A reflection on Matthew 3:1-12 delivered to the people of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Shelton the Second Sunday of Advent.
The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins by foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. An angel came to his father, Zechariah, a priest saying:
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Today’s scripture introduces us to John as an adult, just a few months older than his cousin Jesus, fulfilling the angel’s words about him.
In Matthew’s gospel, John proclaims, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,’ and people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Later, John will baptize Jesus to mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and because of this, we often think of Jesus as the first person to be baptized in a ritual that John invented, and that we continue today.
But before John began baptizing people as a symbol of their repentance, converts to Judaism were baptized, leaving behind their old idols and gods to follow Yahweh. Jewish people already participated in ritual washing which was sometimes full body immersion, and other times handwashing only, but unlike baptism, which we observe as happening only once, the ritual washing was repeated over and over again.
We don’t know what John said to the regular people who came before him as they confessed their sins. He may have met them with hard words, with the intent of pushing them into radical change.
Maybe his words weren’t scathing, but just blunt. He doesn’t seem the type of person to mince words or to speak carefully so that everyone will like him and get along with him.
We do know that when the religious leaders came before him to be baptized, he didn’t hold back, calling them a “brood of vipers!” which is a family of snakes that eat their mother! And he warns them of coming judgment that they must bear good fruit or be destroyed.
Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN writes that, “we tend to forget that the prophets in ‘Old Testament Times’ were not doomsdayers or predictors of the future. They were truth-tellers of the present.”
John, who grew up as the son of priest, familiar with church and has scathing words for those in religious power, those serving the institutional church, as he sees where their present behavior is leading—to a love of power more than a love of God, to a love of power more than a love of God’s justice and mercy for the poor and oppressed.
In his book Democracy Matters, philosopher Cornel West writes that “Prophetic beings have as their special aim to shatter deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the sufferings of others, and to expose the clever forms of evasion and escape we devise in order to hide and conceal injustice….”
It takes courage to speak truth to power, and the world then and now needed and needs people like John who say it like they see it and don’t worry about what others think of them.
In the words of Karoline Lewis:
There are too many in the world terrified of telling the truth. There are too many in the world who cannot speak the truth because they are afraid—and rightly so. There are too many for whom telling the truth brings too much pain, both personal and professional. To be a prophet … is to give voice to those whose voice has been silenced. It is to give voice to those who have been told that their place doesn’t matter.
My guess is that many of the ordinary people who came to John were those who had been silenced; those who were told they didn’t matter.
They find John in the wilderness of Judea dressed in simple clothing and living off the land, forsaking the comforts and conveniences of the day as he relies on God’s provision. And he preaches repentance in order to prepare our hearts for the coming of God among us.
Matthew writes that John “is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
“As much as we should focus on the identity and the foretelling of the prophet, we can’t overlook a prophet’s place,” writes Karoline Lewis. “A prophet’s place gives a prophet purpose. A prophet’s place locates the testimony to an explicit need. Prophecy means nothing if it does not touch the specificity of setting and site,” she continues.
John appears as,a wild man eating nothing but locusts and honey, and he cries out from the wilderness, not from the gates of the city or inside the synagogue.
In the Old Testament, the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years while waiting for a place to call home, relying solely on God for everything they needed to survive, and complaining in the process. Later in the gospel accounts, Jesus journeys into the wilderness for forty days as he encounters temptations and determines the manner in which he will follow God’s claim on his life.
Even today, being in nature restores us. In the wilderness, away from our daily responsibilities and distractions, we have time in solitude to meet ourselves and God in new and transformative ways. Living where we do on the edges of the Olympics and Puget Sound, we understand that the physical wilderness is not a place of desolation, but a place of beauty and abundance, a place where humans are not in charge, but are reliant upon weather and landscape.
But venturing into the wilderness doesn’t always mean a welcome hike to the top of Mt. Ellinor or a planned backpacking trip along the coastal beaches. It can be any situation that pulls us out of daily rhythm and routine and makes us more aware of our humanity. It can be longed for yet jarring like isolation of being a new mother home alone all day with an infant, or moving to a new community where nothing is familiar.
