A Reflection for Proper 23, Year C
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.”
Every time I read one the stories of Jesus’ healing, it seems like I find another gem of truth that helps me understand a bit more what it truly means to be made well. Today’s Gospel is no exception. I’ve probably heard or read this story of Jesus’ life and ministry a dozen times (or more!) but this week, as I read and prayed and studied, I began to understand a bit more fully about these experiences of being well and learning to give thanks, as Luke presents it to us in his Gospel. So, let’s walk together through that story and see what healing and hope is offered in this Gospel passage.
First of all, I had to lose some of my own baggage, since I remember this story being used as a manners lesson when I was growing up, as in “why it’s important to say thank you and not be ungrateful.” I don’t disagree…that’s a really good way to live our lives. But there is something more happening here that it could be very easy to overlook if we are only focusing on the outward manifestation of politeness, instead of something much more transformative.
We begin with Jesus traveling from village to village between Samaria and Galilee. Now, you may recall from hearing some other stories like “The Good Samaritan” that in the culture of the times, Samaritans were not highly regarded. Then, as now, those with power and influence in Jesus’ own cultural group had a tendency to put down other groups, dismissing them as less worthy, less “correct” in their religious beliefs and practices, less deserving. Being labelled “a Samaritan” meant being judged not by the quality of one’s whole human being, but by the group to which one belonged. We can bring this story into our own, every reality by replacing “Samaritan” with any group to which we feel we have been labelled and assigned, or when what we are is more important than who we are. Today we might call this discrimination, and understand their social outcast status as oppression. But, another group also had this distinction of being outcasts: those who experienced the skin condition referred to in the Bible as “Leprosy” which today we know and treat as a specific condition, Hanson’s disease. But, without our modern diagnosis and treatment capabilities, it meant that people who experienced a disabling condition which caused their skin to be filled with sores and places of peeling away were made to be social outcasts in their suffering since they were placed outside the gates of the village, believed to be too contagious to live in society. So, we begin to get a different picture of this village into which Jesus is walking: outcast, oppressed people standing on the margins who call out to Jesus as he passes for “mercy” (ἐλεέω, “eleeó”) which is closer to our contemporary words for “pity” or “compassion.” The social outcasts call out for pity, for compassion in whatever means of basic support Jesus can offer.
What Jesus offers them could sound dismissive, “Go and show yourself to the priests.” But at that time, it wasn’t a physician that could pronounce a leper clean; it was the temple priests. So, Jesus’ exhortation to those at the gate is to leave the state of sickness and pity, and go to the priests to be declared well. He essentially responds to the request for pity, with an offering of wholeness. One of the overlooked miracles in this story is that they heard his words as a promise; they believed; and they went. The passage tells us that as they went, they were made clean. What a transformation: those who were outcasts, suffering, calling out for pity were presented with the possibility of being whole. They follow, they believe, and with each step of their journey they were made clean. It wasn’t an instant cure, a perfect “fix.” Like each one of us, they were invited to make a journey of seeing themselves transformed from a state of pity, to a state of wellness. Each person healed took action.
The Gospel lesson shifts to one of these former lepers, the one who returns to Jesus. Unlike those whose journey took them all the way to the temple priests to be declared well, one person sees himself as healed…transformed…by the action of healing compassion that Jesus has enacted. His response is not to move toward those who could outwardly recognize and “declare”that healing to have taken place. Instead, he turns back, toward the one who has offered healing and compassion. We hear in Luke’s Gospel that he stopped to thank God in a loud voice, then humbled himself by lying prostrate at Jesus’ feet, recognizing Jesus to be that agent of divine compassion who had bestowed healing. Jesus sees both the irony and the beauty of this act of faith by the one who experiences the most oppression, the double-jeopardy, the greatest sense of being an outcast. What Jesus pronounces is a truth that speaks to us, even thousands of years later: Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.
The truth is that when we encounter God, we are already transformed. We are already healed beyond that which human eyes can recognize. If we are seeking approval of our healing from human hands, we know the places to go for that and we can go there. But when we seek to be transformed by divine compassion, the response modeled by today’s Gospel is to turn toward God and give our thanks from the depths of our heart and soul.
One of the pearls of wisdom I uncovered from studying this text this week is that the greek word for “Giving Thanks” shown by the leper who is transformed, as he turns toward Jesus, is εὐχαριστέω, “eucharisteó.” That might sound familiar…it is the same root as “Holy Eucharist” or as we sometimes rightly call it, “The Great Thanksgiving.” The transformation offered through Jesus Christ offers to us the possibility of awareness of who we are, how we have been moved from pity to wellness, and how in the very act of humbly offering our thanks to the Almighty God we take in the depths of true transformation not only of body, but of mind and spirit as well.
Jesus says to the man, “Get up, and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” Receive the gift of those words in your own life today, as we pray for healing and give our thanks to God today.
Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Door Healing Service. Friday, October 7, 2016.