Sunday, October 9
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
O God, Spirit of righteousness, you temper judgment with mercy. Help us to live the covenant written upon our hearts so that when Christ returns we may be found worthy to be received by grace into your presence. Amen.
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."
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 with Psalm 66:1-12 or
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c with Psalm 111 and
2 Timothy 2:8-15 and
1. Where do you find yourself in this story?
2. What's the divisive problem we wrestle with in the church today?
3. Why do you think the Samaritan was the only one who returned to thank Jesus?
4. What are "borders" in your own life, where you feel perhaps vulnerable or uncertain rather than secure and safe?
5. When has someone else (perhaps an "outsider"), unexpectedly helped you to see something important?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Borders are places of drama and danger. Wars begin on borders, and armies cross them on their way to victory or defeat; we know this not only from our historical memories of World War I and II, but also from recent events like the conflicts in the Middle East. Think, for example, of the refugee camps across the border of Syria, in nations that struggle to accommodate a dramatic influx of foreigners running for their lives. On our borders, we feel vulnerable, exposed, so we put up all sorts of barriers: walls, guard towers, surveillance cameras to keep people out who, we are sure, "need" to be kept out. In fact, one of the major issues in the current election is whether to build a stupendously expensive wall on the southern border of the United States, to protect the most powerful nation on earth from those who are seen as "threats."
Maybe it's human nature to draw lines, to separate ourselves from others, and at least some of the time our motives are reasonable--the world, after all, is a dangerous place. But then, it so easily becomes "Us and Them," and "Them" are perceived as neither desirable nor good. In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is somewhere "between Samaria and Galilee." The only place scarier than a border is an in-between place, where boundaries and borders aren't clear.
Knowing one's place
The ten lepers in this story call out to Jesus across a line, the distance prescribed by the Law because of their ritual impurity. They know their place, and their people: the other outcasts, united by their suffering and their exclusion from the wider community. Religion and government didn't help unlucky folks with skin diseases, who had to depend on the kindness of people passing by--at a safe distance, of course. In those days, lepers had to live as beggars. (One of the most heart-breakingly memorable scenes from the classic movie, "Ben-Hur," is set in the terrible place where the lepers had to live, away from their families and the rest of society.)
As Jesus crosses that border between Galilee and Samaria, and while he's in that in-between place, maybe he and his disciples are remembering the Samaritan town a little while back that refused to welcome him (a "border" closed to him), and maybe they wonder if this village will reject him, too, on his way to Jerusalem and his death. As he enters the town, he encounters this little band of ten lepers. They don't come close, and he doesn't touch them, as he often does when healing the sick.
Just a word, and they're on their way
Just a word, a command sends them on their way to do what lepers are supposed to do when they're healed: go show themselves to the priest and get him to stamp the certificate that says they're safe to re-enter society. (They have to make sure their paperwork is in order, and they're properly documented.) But while they're still on the road, they look at one another, and each one at himself, and--wonder of wonders--they see that they're already healed. One of them, a despised Samaritan, turns around and goes back to thank Jesus.
That's what is so interesting about this story. We hear that one former leper turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He's so full of joy and gratitude that he throws himself on the ground at Jesus' feet, and he's talking too loud, and really making a spectacle of himself. We can only imagine the disciples standing around, feeling awkward, uncomfortable at the display. I mean, it's okay to feel grateful and all, but he doesn't need to get carried away, right?
Meanwhile, back at the Temple
Meanwhile, back on the road to the Temple, the nine lepers are obediently doing what Jesus told them to do and what they know the Law requires of them. They're being good, observant, faithful Jews. Jesus wonders where they are, but we know, and we assume he knows, that they're at the Temple, getting their certificates so they can go back to their lives, and the sooner the better.
This outsider, this Samaritan, this "them," may be so seized by gratitude and joy that he turns back to Jesus, but on the other hand, the Temple isn't a place he'd be welcome even if he is cured of his leprosy. There's no cure for being a Samaritan, a big-time outsider. There's no certification by the priest that can make him acceptable, and there's no ex-Samaritan program he can enter to change that, that can "rehabilitate" his otherness. Of all of them, he has plenty of time to say thank you to Jesus.
Who's in, who's out
Of course, as Charles B. Cousar reminds us, this isn't really a story about the importance of thank-you notes; rather, it's a lesson in who's really an insider, and who's out. When Luke wrote his Gospel, he shaped the stories about Jesus that he had heard into one great big story that helped an early Christian community to understand the gospel in their own situation, to hear God speaking good news to them where they were, to shine a light on the problems their community was facing (this applies to us today as well).