It can come suddenly in the shock of being laid off, or in the form of an unwelcome diagnosis. It can be a long wandering living with chronic illness, or the journey through grief and loss.
John and Isaiah before him ask us to enter our wilderness not in a state of hopelessness or despair, but in a spirt of repentance—of turning away from that which separates us from God’s presence.
I’m not a prophet, but I know that repentance born of fear and anxiety isn’t sustainable over the years. It might turn us from destructive behavior, but our letting go and turning away from must also involve a reaching for and turning toward—a repentance of openness, preparation and expectation that will serve us over the long haul.
And though our individual repentance is an inward journey, we are also called to repentance is a church and community, so that together we turn toward God. You and I have done some of that already this morning: choosing to gather in worship instead of at Wal-Mart or in front of the TV.
We don’t necessarily know what’s on the heart of the person sitting next to us, but we are here together, a community asked to prepare the way of the Lord, particularly in this Advent season.
For me part of that preparation happens as I prepare to speak before you in response to the Gospel. As I do so, I pray for guidance and I meditate on the words for days and weeks while I cook and wash clothes and paint rooms and clean litter boxes. What is God calling me to say to us? What sort of prophet might I, or any of us who stand before you and deliver a message be? How do we discern and speak the truth for this particular time and this particular place in a way that honors God and is true to who we are as individuals?
I wonder what John the Baptist would say to us if he were here in Shelton just weeks away from the winter solstice, more than 2000 years after he thought the end was at hand. Would he be surprised at God’s seemingly infinite patience? Would he quote Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”?
I once read an anecdote once about a little boy having dinner with his parents at Denny’s. The boy stood up, leaned over the top of the booth and said to the diners behind him, “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
No one knows what’s going to happen, could easily be the extent of my prophecies. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know what has happened when I prepare myself for God’s coming, and I feel called to invite you join me on a guided poetic journey into the wilderness.
I invite you close your eyes if that feels comfortable, or to gaze softly at the cross. Let the sounds around us come and go easily, and begin to breathe deeply, noticing the rise and fall of your breath. Allow my words to take you anywhere the spirit and your imagination lead.
We inhale deeply as we step into the unknown
relying on nothing more than God’s provision
Alone with our thoughts with our God
we find a wilderness that calls to us
a place of peace away from the clattering city
stripped of noise and demands
free from expectations, responsibilities and roles
that sever us from our true selves
We exhale deeply as we step away
from friends and family with all their familiarity
and stand alone in this wild place
noticing our frailty and dependence on God
and embracing our need rather than running from it
We let even the trappings of religion rest
setting aside forms, rituals, and conventions
that constrict our desires and dreaming
We let our faith unwind itself
from outward expression
and find what makes our souls sing
We step beyond the boundaries of city gates
stand outside the walls which welcome
and shelter but also stifle and suppress
We walk into the unknown where any wonderful
or terrifying event might transpire
where our fears and insecurities may surface
but where our hearts might hunt for beauty
and our feet trod toward truth
In wilderness we face the sun and know
we are more than the boxes we tick off
more than the blanks we fill in
more than the questionnaires we complete
more than our latest test results and lab numbers
more than any diagnosis or prognosis
We let the rain fall on our faces and know
we are worth more than any achievement
more than any award or trophy bestowed
more than any business success or failure
more than any relationship restored or fractured
We feel the breezing blowing and know
we are more than our weakest impulses
We are not defined by the worst thing
we have ever done
Though we wander in the wilderness
we are not abandoned for God is with us
The fire that baptizes
does not destroy the true self
but burns brightly within us
Beloved—with every breath
and every step and every thought
in this Advent journey
may the path unfold before us
a blazing highway for our God
a wildfire of hope illuminating
the darkness welcoming all
that is lost and all who wander
back home into the arms of Eternal Love
I had the privilege of delivering the message at St. David of Wales today. The gospel reading was Luke 23:33-43.
