Sunday, November 24, 2013
Luke 17: 11-19
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
There’s nothing like traveling to evoke feelings of gratitude You can’t help but breathe a prayer of “thanks” while watching whales breach the waters off Alaska or while walking along Waikiki beach. And there’s nothing like the discomforts and frustrations of travels to send you home grateful to be back in your own bed, back with familiar foods, back to family and friends.
Literal and figurative journeys often teach us to welcome gratefully the new and appreciate the old and to be thankful in all the unpredictable movements of life. “Thank you” is one of the first phrases travelers learn to say in a new country. That’s because seasoned travelers know they must be prepared to receive the gifts of the journey with grateful hearts.
Today’s Gospel reading is a healing story told as a journey—with a necessary stop at gratitude along the way. If you’d like to go on this journey with me and with ten lepers, you’ll need to prepare for the journey by silently rereading Luke 17: 11-19. Notice how this story is crafted as a series of four movements—like a symphony. Pay attention to the literal movements of characters. Who is moving? Toward what and why?
Movement 1. The story beings in verse 11 with Jesus making the first move. As the emissary of God, his action suggests that healing comes through God’s initiative—although, as we will see, healing involves our own participation. As the embodiment of God’s gracious spirit, Jesus the healer is moving toward Jerusalem to challenge the oppressors more directly, despite great risk to himself. You and I already know that the traveling healer who “sets his face toward Jerusalem” will soon be crucified there. But along the way he continues to teach and heal and bless. He heals individuals, yes, but he does so in the context of a larger mission to heal harmful systems that injure the human spirit.
Movement 2. Verse 12 introduces ten lepers. Just as Jesus is entering an unnamed village, 10 lepers move toward him. Significantly, they are meeting in the liminal land between Galilee and Samaria, Galilee being the Jewish region Jesus and his disciples hailed from, and Samaria the area inhabited by a people distantly related to the Jews but who were despised in ways that only people separated after an internal schism can be despised. If there were any place on earth that needed healing, it was this in-between country. But maybe you’ve discovered what has been true for me: Sometimes the deepest healing happens in times of questions and uncertainty. Sometimes entire groups of people are healed of prejudices and fears in places where the boundaries get blurred. In such a place, 10 lepers call out to Jesus the Jew. Are the lepers fellow Jews or Samaritans? Since Jews and Samaritans alike treated lepers as outcasts, their religious and ethnic identity mattered not at all. In keeping with the religious law and custom of the times, the lepers were permitted to approach a nonleper only so far.
Keep in mind that leprosy then was not the disease we call leprosy or Hanson’s disease today. When the Bible speaks of leprosy, it may be referring to any number of skin diseases, some very minor, that made one religiously unclean. When a leper’s skin condition cleared, Jewish law said he or she could go before a priest to be declared “clean” again and reenter society. As in the very first healing story in Luke’s Gospel, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus’s healings often emphasized restoring a marginalized person to the community more than curing an illness.
The lepers call out to Jesus from the required distance, and they ask . . . for healing, right? No. They ask for mercy, not healing (verse 13). What a social outcast may need is merciful kindness. “Have mercy on us!” they shout with one voice. And Jesus responds. Jesus responds first by seeing them. Maybe he saw the “clean” human beings they wanted to be. Maybe their physical condition had already cleared but they’d been stuck in some old way of seeing themselves and needed someone to see them with merciful eyes and affirm their wholeness, their rightful place in society. Maybe they didn’t know the social stigma that had dogged them for weeks or months or years—was not only the thing that defined them. Maybe merciful eyes could see who they really were and merciful words could point them back home. Maybe Jesus saw past their disease or maybe Jesus removed their disease or maybe Jesus saw that they were no longer diseased and it was time for them to submit themselves to the priest for inspection—because sometimes religious authorities are the last to recognize when stigma has vanished. What seems clear is that the ten didn’t ask to be cured. They asked for mercy.
