Risking More Than An ‘Averagely Good’ Life

Posted: November 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 21C, 2016 Luke 17:11-19

Risking More Than An ‘Averagely Good’ Life

Traditionally the story by Luke of the Ten healed lepers/outcasts, is used as an object lesson for ‘thankfulness’ but Rex Hunt and others suggest there is more to it than that. I tend to agree with them and I want to go with that idea today.

I want to suggest that the story begins with three allusions to important Lukan themes and the first is that the story is part of Jesus’ final “journey to Jerusalem” and because of this the author takes the opportunity to put into it Jesus’ teachings, primarily to his disciples, about his faithfulness in the face of opposition, even to the point of death. Here then we have the author’s message of Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling. Note he is not ordained to die nor is he keen to die. He is rather aware that he may be at risk of dying but he believes his message is more important than his safety.

Second, is the question of his itinerary. It is at best baffling. Jesus should not be going east or west, but rather south; and not, from Samaria to Galilee, which is to the north, but from Samaria to Judea.

We are compelled to ask how this makes sense and it could be argued that the Gospel’s author, writing 50 or more years later somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor, can be excused for being directionally challenged or be a hopeless map reader and thus confused. However, a more likely explanation is that these geographic details are surpassed by important theological allusions: namely, the prominence of Samaritan converts to Jesus’ Galilean movement. Remember Samaritans are “foreigners” that is, not Judeans. They traditionally would have worshipped Israel’s God, not in Jerusalem, but in the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that they preserved the original Abrahamic religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian exile. From the perspective of most Judeans, a Samaritan was an apostate. And people who could benefit from hearing the ‘Good News” of “repentance and forgiveness of sins. This is after all to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” as noted later in the gospel. And Jesus’ disciples were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” as noted in (Acts 1.8).

Third, in verse 12, the noun form of the Greek verb in “ten lepers met him” refers to the “meeting” with the risen Jesus as early as the pre-Pauline description in 1 Thess 4.17 The noun form is the same term for the “meeting” with the “bridegroom” in Matthew and the large crowd’s “meeting” with Jesus as he entered Jerusalem in John 12.13 In other words, the verb in Lk 17.12 alludes to an encounter with the risen Jesus, the promised Messiah, who is full of divine power to heal.

Here we have the environment if you like of the text. The literary construct, the, geographical and contextual constructs are being driven by the theological making the text open to interpretive pursuit. With that in mind we explore the story.

Acknowledging that this story has some hidden codes within it we come to the text first with a skeptical mind and explore the theological assumptions.

All ten lepers called Jesus their “master” (v. 13), implying that they all considered Jesus their social superior and a person with power. All of the passages where this epithet occurs in Luke depict Jesus as a person with divine power or as a divine figure in the company of Moses and Elijah, who also are depicted as divine figures.

All ten lepers petition Jesus in language that is typical of prayers to God and is common in healing stories in the Gospels: “have mercy on us” (v. 13). That implicitly attributes to all ten a belief that God’s power was at work in Jesus that Jesus would have compassion on them and use his God-given power to heal them, and that God would listen to Jesus’ petition on their behalf.

All ten lepers were “made clean” (vv. 14 and 17) after they obeyed Jesus command to “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (v. 14). Note the sequence: a request for healing, then a command to go, then obedience, then the healing occurs “as they were going.” The point is that healing occurs in response to a pious request and an act of obedience, both of which might be considered “works”; certainly they are deeds. Although there is no indication that they were considered meritorious, they do have a role in the healing, even if the ultimate role was God’s or Jesus’

We then explore some of the cultural assumptions and accepting that Luke’s geographical issues are in fact theological manipulations the ten ‘lepers’ spotted Jesus from the distance they were forced to keep between themselves and other people. They were outcasts. They called out to him, presumably in desperation, for there was little to no hope for lepers, for the unclean, in those days. We note also that Jesus kept his distance and did nothing. He was however close enough to be heard as Luke says he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they rushed off, they were made whole.

We don’t know whether any of the lepers showed themselves “to the priests.” Even allowing for the various biblical translations It only says that they all were cured as they went, went along, or were going or as they left , so that we can assume they were going to look for priests, perhaps in the temple in Jerusalem. Whether any of them did that, we are not told. Maybe some did, maybe all did, maybe none did. What we do know is that one of them, “… because he saw that he was healed, turned back…”. That implies that this healed leper turned back before reaching the (temple) priests. Finally, the text indicates there is no expectation that any of them should return to Jesus. We are left with the assumption that showing themselves to the priests would be a sufficient way to verify their purification and to praise God.

This is puzzling! Are we supposed to assume that the other nine, somehow, did not see that they had been healed, that they continued to the priests in order to obey all that Jesus commanded, and that they expected the priests to heal them? The narrative gap is huge in terms of what we don’t know about the nine and only invites speculation that is better left in honour of the gap rather than make wild assumptions.

We are told that all ten lepers were “made clean” after they left Jesus but we don’t know how they were “made clean” or who healed them. The primacy of God’s role is again implied by the expectation that they all should “praise God” while the one leper’s act of thanking Jesus (v. 16) acknowledges Jesus’ role in their becoming “clean.” Some scholars here suggest that we have two stories put together. That there is the clear healing story followed by the cross-cultural message. In the first part Luke has the faithfulness of Jesus as the clear message that Jesus is the agent of God who heals. The later addition if it is in fact a later addition, switches to the remarkable faith of the Samaritan, a “foreigner,” in contrast to that of the Judean lepers. In support of this is the language about “cleansing/purifying” which suggests that the story has to do with restoring social outcasts to inclusion in the community. Jesus’ instruction to “show yourselves to the priests” is not just about verifying their physical cure and giving thanks and praise to God. It is also about initiating a process of incorporating them back into the community.