Today’s gospel passage smacks us right into the middle of Christ’s crucifixion without any lead up. It’s a difficult passage to read and sit with and we encounter it today as we observe the Feast of Christ the King marking the end of our Christian liturgical year as we turn from the long season of Ordinary Time following Pentecost and prepare to enter into Advent next Sunday. It seems like the perfect bridge after these months of following Jesus’ through his earthly ministry to remember his suffering and ultimate triumph before we turn to a time of waiting for Christ’s arrival.
Thirty years ago, I joined the worship committee at my United Methodist Church. I’d been a Christian for a few years by then, and had taught Sunday school for first and second graders from a pre-printed curriculum but until I began planning worship, I really had no idea how the scriptures for a given Sunday were chosen.
I soon learned that Methodists follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings that provide a broad overview of Biblical texts from the Old and New testaments. Episcopalians follow this lectionary as well, and both denominations observe the major seasons and holy days in the liturgical year such as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints Day.
Now I vaguely recall the Sunday before Advent being named Christ the King Sunday as a Methodist, but we don’t observe a number of holy days, particularly those honoring saints, that are familiar to Catholics and Episcopalians, and I hadn’t given much thought to how the observances of these feast days came about.
I assumed, that like the major holy days, these observances had been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, that they came to us from our Jewish roots, or the time of the early church, or the Reformation. So, I was surprised to discover that the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius the XI in 1925 and was originally observed on the last Sunday of October.
In 1969 Pope John Paul the VI changed the title of the observance to “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe,” and moved the date to the final Sunday of the liturgical year.
Pius XI was pope during the final stages of the merger of formerly independent states in the Italian Peninsula into a United Kingdom of Italy, and he brokered an agreement in 1929 to settle the “Roman Question” that brought most of the original papal states under Italian rule, but preserved the Pope and Catholic church’s right to govern Vatican City.
He established the Feast of Christ the King in an encyclical—a letter circulated among the churches—titled Quas Primas in December 1925. He wrote in the aftermath of World War I, and in response to growing secularism and nationalism, reminding the faithful of who their true ruler was.
It had never occurred to me that our liturgical observances are not static dates on a calendar, varying only with the cycles of the moon, but that they, too are evolving, influenced by the work of the Holy Spirit and, in this case, in response to political and cultural disintegration that threatened not just the church, but who and what the church ought to worship.
When secularism becomes freedom from religion, rather than of religion, when we discount the great mysteries of creation, we make humans gods and our concerns narrow as individuals pursue their desires devoid of concern of a power beyond our own understanding. We become slaves to systems that prize rules, regulations, and profit to the exclusion a spiritual life, compassion for the lost and the least, and reverent care for the environment that sustains all life.
It is natural to identify with groups we belong to—they provide us with identity, safety, and community, but nationalism can warp our natural support of and affiliations with family, tribe, city, state, and country, when we come to believe that our way as the only way, that what we think and do is always aligned with truth. Engulfed in nationalism we become unable to look at our actions and policies critically, to see our own faults, and flaws. We become distrustful of people and places outside our own circles and experience, and devalue differences between us.
Left unchecked nationalism leads to violence and war, to fear of the other, to the demonization of ethnic groups, immigrants, and refugees, to the belief that we are somehow more human and worthy than others, and that the needs and wants of our group are paramount over any larger common good. We lose sight of our interconnectedness, and our dependence upon God and one another.
Today, perhaps even more so than the ninety-four years ago, we need this feast day, this reminder that our ultimate allegiance lies with family, country, or even our particular religion, but with Christ, the King of the Universe.
A king who refused to call himself such. A king who sacrificed his own welfare and life on behalf of others. A king who constantly challenged the authorities on behalf of the poor and oppressed. A king we encounter on the cross in today’s gospel reading, who as he was being put to death, refused to defend himself as he was mocked by religious leaders, the soldiers who functioned as police, the crowd of onlookers, and even a criminal hanging on his own cross.
