Sunday, October 9, 2016

One in Ten

Luke 17:11-19
October 9, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling Il
Christina Berry

In our story today, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. In Luke’s gospel, the journey to Jerusalem starts in chapter nine, and ends at the cross, so it is like a gospel travelogue. In Bible study on Wednesday, when we looked at the reading, we also looked at the map of the region at that time. Galilee, where Jesus had been, is due north of Samaria. Samaria is due north of Judea, where Jerusalem is. 

Most travelers on their way to Jerusalem from parts north, Jesus included, skirted around the region of Samaria on their journey. They avoided Samaria like we’d avoid a neighborhood where every resident was our enemy. There wasn’t anything particularly terrible or different about Samaria itself. It was the Samaritans they wanted to avoid. The Samaritans had close historical and religious ties to the Jews, and in fact some were descended from the tribes of Israel.

But they also had Babylonians and Medes in their ancestry. And they had opposed the rebuilding of the temple back in the day. The Samaritans had their own temple, not the one in Jerusalem. So Jesus and the disciples are on the road, trying to avoid the Samaritans, and they run into a group of people with leprosy, also a group to be avoided. Actually, according to Mosaic law, the lepers were supposed to avoid them. They were supposed to keep their distance, shouting, “Unclean! Unclean” to anyone who might be approaching. Let’s join Jesus on the road to Jerusalem when he meets the outcasts in Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’
When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’
And as they went, they were made clean.
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.
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?’
Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

It was a terrible, terrible thing to be a leper in the first century. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is curable nowadays, but then it was not. What’s more, back then, all kinds of skin problems were called leprosy. Any number of them could get you cast out of your family, town, temple. Leviticus spells out all the requirements in excruciating detail. There were all kinds of skin issues that could make you an outcast. Basically, you could end up in a leper colony due to a bad case of eczema.

When I was in seminary, there were two sets of seminary housing. One set was on campus, in what was called the “fertile crescent,” because of the numbers of new babies born to the couples who lived there. Another set of apartments, about half a block away from campus, were called “the Leper Colony.” That was where I lived, and I resented the term. In fact I tried hard to convince people not to call it that. Besides being disrespectful to people who actually suffered from leprosy, it made us feel like outcasts! And in some small ways, we were outcasts, over there on 30th street. There would be parties and cookouts in campus housing to which we were not invited. But it was nothing like – not at ALL like – being an actual outcast.

The leper in the first century was required to wear rags, to have messy hair (I know, but that’s what Leviticus says!) to live away from the rest of the people, far from the common camp, to warn others away with shouts of “unclean!” and not to come near regular people.

There seem to be outcasts like that in every era of history. In India, although it has been outlawed, the caste system relegated an entire group of people, by an accident of birth, to the untouchable caste. They were subjugated, economically deprived, and persecuted. Australia was colonized by prisoners who were exiled there, expelled from England for various crimes. Some of those petty criminals were also sent to America! France sent a number of their criminals to Louisiana. The Puritans might also be seen as outcasts.

In more recent history, we can find lots of examples of outcasts. Just look around at any place where any group of people is pushed out of the main stream of society. Before the fair housing act, many a person of color was prevented from renting or buying in white neighborhoods. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, before we knew what AIDS was, many people were exiled from families, from jobs, from housing, and sadly, even from churches. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, there were places where anyone who looked like they might be Muslim were unwelcome, chased out of town, so to speak.

Even now, there are groups of people who want to exclude other entire religions from this country. Even now, there are people who would like to expel people who are of certain national origins. If you can imagine the rancor and suspicion and outright hatred that some people feel toward those groups, you can imagine the rancor and suspicion and outright hatred that a lot of people in the first century had toward Samaritans. They felt completely justified in it – just like some Southerners still feel toward us Yankees.

The story in Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us one way or another, but it seems reasonable to think that Jesus’ disciples and followers were with him on the road, since they seemed to always be with him. Can’t you just hear what they were thinking?!

“Really, Jesus?! REALLY?”
“Um, Jesus. It’s lepers. That’s catching.
We were okay with you healing the blind guy and talking to the woman who touched your robe, but those problems aren’t contagious. Now you are putting us in danger!”

We don’t know what they thought.
We don’t know what they said.
But we know what those ten people with leprosy said: “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!”

Only in Luke do people call Jesus “Master!” and except for this story, only disciples called Jesus their master. They ask for mercy. They ask for mercy, and somehow, without even touching them, Jesus grants them mercy. He sends them to show themselves to the priest, to show the priest that they are healed the final step that someone makes before rejoining community, before changing their status from outcast to friend, from Godforsaken to blessed.

The story tells us that the healing happened “as they went” so we imagine that their skin cleared up in front of their very eyes. Any one of us would be hurrying to get to the priest, hurrying to be pronounced clean, hurrying to rejoin our families and friends. But one – one of the ten – turned back. In spite of the instructions he had been given, he turned back. He came running back to Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice” and threw himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet. And he said that most important prayer of all. He said “thank you.”

In those two simple words, this one man, the one of the ten, acknowledge not only his healing, but the source of that healing. In those two simple words, he demonstrated a faith that few of us have. In those two simple words, he showed that he knew what Jesus had done.

I think that Jesus was smiling when he 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?’

I think he was asking in order to be heard by the disciples – especially the part about the man being a foreigner. Then Jesus said to the man, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ The literal translation of that can be: “Your faith has saved you.” But it wasn’t his faith that healed him. Jesus healed him!

And the other nine, who headed off down the road, they were still healed, still saved from lives of exile and poverty and loneliness. Was it is his gratitude, then? Was that was saved him? I think it was both.

There are practical reasons for gratitude, of course – studies show that even people who are seriously ill can improve their well being by daily focusing on the things for which they are grateful. One way to be happier is to take a few minutes each day to be more thankful.

But the word for thanksgiving that is used in this text is more than a psychological expression of thanks, more than a brainwave. The word is eucharistein, from the same root word as eucharist – meaning thanksgiving, the term we often use for communion. In the middle of that word “eucharist” is the word “charis” – gift, or grace. To give thanks to God is an act of faithfulness, an expression of our communion with Christ.

One commentator says: One might almost say, in fact, that “faith” and “gratitude” are two words for the same thing: to practice gratitude is to practice faith. If faith is not something we have, but something we do— something we live—then in living we express our complete trust in God. How then can we not practice gratitude, when we know that God, the giver of all good gifts, holds all of life in providential hands?  When we practice gratitude, we find that faith is given in abundance, pressed down and overflowing.[1] 

So, like that tenth leper, like that one in ten, we are called to lives in which our faith is indistinguishable from our gratitude. The healing we receive happens along the way, and we may not see it right off. The healing we receive restores us to community, even though it may take us a while to get there. The healing we receive is a gift from God, and the appropriate response is “Thank you!”

Like the ten, we have been blessed to meet Jesus on the road. When we meet him we find that Jesus values faith and trust over blind obedience. After all, the 10th leper disobeyed Jesus when he returned to him!
When we meet him, we find healing,
regardless of how much faith we express.
When we meet him, we find that he moves between the borders,
among the outcasts and the downtrodden, in order to rescue people.
When we meet him we find that his mercy extends to all people.
He can work miracles at a distance for people who will never know him at all.
His grace extends to the ten lepers, to the one who returned,
to the world, to each one of us.

Thanks be to God!


[1] Kimberly Bracken Long, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word commentary on Luke 17:11-19

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