Think of the healing we can do as God’s emissaries if we can see people with merciful eyes and tell them who they really are and affirm them into wholeness. Think what we as a church can do if we can look at one another—and name one another as clean, despite our flaws—and see one another into wholeness. That’s how healing happens.
Think, too, about the instances when people whom society has declared religiously unclean must demand to be named clean. “Go and show yourselves to your priests,” said Jesus then. “Go, gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual people and show yourselves to your religious leaders and demand that your religion rename you as clean.” “Go, people with mental illness and people in poverty and immigrants who’ve been labeled as ‘illegal’ and demand that the priests and religious leaders bring you from the margins into the center of society. Go. Be seen. Demand to be declared clean.” that is part of healing, too.
Movement 3 begins in verse 14, which says, strangely, “As they went, they were made clean.” They were made clean as they travelled on. At this point it’s clear Jesus didn’t zap them into a state of cleanness. It happened as they were on the way. Isn’t that really how life works? We can pray that God will wave a magic wand and make us suddenly into a new and improved version of ourselves. But usually change happens as we go, as we act, as we try, as we move forward with life and try again and fail again and learn something and practice over and over how to be part of the human community. As we go, we are being made clean. You’ve known some folks who are sometimes not safe to be around. These folks enjoy transmitting their toxicity to others. They really need a grown up “time out” before being certified as safe to return to society. Maybe that’s what we do here each week. We journey away from life’s messiness and then are declared clean and certifiably capable of returning to our community. So here each week we remember our belovedness and practice how to forgive flawed fellow travelers, how to share with others, how to give, how to thank, how to care. Through the movement of our simple liturgy, we are being made clean: certifiably safe to be around others.
Remember when someone asked Maya Angelou if she were a Christian? The poet/novelist responded with her own question, “Are you a Christian?” and the inquirer answered, “Yes!” to which Maya Angelou responded archly, “Already?”
We are being made clean. We are being nurtured into our belovedness. We are being guided along this spiritual journey. We are in process.
Movement 4. The story might have ended there, with ten lepers leaping as if in some deranged Christmas carol. But the fourth movement occurs with one, just one of the former lepers, realizing he has been made clean—and going back to thank Jesus. The most important movement in the story is the pivot—back to Jesus. It seems not an intellectual decision but a sudden change of heart. He praises God with a loud voice and thanks Jesus, wildly prostrating himself at his feet, no longer needing to keep a certain distance between them. And it’s only then that the narrator, with dramatic timing, reveals what we should have already suspected was possible: this leper, now former leper, was a Samaritan, a person doubly marginalized. He was the only one of the ten who was a Samaritan. And only he came back to say thanks. How like Luke’s Gospel to use some outcast to illustrate the right way, the Jesus Way.
Why didn’t the other nine return to express their thanks? Maybe for the same reasons you and I fail the gratitude test. We’re often too busy. We’re self-centered. We’ve not made it a spiritual practice. Maybe the Samaritan, being doubly marginalized, had the greater cause for gratitude. We don’t know the reason for only one man’s return to say thank you. Jesus, too, ponders this, as if he can’t quite believe the others’ lack of gratitude.
But we do understand the consequence of the Samaritan’s gratitude. Because the story concludes with this amazing command and explanation from Jesus: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
More than one commentator has noticed the final word in the story. It shows us the thankful Samaritan leper was the only one who was healed or “made well.” Yes, all 10 were “made clean” but only the returning Samaritan who gave thanks is healed or “made well.” The Samaritan’s journey brought him to a place of gratitude. And although the other nine were declared clean and restored to their community, there was another level of healing available to the one who got all the way to gratitude.
The story suggests that you can’t stay in the same place and experience healing. You have to move forward. But perhaps you don’t reach your fullest healing until you have experienced deeply in your heart and expressed genuinely to another your profound gratitude.
We can go home again, but we can’t return home completely healed if we’ve not found gratitude on the way.
PRAYER: God Who Sees Us With Merciful Eyes, help us to stop for gratitude so that we can experience full healing. AMEN