In his encyclical Pius XI wrote this about Christ:
So he is said to reign "in the hearts of men," both by reason of the keenness of his intellect and the extent of his knowledge, and also because he is very truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all mankind. He reigns, too, in the wills of men, for in him the human will was perfectly and entirely obedient to the Holy Will of God, and further by his grace and inspiration he so subjects our free-will as to incite us to the most noble endeavors. He is King of hearts, too, by reason of his "charity which exceedeth all knowledge…”
If we are indeed subjects of Christ the King, if he is to reign over our wills and hearts, then we are commanded to emulate his manner of ruling over us. To set aside our ego, and pride, our need to be right, and to give up beliefs and behaviors that separate us from the love and will of God.
We are asked to offer and receive forgiveness, to humble ourselves, to care for the widowed, the orphans, the mentally ill, the prisoners, the disabled, the refugees, the immigrants, and those who do not look or act or worship like us.
But like Jesus’ disciples, we will not be able to do all that we are asked. Like Peter we will deny Christ; like his friends we will cower behind locked doors even though we love him and want to do what he asks.
Despite our betrayals, Christ our King behaves like no other ruler. He does not exact revenge or retribution for our failures. He does not jail or banish, or ex-communicate us.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he says from the cross and in our midst today.
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” he says in the last minutes of his life, inviting everyone into the kingdom of heaven.
“If you are the king, save yourself!” those who mock him cry.
But he does not. He saves us instead.
I close with this poem written by United Methodist pastor and poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
Condemned, scorned and disposed of,
whose life does not matter,
enthroned under the weight of a cross,
crowned with pain and humiliation,
holding a scepter of powerlessness:
the little man is a sad excuse for a king.
That is, if you seek an unmoved mover,
who will excuse you from life,
enabling you to be likewise.
You can have him.
Give me the one whose sovereignty
is to rule in all suffering,
to bless all pain by occupying it,
to shine the light of love
from inside the darkest night,
whom nothing can prevent
walking with us in our gravest trials.
Give me royalty under whose reign
every abuse and injustice,
even toward the least honorable, is treason;
whose decree, even from within
our public agony and secret prison cells,
You can have your mighty warrior.
Give me the little man with holes in his hands
whose heart is never far from mine,
whose imperial reign is right where I am.
I opened my mailbox yesterday afternoon to find a “Special Welcome Back Offer” from Time magazine addressed to my mother-in-law.
“If we subscribe, will Mama Honey come back?” my husband asked when he came home from work and saw the notice on the counter.
Does Time have the power to turn back time? If so, who needs a special offer? Even cover price would be small price to pay to welcome my husband’s mother back, to be wrapped in her loving embrace, enfolded by the sweet sound of her voice on the other end of the phone.
It’s been more than two years since Mama Honey left this life. More than two years since I contacted Time to cancel her subscription, writing deceased as the reason.
Every day my husband and I remember that she is no longer present, he in ways more visceral and potent than I. Memories of her float in and out of ordinary days as my husband works with tools she first gave him, as I refill the spice jars she gave me at my bridal shower, as we share stories of her at family gatherings. Visitations come to my husband in dreams as he dances with her, or cares for her again at the end of her life. Ephemeral moments evaporating into morning’s light. And no matter how powerful they are, our memories and dreams never reunite us in person with the solidity of her physical body, the sound of her voice in the room, the sweet hospitality of her spirit that drew everyone close.
Was Time’s offer a cruel trick or a welcome treat? Was it a computer glitch omitting the instruction to delete her name from the database, or the inability of an automated system to honor our loss?
Whatever it was, the special welcome back offer arrived on Halloween, and I am writing this on All Saints Day. The veil between worlds is thin in these holy days, when we do indeed welcome back the dead, bring them to life in our mind’s eye, dress like our best and worst visions and nightmares, offer sweets to those who remain to ease the ache, and visit their resting places, which may be only in our hearts.
