18 Pentecost, Proper 23 – October 9, 2022
This morning we hear that Jesus is “on the way to Jerusalem”. It’s a phrase that Luke repeats often. In other words, we are on the way to the cross. We’re on the way to Jerusalem.
And on the way, Jesus is said to be out in the region between Jerusalem and Galilee….so he is out on the border, out in ‘no man’s land’, the shadows. And there he runs into 10 men who have leprosy, a skin disease. According to the customs of the day, they live in seclusion, keep their distance from passersby, they wear torn clothes and disheveled hair, and announce their own contagion in loud, humiliating cries: “Unclean! Unclean!”. The ten, clearly having heard about Jesus, take a chance and call out to him for mercy.
Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests. He seems to be getting ahead of himself, because inspection by a priest is the rule for certifying that a former leper is now disease-free. This rule is recognized by Samaritan and Jew alike. But the lepers accept what Jesus says; off they go to see the priests. Jesus essentially tells them to leave their old story, their familiar positions, and to go where they have never dared to go before—out on the public paths, all the way to the priests. Their wider community—neighbors and shop owners and beggars and priests—all need to see what “hope-becoming-words-becoming-action” looks like. On the way, they are healed. Not before they go, but as they go, they are made clean. In the turning and the crying out and the going, lies their salvation. And on the way, they become clean; they are lepers no longer.
I share Debi Thomas’ insight into this story, it’s remarkable:
So when Jesus heals their leprosy he doesn’t merely cure their bodies; he restores their identities. He enables their safe return to all that makes us fully human — family, community, companionship, and intimacy. In healing their withered skin and numbed limbs, he releases them to feel again — to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease steals from them. In other words, Jesus enters a no-man’s-land — a land of no belonging — and He invites ten exiles home.
Seen from this angle, the tenth leper’s response to Jesus resonates differently. Yes, it’s an expression of gratitude for healing. But it’s also the expression of a deeper and truer belonging. According to Luke’s text, the tenth leper is a Samaritan, a “double other” marginalized by both illness and foreignness. Recall that by the first century, the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans is old and entrenched. They can’t stand each other. The two groups disagree about everything that matters to them: how to honor God, how to interpret the scriptures, where to worship. They avoid social contact whenever possible. Given this context, it’s quite possible that the Samaritan’s social ostracism continues even after the local priests declare him clean of leprosy.
So what does he do? What does his otherness enable him to see that his nine companions do not? He sees that his identity — his truest place of belonging — lies at Jesus’s feet. He sees that Jesus’s arms are alone wide enough to embrace all of who he is — leper, foreigner, exile, Other. Beloved child of God.
What we see in the Samaritan’s full-hearted praise and devotion is the intimate relationship between desperation and faith. Between yearning and gratitude. Between high stakes and deep love. Ten lepers are healed. But only the one who has nowhere else to go, nothing left to lose, and everything in the world to gain, returns to Jesus. Only the one who can take nothing for granted falls in love. Only the one who longs body and soul to find a home for his whole self, receives salvation.
But this is not the kind of thankfulness the tenth leper expresses. His is the kind that wells up from the deepest caverns of his yearning and sorrow. His is the kind that takes nothing for granted. His is the kind that notices how rare, how singular, and how gorgeous grace is when it comes to the borderlands and says, “Come on in. Yes, you. YOU.” His is the kind that finds God’s inclusive welcome stunning.
Maybe, if we find gratitude difficult, we should interrogate the places in our own lives where we feel most comfortable, most confident, most complacent, most bored. Maybe we should step instead into the places where we’re the outsiders, alone and afraid. Maybe we should sit honestly with our most profound hungers. Maybe we should recognize once again how desperately we need Jesus to welcome our vulnerable souls and bodies home.
Ten lepers stand at a dutiful distance and call Jesus “Master.” One draws close, dares intimacy, and finds his truest self, clinging to Jesus for a better and more permanent relationship. The tenth leper moves past politeness and finds compassion. He discovers what happens when gratitude spills over into love.
I believe we all want to be made whole. This story is telling us that we have that opportunity to return to Jesus over and over again. Every day. May we be blessed again today with God’s loving and healing grace. Amen.