When you’re reading something in the Bible and trying to figure out it’s meaning and how that meaning applies in your life, it’s often a good idea to put yourself in different positions in the Bible story. Read through it once as you are, as a Christian in the Washington, DC area in 2016 in whatever work or family situation you’re in. Read it through again as one of the disciples. Read it through again from the point of view of one of the nine lepers who went on to the high priest. Read it through again as if you were the tenth leper who came back. Try it again from Jesus’ point of view.
Another thing you can do is to think about who those persons would be today, who they would be if they were alive right now. I don’t mean literally – I know there are literally lepers in the world and there are literally people from what was once called Samaria, but who are those people in our own context. I don’t know anyone who literally has leprosy, so I have to think about who it is in my life and in my little world that is in a comparable position.
A third idea is to look for differences in how Jesus reacts to people or differences in how people react to Jesus or differences, especially subtle differences, in how the text describes the people that are in it.
It’s a little bit difficult to do the first of those with this particular passage this morning, because there are so many different people in it. There’s Jesus. There are the disciples, who although they aren’t mentioned are still there travelling with Jesus. There are the nine lepers who went on to the high priest to demonstrate that they were ritually clean. There’s the tenth leper who came back to thank Jesus. There’s the high priest – what did he think when these lepers showed up and told them what had happened? There are the families of the lepers. As you can see, there are a lot of people who are in this story, even if they aren’t all visible at first glance.
But we can pick out at least a couple and put ourselves in their positions. Take the lepers. What did they feel? What did they know? Who were they? We can tell they knew their station in life, because they kept their distance from Jesus. They knew that they weren’t to approach others, not just because of their disease but because they were ritually unclean and anyone who came into contact with them would also be unclean, whether they contracted leprosy or not. The lepers knew who Jesus was; that’s why they approached him and asked for mercy, even as they were keeping their distance. They were also devout Jews who cared about the law, about the rules governing the Jewish religion. Not only did they keep their distance, but they obeyed Jesus and left to show themselves to the high priest in order to show that they were clean.
In studying this story I ran across a blog post by Alyce McKenzie that reflects a little bit what it might feel like to be Jesus in this situation. You see, people didn’t thank Jesus every time he did something for them. When Jesus cleanses a leper in Luke 5:12, the response of people is to crowd around him wanting healing for themselves. When Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, the response of his opponents is to be filled with fury and begin plotting his demise. That’s Luke 6:11. In Luke 7:16 when Jesus raises a widow’s son, the response of the crowd was to be filled with fear and to glorify God. When Jesus casts out a legion of demons from a tormented man, the locals ask him to leave because “they were seized with great fear,” as it says in Luke 8:37. When a woman is healed by touching the hem of his garment, he quickly sends her on her way.”Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” That’s Luke 8:48.
When Jesus heals a boy with a demon Luke 9:43 says that the crowds were astounded at the greatness of God. When Jesus heals a blind beggar near Jericho, the man “followed him, glorifying God and all the people, when they saw it, praised God,” according to Luke 18:43.
These aren’t necessarily inappropriate responses; being astounded at the greatness of God is perfectly fine and natural. So is praising and glorifying God. But that’s not thanks. Praise and thanks are not the same thing.
McKenzie tells about one of her students teaching a second grade Sunday School class who asked the kids, “How do you think Jesus felt when only one person came back to thank him?” One boy raised his hand. “I think he would have felt happy that one person came back and thanked him.” Does all of that give us a little bit of a window into the perspectives and feelings of the lepers and of Jesus?
So who are the lepers and the Samaritans in our own lives? If this story were set right here, right now, who would the lepers and Samaritans be? It was interesting to look up leprosy and learn a little more about it. It’s a long-term skin infection, and it can take anyplace from 5 to 20 years to show up. It’s not highly contagious, and these days it is fairly easily curable.