So, thank you, Time, for the opportunity to place my welcome back order. And thank you, catalogues and insurance and random special offer profferers, who manage to slip by my cancellation requests. Because of you, I open my mailbox on occasion and see my mother-in-law’s name in bold black print. I lift the envelope and carry it into the house as if my hand is cradling something precious and rare: Her memory bequeathed to me and those who love her still.
A reflection on Luke 17:11-19
The gospel of Luke is rich with accounts of Jesus providing physical and spiritual healing to those who suffer:
In the fourth chapter, Jesus stands over Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and heals her fever. Later that day “any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.”
Further on in Chapter 4, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit. In Chapter 5, Jesus heals a leper in verses 12-16. The account reads like this:
Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. ‘Go’, he said, ‘and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.’ But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
Later, in Chapter 5, Jesus heals a paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof into the middle of a crowd with the words, “Your sins are forgiven you.”
In Chapter 6, we read:
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
In Chapter 7 Jesus heals a Centurion’s servant from afar and raises a widow’s only son from the dead. He casts demons out of man and into a herd of swine that run off a cliff and drown, and heals a distraught father’s dying daughter. A woman who has been bleeding for 12 years is healed when she touches the hem of his robe. After confronting her, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
In Chapter 9, a man begs for his son to be healed from a demon and it is done. In Chapter 11, Jesus casts out a demon allowing a mute man to speak. In Chapter 13, on the Sabbath, Jesus heals the woman who had been bent over for 18 years. In Chapter 14, also on the Sabbath, he heals a man who had dropsy.
And now, in Chapter 17, Jesus is traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. As he enters a village, ten lepers approach him. Keeping their distance, they call out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
Here, we need to know some things about leprosy in Biblical times. The first is that the leprosy referred to in both the Old and New Testaments is not the modern day disease of leprosy.
In an article adapted by the Nepal Leprosy Trust, Dr. Jeanie Cochrane Oldman writes:
The condition described as leprosy in the Old Testament section of the Bible is NOT the same as modern leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, as it is often called. The Hebrew word sara’at [which was later translated into Greek as lepra] is a ritualistic term denoting uncleanness or defilement and covered a range of conditions that could affect people, or clothing, or even a wall. The conditions described could include boils, carbuncles, fungus infections, infections complicating a burn, impetigo, favus of the scalp, scabies, patchy eczema, phagedenic ulcer, and impetigo or vitiligo on people. On walls or clothes, it was more likely to be fungus, mold, dry rot, lichen or similar conditions.
Even an article from the Jewish Encyclopedia published back in 1906 notes that:
Ẓara'at was looked upon as a disease inflicted by God upon those who transgressed His laws, a divine visitation for evil thoughts and evil deeds. Every leper mentioned in the Old Testament was afflicted because of some transgression. "Miriam uttered disrespectful words against God's chosen servant Moses, and, therefore, was she smitten with leprosy. Joab, with his family and descendants, was cursed by David for having treacherously murdered his great rival Abner. Gehazi provoked the anger of Elisha by his mean covetousness, calculated to bring the name of Israel into disrepute among the heathen. King . . . Uzziah was smitten with incurable leprosy for his alleged usurpation of priestly privileges in burning incense on the golden altar of the Temple.”
It would have been quite natural for the people . . . to have regarded persons afflicted with ẓara'at as transgressors; they had violated the laws of God and their transgressions had been great, else they would not have been so afflicted.
One had to be clean and pure in order to come before God in worship. In that prescientific era before the understanding of viruses, bacteria, and the mechanics of how disease spreads, God gives explicit instructions about how to deal with leprosy in order to prevent the spread of sin and sin-induced diseases. The entirety of Chapter 13 in the book of Leviticus is devoted to diagnosing leprosy and other skin conditions. Anyone suspected of having this condition, needed to go to a priest for examination—and often repeated examinations, casting the priest in the role of dermatologist and judge.
If found to be infected, the law says that “the leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip [his mustache], and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:2-3, 45-46).