In verse 16, we learn that one of the lepers is a Samaritan, but we don’t learn that he is an exception until v. 18, where we also are told that he is a “foreigner”. This is quite important in that this particular term is only found here in the NT. The implication is that the others while outcasts are not “foreigners,” so we are supposed to assume that they are Galileans or Judeans. This inclusion of a Samaritan introduces an oddity absent in the earlier layer of the story. A Samaritan would not be instructed to go to the temple in Jerusalem, let alone visit Judean priests!

And so this presupposes a situation in which Samaritans have already become part of the Jesus movement. What makes the faith of the Samaritan leper, a “foreigner,” remarkable in contrast to that of the other lepers is that, in addition to praising God (v. 15), he demonstrated devotion to Jesus as a person worthy of worship, representing this by his prostration at Jesus’ feet (v. 16), and he thanked Jesus, which are appropriate responses to Jesus’ role in healing him. Verse 18 implies that, if the other lepers went to the priests and gave God praise that was not enough, in spite of Jesus’ command in v. 14. Verse 18 adds a new expectation: They were supposed to return to Jesus and give God praise (again). It is not enough to give God praise in the presence of Judean priests—they also should show the same devotion to God-present-in-Jesus that the Samaritan showed (v. 16).

Here we have the author of this Gospel and the book of Acts being keen to show that many more Samaritans (and other “foreigners”/gentiles) than Judeans turned to acknowledge the presence of God in Jesus.

A contemporary “application” of this second, later story (vv. 15-19) challenges us in our understanding of other religious traditions. For example, here is an opportunity for us to jettison the age-old mistaken belief that Judaism is about self-righteousness and works-righteousness, whereas Christianity is about righteousness by faith. We can imagine, beyond the limits of this narrative that Judeans, no less than Samaritans, were “saved by faith.” In any case, v. 19 does not undo the fact that the other nine lepers expressed faith in Jesus as a healer, faithfully obeyed his commands, and consequently were “made clean” while they were going to the priests.

The Samaritan was a “foreigner” that is, not a Judean. He or she would have traditionally worshipped Israel’s God, not in Jerusalem, but in the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that they preserved the original Abrahamic religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian exile. From the perspective of most Judeans, a Samaritan was an apostate. Someone who has left the true faith.

Here also is an opportunity to reflect on multiple paths to “salvation” in the original tribes that made up Israel and Judah (northern and southern kingdoms). Even within Christian traditions, we have multiple paths to “salvation” and correspondingly diverse understandings of “salvation.” Largely under the influence of the Pauline letters, Christian understandings of “salvation” in the west focused on Jesus’ death as the event in-with-through which God forgave humanity’s sins and, thereby, “justified” sinners, or made them “righteous.” Progressive’s no longer think that way.

Today’s story, however, like many others in the Gospels, is about “salvation” be it in the social, economic, material, physical, empirical realities of this daily life on earth! In the ancient pagan and Jewish world, diseases were a sign of divine punishment for a person’s sins. There is no hint of that view in this story. If there is any clue about causes of skin diseases here, it is in Jesus’ title “master” or “commander” (epistatēs). Impure spirits in the lepers’ skin were made to depart by a superior power in Jesus. Of course, I am speculating, in the absence of a fuller account of the cleansing process. The title “commander” is all the text gives us. What is clear, however, is that the story gives no hint that the lepers’ sins are the issue. Their salvation is palpable: their skin is cleansed of leprosy, their purity is restored, and they are reincorporated into the community.

Rex Hunt tells a story as entry into discussion on this text and I want to end my address with it today. I want to end with it because it introduces today’s context, asks questions of today’s theology and leaves us with questions. It asks questions of our faithfulness. It asks us who we are as followers of the Jesus Way. Are we the Samaritan or one of the nine?

The story goes that ‘a man in his early 30s was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had a wife and young children and a promising career. When suddenly all of that was swept away from him. He could barely talk or walk and he was in constant agony. His friends and his family, except for his wife and mother, avoided him. The doctors shook their head. It was too bad. He was a nice bloke and deserved a longer life but there was nothing they could do.

Finally he went to a famous surgeon who offered to operate on him, even though everyone else said the tumour was inoperable. The surgeon warned the patient that he could very well die during the operation, though he (the surgeon) was pretty sure he would survive and return to health.

They decided to take the risk and after nine hours of surgery, the surgeon came into the waiting room, grinned at the man’s wife and said, “Got it!”

The man recovered and went on to a happy and successful life.

Twenty years later the surgeon died. “We should go to the funeral,” the man’s wife said. “I’d like to,” her husband replied. “But it’s on the weekend and I have an important golf tournament.”  (Adapted/Andrew Greeley. Web site, 2004)        Pause

Can you hear the words of Luke’s Jesus saying: your faith has made you whole? Luke’s Jesus says that the healing emanated from within. He gently lifts the man to his feet and affirms him. He is saying that faith is not about how to live a ‘normal’ or ‘averagely good’ life. Nor is it slavishly doing as Jesus says, down to the last biblical letter. It is rather to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. And to have faith not of Jesus but with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the story/parable. To transcend the boundaries we erect around ourselves, and to realize how much we, and all on this fragile earth, are accepted, are affirmed.

And to leave you with another question it is to ask ‘where is the tenth?’… Where is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions?  (Barbara Brown Taylor) Amen.

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