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Saturday, October 12, 2019

"None but this foreigner" - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 17:11-19
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
"Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!"
And when he saw them, he said,
"Go show yourselves to the priests."
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
"Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?"
Then he said to him, "Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you."


Let’s start with leprosy. In the ancient world ― and for the Jews especially ― leprosy was not something to mess around with. In fact, according to Jewish law, lepers were not allowed to participate in worship ceremonies. Neither were they allowed to live integrated within the Jewish community: “put out of the camp every leper,” the Book of Numbers says, “that they may not defile the camp in the midst of which [God] dwells” (Nm 5:2-3). More than that, in ancient Israel, lepers were required to publicly announce their condition: “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall … cry, “unclean! unclean!” (Lv 13:45). 

Ten of these miserable men met Jesus while he was travelling through Samaria and Galilee. Notice they are following the norms, not daring to approach the crowd: “they stood at a distance from him and raised their voices.” But we should also notice that, where they usually shout to announce their uncleanness, here they shout for help: “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” 

There is a second crucial but somewhat hidden detail to this story. We need to notice how the gospel is at pains to point out that the only leper who returns to thank Jesus is a Samaritan. It makes sense that there would be Samaritans around. Jesus is travelling through Samaria, and Samaritans are from Samaria. But there is more to it than that. The Samaritans were a splinter group within Judaism. They had a different set of priests from the mainstream Jews, they disagreed on which books belonged in the Bible, and they refused to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. In fact, when Jesus told the lepers to “show [themselves] to the priests,” the nine Jewish lepers would have gone to the high priests in Jerusalem while the Samaritan would have gone to the priest on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. 

The point is that mainstream Jews hated Samaritans. They were “foreigners” who worshipped in the wrong Temple. In Jewish literature, the word “Samaritan” was always used derogatorily. In John’s Gospel, a group of Jews even insult Jesus by calling him “a Samaritan” (Jn 8:48). It is no small thing that Jesus heals a Samaritan. Neither is it a small thing when Jesus addresses the Jewish crowd with some sharpness or even sarcasm: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?” Jesus is putting his finger on this religious tension. Indeed, he is being extraordinarily provocative with his Jewish audience: “has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” 

It is important that we see this Samaritan as a real man who suffered through a real life. He was not a character in a parable. We can understand his gratitude. But we can also see in his story something of our own lives. We are lepers, all of us, in our weakness. In truth, we belong outside the camp. We are, all of us, Samaritans. We are, if we’re honest, not quite doing this whole Christianity thing right ― and so we are doubly estranged. But have you noticed that Jesus usually does business with those who are most estranged and broken? That means Jesus has business with us. Even if we are weak, estranged, and broken, let us have the courage ― like the Samaritan did ― to stop shouting “unclean! unclean!” when we look at ourselves and start shouting “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” Surely, should we see it through, we will hear Jesus reply: “Stand up! Go! Your faith has saved you!”

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