Why were lepers subject to such harsh public ostracism? The website gotquestions.org provides some rationale:
Among the 61 defilements of ancient Jewish laws, leprosy was second only to [coming into contact with] a dead body in seriousness. A leper wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including his own family. The disease was considered so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. Lepers lived in a community with other lepers until they either got better or died.
The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia says that this practice of exiling lepers gave rise to the segregation of those suffering from modern leprosy, even though the disease is not highly contagious. It also says this:
There is much reason to believe that the segregation of lepers was regarded . . . more in the light of a religious ceremonial than as a hygienic restriction.
Writers who hold the view that the exclusion of lepers had chiefly a religious significance conclude from these facts that lepers were obliged to remain outside the camp because they were regarded as likely to morally infect others.
As we return specifically to today’s scripture, I offer a few more thoughts from Dr Jeanie Cochrane Oldman and the Nepal Leprosy Trust.
Although modern leprosy had appeared in Israel by the time Christ was living there, we do not know whether the “ten lepers” that were healed by Him had modern leprosy or not. After the four Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament, there is no further mention of leprosy in the Bible.
[And as for] practical applications of this understanding:
With this background and insight, let’s revisit the scripture for a close reading and some thoughts about it:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
It’s possible that this village is composed completely of lepers; of people cast out of their hometowns in both Galilee and Samaria, and together they’ve formed this community of outcasts.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" (v. 12b-13)
Word of Jesus’s power to heal has spread everywhere, even in this village in no-man’s land. Throughout the gospels, people are desperate for healing and come to Jesus for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways.
In the case of these lepers, why not ask Jesus for healing? He might say no, but having been exiled from home and family, they really have nothing left to lose. And I wonder if there were other lepers in that place who didn’t come forward, who stayed in their misery without reaching out for help when Jesus came.
Though they’ve been banished, these ten lepers are still observing the law. They keep their distance, unlike the leper earlier in this gospel who broke the law to bow at Jesus’s feet and ask to be made clean.
Maybe this group of ten stands six feet away from Jesus, or maybe the wind is blowing and they’re shouting from 150 feet away. Either way, they’ve summoned the courage to ask for mercy. And Jesus responds:
When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." (v. 14a)
Jesus doesn’t touch these lepers, as he did the one begging at his feet. He doesn’t need to. This isn’t the first time Jesus has directed his healing energy without touching those who are afflicted. Sometimes they weren’t even present. From a distance, he sees their affliction and isolation in this village where they’ve been banished between two fractious regions. Jesus recognizes that they are literal outsiders.
Before the lepers are even aware that healing has begun, he sends them home, back to the priests who can give them “a clean bill of health” and restore them to home, family, religious, and community life.
“And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back…” (v. 14b-15a)
Healing, at least for the one who turned back seemed to happen soon after he walked away, in a short enough period of time that he could turn around, and still find Jesus there.
We don’t know about the others. When their physical symptoms disappeared, when they noticed, or how they reacted. But we can assume that they were also grateful. Wouldn’t each of us be?
Praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. (v. 15b-16a)
The Samaritan is overcome with gratitude, and sets aside his objective—to go to the priest for reinstatement into the community—to offer thanks and praise to Jesus, the one who brought about healing. He is grateful for the healing in and of itself before, or even if, anything else in his life changes.
“And he was a Samaritan.” (v. 16b)
This fact is a big deal every time it comes up in the gospels. Franciscan Media provides some useful descriptions of the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans for us modern readers:
Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.
Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean?” (v. 17a)
Is this a rhetorical question, or is it possible that Jesus didn’t get close enough to really see each person clearly? The answer may not matter much.
“But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (v. 17-18)
Those who leave and don’t return are simply doing what Jesus told them to do. They are eager to go to the priests with their newly unblemished bodies so they can be reunited with loved ones and belong again.
Perhaps the nine are all Galileans, and they’ve left together along the same road to return to their towns and villages in Galilee, having something in common besides their leprosy and ostracization.