As for Samaritans, they were a variant of Judaism in Biblical times. Samaritans claim their ancestry from Ephraim and Manasseh, two of Joseph’s sons, and believe that mainstream Judaism is a variant of their own Judaism, and that theirs is the true Judaism. There are around 800 Samaritans alive today, almost all of them living in two cities in Israel or the West Bank.
We could pick out a lot of people to be our lepers and our Samaritans. I have friends for whom those folks might be same-sex couples. I have friends for whom they are Clinton or Trump supporters. I have friends for whom they are Communists, or conservatives. I think those are all kind of easy, though, and to be honest I think we know how we are to respond to people like that. We are to do as Jesus did. We are to offer love, healing, hope and salvation. We are to offer reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. We are to seek to atone for the sins of Christians, sometimes us, who have acted in ways that separate them from God’s love and mercy.
Joshua Brockway is the Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. Joshua did some preaching here when he was a student at Catholic University, and he is also one of the people who really makes me feel old, because his parents were at Bethany with me and Julia and Joshua was just a little, little boy then.
Anyway, Joshua shared an article last week on Facebook from Commonweal magazine called “Christ’s Rabble” by Roman Catholic scholar David Bentley Hart. Here’s a quote from that article. “Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They… cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family.”
Let me state this another way. When we think about who are the Samaritans and the lepers in our modern society, perhaps we shouldn’t try to name other groups that might fit that role, but ask ourselves why we as Christians do not choose to fit that role. Why don’t other people look at us as lepers and Samaritans? Why are people who at least claim to be Christians – and I accept their claims, because I can’t look into their hearts – why are people who claim to be Christian the vast majority of the ruling class of this nation? What is there about our lives, whether it’s our life together as a congregation or our lives as individuals, that says to the society at large that Christ is our Lord, that we care more about Christ than we care about anything else?
Let’s think for a moment about the third technique I mentioned – to look for differences in how people react to Jesus or vice versa, and differences in how the scriptural text describes people.
There’s obviously a difference in how nine lepers responded and in how the tenth leper responded; the tenth leper came back to thank Jesus. There are a couple of other things we might notice.
The first is that the tenth leper is both a leper and a Samaritan. We don’t know about all of the other nine, but we know for sure that this guy was doubly cursed by his society. He was an outsider and unclean not just physically, but spiritually as well.
The second thing that I notice is that something else happens after the tenth leper returns in thanksgiving. In verse 14, Jesus tells all ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests because they have been made clean. In verse 17 he says to the Samaritan that his faith has made him well. The word translated “well” literally means “saved.”
The first nine were healed of their leprosy, and went to take care of the ritual obligations of their religion as Jesus suggested. The tenth, though, realized that worship and praise and thanksgiving to God were more important that ritual obligations. Praise and worship are an expression of faith, not just of religious ritual. Religion is an institution, a structure, a set of practices, an organized community of some sort. Religion can be an expression of faith, but religion is not faith in and of itself. The first nine lepers were taking care of their religious obligations.
Faith is something deeper than religion. Hebrews 11:1 says that “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That verse fits what happens in our reading today. The ten lepers asked Jesus to heal them. Suddenly, they were healed. Did Jesus do it? Well, it seemed to happen at around the same time but Jesus didn’t actually say “I am healing you.” Even if he had, it could all be a coincidence. One of the first things you learn in logic is that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, just because something happens just before something else doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second.
So when the tenth leper comes back while the others go on, that’s faith. There is no physical evidence that Jesus has healed him, nothing he could see, but he thanks Jesus and praises him anyway. That’s faith, the conviction of things not seen.
So, what do the Samaritans and the lepers have in common with us? Well, if we’re at our best as Christians all of us are outcasts of one kind or another. All of us need to have faith in Jesus, faith that is stronger than religion and stronger than ritual and custom. And all of us need to remember to thank Jesus for all the good things in our lives. When we do these things, we may or may not be healed, but we will be saved and made whole. Amen.