How Do We Live Thankfully (even when we aren’t?)
If we were to leave now for the airport, it would take us between 30-40 minutes (depending upon traffic). We could travel the 27 kilometers fairly quickly because the transportation we rely upon speeds us beyond hurdles in the roadway, diverse weather conditions and a host of other potential pitfalls. The group traveling 27 kilometers in today’s story were not blessed with the same kind of good-fortune. They were walking their 27 kilometers from Samaria to Jerusalem and definitely ran into hurdles. In fact, there were 10 hurdles when Jesus and the disciples ran into a group of 10 persons that no one wanted to encounter. They were just outside the city gates when they walked by a leper colony. The most important rule when passing a leper colony was to keep walking, and by all means, keep your head down. Lepers were outcasts – from their city, their family and anything and anyone familiar. They could not be touched, were not allowed in public meeting places, were forbidden from being hugged, kissed or even cared for when their disease progressed to the point of becoming an invalid. When Jesus and the disciples passed the leper colony, the lepers began to cry out helplessly in the manner in which they normally cried, “Have mercy on us!” In any language, this means “Send money, food, water, anything that can help us in our miserable condition. Sad, sick, lonely outcasts, they were the original Tent City inhabitants and they just needed anyone to see them enough to care. Jesus did them one better. He called out and told them to “Get up and go show themselves to the priests. This story is only included in St. Luke. Luke was a physician and in this healing scenario, Jesus, unlike in other encounters with lepers, never touched any of these 10. In another place, Jesus broke all kinds of sanitary and religious cleansing rules and actually touched a leper. Not here. Also, Jesus did not put his finger in the ears of the person or place mud on his eyes as he did in other instances. From a distance his prescription was simply, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Everyone knew that the Jerusalem Medical Association recommended that a leper was to make their way to the priest, have it confirmed their leprosy was indeed cured and then, according to a passage in Leviticus, was to enroll in a lengthy process of offering several sacrifices to complete the removal of the impurity. Public health was TOO important to let your average leper back on the streets and back into contact with others before they had been cleared and cleansed. Is it any wonder that when 10 leave to do exactly as Jesus had instructed, 9 of the 10 were never heard from again because they were merely doing what Jesus asked and more than likely, already busy with the required sacrifices.
Dr. Luke tells the story this way. Jesus 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.” One came back and thus we have our annual Thanksgiving Day text about the one in ten that was grateful enough to say “Thank you.” We should be as grateful as the one and never like the nine and we can all leave and plede to be more grateful. Pass the gravy please. But perhaps there is much more to this story than we have previously recognized. Perhaps this is not as much about gratitude, which, granted, it is. Consider this a story of privilege. “As they left to carry out the command to show themselves to the priests, they were made well. One came back, praising, fell at Jesus’ feet, and verbalizing gratitude. And almost as a sidebar, Dr. Luke enters a footnote. “And he was a Samaritan.” You tell us now, almost an afterthought. Certainly, you recall that Samaritans were hated, half-breeds. Remember the woman at the well from whom Jesus asked for a drink of her water in the heat of the day, “You ask for water, from my cup, from me as a Samaritan?” And there was the Parable of the Good Samaritan earlier in Luke when the A Team, the priest and the Levite conveniently ignored the man bleeding in the ditch, and the hated, half-breed shows compassion to the man in the ditch. Samaritans were never the good guys! But here, again, almost in the footnotes, buried on the back page is a headline grabber, “And he was a Samaritan.” This is what changes this entire story to be much more than a primer on being thankful like the one and not ungrateful like the nine!
Jesus opens the dialogue after that bombshell revelation with a question, “Where are the other nine? Were there not ten of you?” As I have wrestled with this text all week, I reacted to this question. “Where are the other nine?” What, is this my day to watch the others? Am I responsible for them? The nine need to own their own responsibility and neither Jesus nor the tenth can make them perform as everyone knows they should.
Maybe, just perhaps, Jesus did not ask “Where are the nine,” to imply that the tenth knew where they were and why they did not return as he had. Maybe, just perhaps, Jesus asked the question to show the man a mirror of who he was in relation to the community at large around him. He had not always been a leper. He had a family with whom he once had been loved and accepted by. His leprosy had made him an outcast because of the leprosy diagnosis. He had, however, always been a Samaritan, an outcast among Jews, considered religiously unclean and a ceremonial leper when it came to matters of faith. Even after his being healed of leprosy, he was still a Samaritan, would always be a Samaritan and that would have mattered to everyone. So Jesus’ question, “Where are the other nine” was an attempt for the man to see his worth in a powerful way that had never been pointed out to him before! Remember two chapters prior to this story, Jesus had told of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son(s) regarding things that had little perceived value being worth the world in God’s eyes.