I can imagine being one them, caught up in the anticipation, and then joy of reunification, and later wanting to seek Jesus out to thank him, only to find that he’d already left. He was, after all, on his way to Jerusalem.
The Samaritan may have been on his own, the only Samaritan among the ten, the only one from his village. Jesus implies that he was. Though he was part of this community of outcasts, now that they are healed, he doesn’t belong with them. He is still an outsider.
I don’t think the point of this scripture is to focus on the ingratitude of the nine, and I don’t think it’s meant to shame us into feeling guilty when we’re part of the 90% and caught up in the drama of the moment, the times we’ve been overwhelmed and forgotten to say “thank you” in the moment we received healing, grace, mercy, and love. And, I don’t think the purpose is to glorify being an extreme outsider, like the Samaritan leper.
Instead, I think that Jesus finds his assumptions and his own cultural beliefs challenged here. This isn’t the first time he’s been surprised by the depth of faith and the actions of those outside the Jewish community he came to minister to.
Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." (v. 19)
What does “your faith has made you well” mean? Is there a difference between being “cured” and being “made well”?
Is there a difference between approaching Jesus out of an I’ll-try-anything desperation and approaching with a belief that he can and will heal you? Is that what distinguishes the Samaritan leper from the other nine?
That may be true. But I sense another important distinction between the nine who rushed to the priests, and the one who turned back. It seems to me the faith that made the Samaritan leper well is his trust in his own experience of healing and inclusion in God’s kin-dom; a recognition that faith and belief don’t rely on following rules to the letter and the stamp of approval of those with religious authority, but rather faith and belief come from our recognition and acceptance of God’s love freely offered.
Accepting grace seems simple enough, but remnants of legalism still plague us. Though our understanding of illness and infectious disease have shifted radically since the time of Jesus, we still struggle with the idea of illness being a consequence of sin, particularly as it pertains to addiction:
Liver failure in alcoholics and dental decay in meth addicts often seem to us like fitting consequences for sin. “They brought it upon themselves” we say of the results of destructive. We think of such suffering God’s judgment, and see it as right punishment for sin—for our inability to master our impulses and behavior and overcome our brokenness.
But even when we find better ways to cope with our brokenness, pain, and anxiety, turning from our sinful ways, becoming born again, and overcoming addiction doesn’t necessarily restore us to physical and mental health, as much as we hope and pray it will.
We have centuries of history showing our human tendency to look for sin, for uncleanness, for explanation and justification of the human condition so that we can attempt to control life. We formulate rules, and opt for blame and punishment when we break them, as a way to keep ourselves safe: from bad decisions, mental and physical illness, from addiction, from pain and heartbreak.
I knew a woman who built a house with her husband, and that process brought out long-buried issues in their marriage. At the same time, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Rather than face the hard truths of their relationship, and her own part in the pain, she became convinced that the sin of her husband’s anger was the direct cause of his cancer. It was all his fault, and she was off the hook.
But the world is too complicated, and our lives too intricate and nuanced for such simplistic cause and effect.
And sometimes, contrary to what we might think, illness itself doesn’t bring despair or thoughts of sin, it returns us to belief. You have probably witnessed this in someone you know, or even in your own life.
As humans, we are all frail, we all suffer, we’re all afflicted, we’re all outsiders at one time or another, and it is faith that can restore us to a wholeness in relationship with God, even if our conditions aren’t healed.
In this gospel lesson, the ten lepers remind us to risk advocating for ourselves, to risk being told no, and to risk being told yes.
The Samaritan leper reminds us to:
•Ask for what our hearts desire even from those we think would never help us.
•Imagine possibilities beyond our present circumstances and limitations.
•Think and act beyond our own self-interest when we have the capacity to do so.
•Offer thanks and praise to God and to those who remind us of God’s goodness and presence.
•Live in gratitude.
•Trust our own experience.
And in this encounter, we learn from Jesus to offer our gifts to those outside of our own circle, our own comfort zone, our own community, and our own belief system.
May the wealth contained in this gospel lesson enrich each of our lives. And may our faith truly make us well.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.