made clean, katharizo, catharsis, cleansed.
I wonder what it was like as they began to notice their healing. I wonder if one felt something, looked down, pointed at another. After years of isolation, I wonder what mix of joy and hope and skepticism…Could this be true? This is a moment I would love for Luke to give us more detail, but Luke doesn’t. He tells us that as those ten were leaving, one of them turned. One. When he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. Gratitude filled his heart – not that the others weren’t grateful, we don’t know. But this one threw himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him, eucharisteo, eucharist, gave thanks.
I don’t know if we can necessarily fault the other nine. Those nine, outcasts all of their lives, excited to head off into whatever adventure they had in store, people they needed to see. The other nine were also doing what Jesus told them to do. They were going – we presume – to show themselves to the priest, be welcomed back into the community, the priest certifying they no longer had to walk about with shouting of “unclean, unclean.” But only one turned back, threw himself on the ground. AND, Luke adds, he was a Samaritan. I imagine the effect on the crowd was the same as back in chapter ten when Luke tells us of a man beaten to the edge of death and left on the side of the road, and first a priest, then a Levite, walk by and don’t help. But then a Samaritan, Jesus says, and the crowd gasps. Samaritans were despised, John Buchanan writes, culturally inferior, theological and liturgical heretics. Think Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, maybe the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam, he writes.5 Nine went on about their way but the one to come back and praise the one who did the healing was a Samaritan?
Jesus reaches out a hand. Were there not ten of you before, ten healed? Was none of them found to give thanks to God except this foreigner? Step 1 of this text is surely about gratitude. Those ten lepers called to Jesus and were made clean not because of anything they did, not because they believed the right stuff. Because of grace. And we are called to think and pray so deeply about how we embody that grace, how we do our best imitation of that Samaritan – it is the unexpected one that truly offers thanks – and throw ourselves at Christ’s feet. This work is, in many ways, the entirety of our life as church… the working out of our thanksgiving to God. This ties in well as we begin stewardship season, as we give thanks to God for the 28 kids and pile of adults who came as we•form began this Wednesday, as even more of you packed 10,000 meals for STOP Hunger Now. As we get ready for a Haiti trip that will surely be different than anticipated, as we come together to read the Bible, knit prayer shawls and hold each other close. Everything we do is the working out of our gratitude to God with the time we have been given, with the talents we have been given, with the financial resources you have been given and your pledges, your tithes. We’ll be handing you a packet today that, along with the nametag, provides tools for that reflection, as we do our discernment together. God is at work in powerful ways, drawing us into God’s own transformation of the entire world. It is extraordinary.
But, even more than stewardship and – as much as your tithes are really important – this text is even more about community. About the isolation we feel. That the lepers felt, that those society said then were unclean, that those society says not are unclean, a loneliness so many of us have felt at some point in our lives. That no one cared. The mother of the girl who died spoke at the funeral yesterday of how important it was that we be kind to each other, that we be a place that cares for people with mental illness like we care for people with physical illness, without any of the shame that leads to even further isolation. Jesus broke through the seclusion of those ten, sends them on their way into life, real life, life abundant. The grace at the heart of this text, I think, only starts with the physical healing, and moves through the gratitude of the one and into community. The grace wasn’t his lying down at Jesus’ feet, as good as that was. God loves our gratitude but doesn’t need it. The grace was right before that, in the way that one rejoiced, the one who didn’t take his gratitude on his own way like the other nine, but who turned, who lived that thankfulness by turning toward another, toward Jesus, toward a love that calls us – all of us created by God and all of us who seek to follow Jesus – to turn toward each other, over and over again, a love that sends us out in a way that builds bridges in a world of division. A love that breaks down barriers and stigma about mental illness, about gender, about who you love and what you do and how fancy your house is, a love that makes clear that NONE of that stuff truly matters. That God’s love for ALL, calling us to turn to Jesus, then back to the world. That love put to work is what matters. That is what is real, what is true. The rest of it… let it go.
Then Jesus looks to the one face down praising at his feet and says, I like to believe with a smile, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well, the word here is sozo, something much closer to salvation than katharizo, healed, made clean. All ten are welcomed back into community. But only one, through his encounter with Jesus and expressions of gratitude, saw something more akin to salvation.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. John Buchanan, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 17: 11-19,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: WJK, 2010) 167
2. John T. Carroll, “Between text and Sermon: Luke 17: 11-19” Interpretation 1 Oct 1999, 405. I am grateful to the Rev. Ellen Crawford True for her great paper on this text at the 2013 gathering of The Well, Baltimore.
3. Justo L. Gonzalez, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: WJK, 2010) 204-205. From Crawford True.
4. Leviticus 13:45-46.
5. Feasting, Buchanan, 165, 167.