Monday, October 7, 2019
Layers of Healing
This Sunday, we will hear the story of Jesus healing ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. In short, ten lepers cry out to Jesus from a distance, asking for mercy. Jesus responds by telling them to go show themselves to the priests. While on their way, all ten are cleansed, and one returns to give thanks to Jesus. Then, Jesus asks where the other nine are and notes that the only one who came back was a Samaritan. Finally, he pronounces to the Samaritan that his faith has made him well.
What is the story about? It's about healing. But why is this story in the gospel? What larger purpose does it serve? This is more than an episode about Jesus's power over leprosy. A preacher could focus only on the cleansing of the ten, but wouldn't the congregation feel like something was missing if the point of that sermon was, "Jesus is the one with power to heal even ten lepers at once!" Surely there's more to it than that.
I trust that this story was challenging for the first-century Jews who heard it. No one wants the hero of a story to be the kind of person we hate. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. More than rivals, there was a mixture of ethnic, political, religious, and economic betrayal behind the animosity. This is more than your child going to college at the rival of your alma mater. It may be difficult to write tuition checks to that other place, but the kind of betrayal that this story represents runs much deeper than that. And Jesus knows it, and he plays it up.
Doesn't the word "foreigner" sound strange coming from Jesus? He doesn't say, "Samaritan," which would have been a simple way to name the individual's ethnicity. Instead, he gives the man a label that literally means "other-generated." He comes from elsewhere. He is an other. The label "foreigner" that Jesus uses could have been said with a tone of derision--the same way it might be used today. Jesus uses that term--or Luke uses it on his behalf--to hook us, to draw us in, to goad us into addressing the prejudice we bring to the story and forcing us to confront it.
This could be a story with a happy, non-confrontational ending. This could just be a story about a Samaritan being healed--like the story of the woman at the well or the Roman centurion seeking assistance for his servant. This could be a story about Jesus crossing ethnic boundaries to offer healing. But's more than that. It's Jesus offering that healing and Jesus forcing us to confront our dislike of it. We can't get to the end of the story without hearing Jesus ask us, "What happened to the other nine? Was none of then found to return and give praise except this...foreigner?" It's as if Jesus is saying to us, "What are you going to do with that?"
In other words, the layer of healing that is offered here goes even deeper than that of a Samaritan being healed. This is Jesus asking us to allow our prejudice to be healed. The point of this story isn't that Jesus heals lepers or that one of them is a Samaritan. It's that we recognize that only one of the ten gets it--only one is made well, made whole, saved in the fuller sense. And the one who gets it isn't just a foreigner; he's a direct challenge to all we've ever known about how God works in the world.