The tenth leper experienced two healings in this one story. He was healed of his leprosy, but he was also healed of the stigma that he would never matter nor measure up. On that day he received a clean bill of health, but he also for the first time ever understand that being known as “God’s Beloved” is not about who you are/aren’t (Samaritan/Jew) or in what you do/don’t do (Go show yourself to the priest and complete a series of ritual cleansings and then you will be whole). For him, finally he understood that Beloved had nothing to do with externals but was a matter of the heart.
Between Luke 9 and Luke 17 are a series of miracle stories. All except two revolve around an argument with Jesus’ opponents. Jesus healing of the blind man and this story are the only two miracles not about arguing with an opponent and only these two stories end with Jesus’ words to the one’s healed, “Your faith has made you well.” This man’s healing was a gift of the heart and regardless of what other’s thought and said about his lack of ever measuring up to their standards, in God’s eyes, he was and he would always be known/recognized as God’s Beloved. That, my friends, is the Thanksgiving message. It is not about – “Do not be like the nine and ungrateful, be like the one and say thanks on Thanksgiving.”
If we are only grateful because we are privileged, and enjoy a socio-economic status in which you never want for clothing, food and shelter, then perhaps we have not yet embraced Jesus’ challenge to the man, “Where are the nine? Where are you in relation to the community? You are God’s beloved not because you live in privilege or because of what you do or for what others do/do not do. You are God’s beloved not because you earn it. You are God’s beloved because suddenly you recognize in faith that God values you differently than anyone else values you, and only then can you say, “Wow, thanks God. Now I get it. Now I see it for the first time.”
Briefly there is another scripture from Jeremiah about privileged people in captivity. Certainly, they had little to be thankful about. They were being told not to unpack as their captivity would be over in a jif. Jeremiah gets to be the Prophet of Doom as he tells them the truth, “You are going to be here awhile. This captivity will last into the next generation.” But, instead, recognize the uncertainty. Begin to do here what you would normally do back home. Build houses, plant gardens, have families. And also, pray for your enemies. Pray for the hated heathens holding you captive. How many of us have spent any time this week praying for the people that drive us crazy, the people we feel are wrong, the ones who seem ungrateful and who do not return to say “Thanks!” Center your lives around doing normal things and do it gratefully. Give up focusing on when others are going to be as right or as cool or as brilliant as you are and focus instead, as Jesus said upon, Go your way and start living as God’s beloved regardless if the circumstances are exactly like those you choose or can create on your own.
Dutch Jesuit Priest, Henri Nouwen said, “How can we live a truly grateful life? When we look back at all that has happened to us, we easily divide our lives into good things to be grateful for and bad things to forget. But with a past thus divided, we cannot move freely into the future.”
Jesus grants mercy to Samaritan lepers. God cares about the welfare of the Israelites and the Babylonians. Nothing will stop the earth shattering, boundary breaking, assumption upending, religious rule bending, human comfort zone shattering love of God.
If we can set aside our wrangling, our need to be right, our vindictive urges and our unspoken hope for karma rather than grace for others, we will discover abundant, good, beautiful community for all people. We will discover in Jesus’ question “Were there not nine others who were healed, not a chance to judge what they are doing or not, but an awareness that our gift/grace is inextricably linked to the welfare of others. No doubt we find ourselves in places and with people we did not choose, sometimes in our own household, let alone in our congregation and city. And yet, Jeremiah tells us to be all in, right where we are, with those we did not select to be our neighbors. How might we do that in tangible ways? Surely, there are times when despite our apparent cleanliness and godliness and got-it-togetherness, we feel utterly isolated, judged and marginalized. Sometimes this is of our own making. Even then, Jesus has mercy on us and we discover we have been made clean through no effort or merit of our own. Could we stop and turn and give thanks? Thanks for forgiveness. Thanks for redemption. Thanks for the awesome appointment in this world God so loves. Thanks for being made whole and for our Belovedness and being valuable by virtue of being made in God’s image. How will we respond?
When will we be in a place and with people you did not choose? Will we live fully in that unwanted space offering grace to those we least consider God’s Beloved?
How will we seek the welfare of the place and the people where we live? Can we pray even for our enemies?
Who are the outside, outsiders in our culture? How do we imagine Jesus might respond to them? How then ought we treat those on the margins of society?