One of the things they wrestled with in that day was how to relate to the Jewish roots of their faith, and what they should do about all these Gentiles coming into their churches. (The challenges of church growth, it seems, can be interesting in every age; I have actually heard church members express apprehension about their church becoming "too black" or "too gay."). Many of the gospel stories are told in this light, and they reflect the early Christian community, working out the problem of who they were, and why all of the Jewish people didn't follow Jesus, as they had. They would have heard this story in that light, and presumably they would have thought, "Wow, the outsider was the one who recognized Jesus for who he was. Not the nine from his own people."
Who are the "Us" and "Them" today?
Today, our churches are not struggling with the Jewish-Gentile question, although we do carry an awful history of two thousand years of persecuting the Jews through misinterpretations of the Gospels. Still, we listen to this story for how God is still speaking to us, here and now, about the things that we face and the struggles and questions we have in our journey of faith.
One way to approach this text is to find our place in the story. Maybe we're the disciples, watching all this and wanting to get back on the road and not wanting this Samaritan to hold things up. Maybe we're in the crowd watching it all happen and wondering, "Who is this fellow, anyway, who can cure lepers with a word?" Maybe we're one of the nine lepers, and hey, we're trying to be good lepers and good religious folks who obey the religious authorities and LawsÖand we feel so happy to be healed that we just can't wait to get to the Temple to be examined by the priest and then hurry back to our families and friends and have a big party and get on with our lives. Even if that means that we, uh, forget to thank the one who made it all happen.
Are we ever the tenth leper?
And maybe, just maybe, at least once or twice in our lives, we know what it feels like to be the tenth leper. The one who has nothing to lose in turning away from the path to the Temple--organized religion has nothing to offer him, really--nothing to lose in going back to the man who made it possible for him to just be a human being again. A healthy and whole human being.
He may be an outsider here; a "them" to the crowd around Jesus, but a word from Jesus, spoken in compassionate concern, gives him salvation, that is, healing, because it tears down the wall that has kept him from being a member of any community except that of the lepers, on the edge of society. We can assume he returns to his own people, once he finishes that little display there, at the feet of Jesus. We can assume his life will never be the same.
Are we dutiful, or in love?
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, agrees that the nine were fulfilling expectations and doing their duty by obeying the Law. She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love." She thinks then about how hard she tries to fulfill expectations and obey rules and be a good church-going person, like so many of us. "I know how to be obedient," she writes, "but I do not know how to be in love."
We're commanded to "love God," and our efforts to do so are usually expressed in faithful actions and regular prayer. Not that that's a bad thingÖbut how often does anyone in our churches really act as if we're in love? Our decorum matches our obedience, quiet, subdued, more internal than external. It seems, for example, that in the United Church of Christ, most folks (but not all) are rather contained during worship. We get a little nervous when people talk too energetically or passionately about their faith, or pray with "too much" enthusiasm. Would it be possible to explore that boundary, between obedience and "in love," and find a way to have (to do, to be) both?
Why are we so reserved?
When did our faith become something so subdued and contained? Why did we have to learn to be so quiet in church, so still, so reserved? How did we earn that awful name, "The Frozen Chosen"? Most folks I know are uncomfortable when someone just talks about their faith outside church, or even in church if they show their feelings or, God forbid, if they get carried away, like that tenth leper.
I confess that I sometimes get uncomfortable, too. Whenever I'm out in public or in a social situation and someone tells me they're a Christian, my first response is to tense up, because the people I meet who talk about being Christians outside church are most often fundamentalists and evangelicals, and I have all sorts of preconceptions about how "they" are. They're not like me. And to be honest, I figure that if they knew who I am, they wouldn't be too happy about it, and they sure wouldn't think I was a Christian like they are. "Us" and "Them": the lines are certainly drawn today just as they were then. They're just drawn in different places.
A very interesting conversation
We might imagine the conversation among this group of ten lepers as they made the decision to ask Jesus for mercy. Did they all agree that it was a good idea, or did some cynically claim that it wouldn't work? And we can wonder what they did afterward; did they have reunions and remember when they were together, back on the other side of the line? Had they grown to depend on one another during the time they were outcasts, to identify with themselves solely by a skin condition rather than as father, brother, son, or friend?
I wonder, too, why the Samaritan was allowed to be part of their group, when Samaritans themselves were outcast by the Jewish community. Once they were healed, would the nine have accepted the tenth back again as an equal? And what was the conversation like when they looked at one another and saw that they had been healed? Would they have said, "It must have been that man, Jesus?" We can only imagine, and pray for open eyes and open hearts so that we, too, might know healing, and rejoice and give thanks when we do.
Once again, the Gospel provides the most unlikely teacher for us. Sometimes it takes someone else, unexpected, to open our eyes to blessings and wonders in our lives. A person on the margins, on the outside, may have a better vantage point to look inside and see the heart of the matter.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Maya Angelou, 21st century
"As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else."
"Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good."
Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love, 21st century
"In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it's wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices."
Eckhart Tolle, 21st century
"Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance."
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, 20th century
"Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude."
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough."
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Sunday, October 9