Proper 23, Year C
Luke 17:11-19 - link to NRSV text
Turbulence isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Think, for example, about a washing machine. Without turbulence, there could be no transformation for the laundry. But in a washing machine, there's always motion; what's at the margins is drawn in to the center, and what's at the center is pushed out to the margins, and in the midst of all those currents and all that friction brought about by the agitator, the clothes are cleansed.
That kind of motion is characteristic of Jesus' ministry, and I think this Sunday's gospel is an excellent example.
Lepers literally live on the margins. They are unclean, and so must stay apart from the center of village or city life. At night, they are literally shut out from the community and its protection. But their condition forces them to depend on the community for their sustenance, as they begged at the community's borders.
As Jesus walks the borders -- between Samaria and Galilee, his face set toward Jerusalem but not yet arrived there -- he encounters ten lepers at the margins. All show remarkable faith: they call out to Jesus to heal them, and when Jesus tells them to go to show themselves to the priests, as they would need to do as with a series of washings over a seven-day period to prove themselves clean, they go, and are healed and cleansed immediately.
Nine lepers continue on their way to the Temple. It's what Scripture tells them to do, after all, and it's what Jesus said to do, to show themselves to the priests. Continuing on to the Temple is a good thing to do. It's what's necessary for those who were cleansed to go back to the center of village life and stay there; once nine lepers have proved that they are clean, they can once more offer sacrifices in the Temple, and be welcomed once more into the center the community's life.
But one does not do that. One turns back to Jesus. Surprisingly, although Jesus told the whole group to show themselves to the priests, Jesus praises the leper who turns back.
It's not coincidental, of course, that the leper who comes back to Jesus is a Samaritan. Samaritans weren't welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem, as perhaps the tenth leper remembers as he sets out. Even after being cleansed of his leprosy, the tenth person will still be an outcast to Judeans. There's nothing he can do and nothing that Jesus can say that would integrate him fully into Judean society.
And so he comes back to Jesus. He offers praise to the God who healed him, and he offers thanks eucharistein) to Jesus. It's worth noting, as Malina and Rohrbaugh do, that thanking Jesus is NOT what would normally be expected; in Jesus' culture, thanking a superior would indicate that you no longer had need of them, and would end the relationship. Jesus does not criticize the nine lepers who continue on to the Temple for failing to thank him; what he says is "was none of them found to return and give praise to God," not "was none of them found to return and give thanks." The nine's continuing on to Jerusalem leaves open that they will continue in relationship to Jesus, trying to repay him for what he did for them.
But the tenth one, the Samaritan, has realized that he will still be among the outcasts, and so he offers his sacrifice of praise to God on the spot rather than at the Temple, and he gives thanks to Jesus, believing that he has nothing else to offer him.
Jesus' praise for the Samaritan underscores something for us. Jesus heals us, cleanses us, and brings us into community. But the journey doesn't end there, if we intend to follow Jesus. Jesus declares us worthy to stand at the center, but then Jesus always calls us back to the margins. It's where he is, after all. What good are we to Samaritans if we stay in Jerusalem?
I don't believe that all references to thanksgiving (eucharistein) in the New Testament are necessarily references to the Eucharist as such. Luke may not have intended the leper's giving thanks to Jesus in verse 16 to refer to the Eucharist as we celebrate it, but our celebration of the Eucharist must, if it is to be truly the Lord's meal, be celebrated in remembrance of the one who calls us out to the margins, to declare to the outcasts the Good News of God's welcome. Our making Eucharist is not just a celebration of our status as insiders; it is strength for our journey to meet the outsiders. Jesus is still at the margins, and he heals us that we may follow him.
Thanks be to God!
Thanks for this. I am returning to the more active conduct of [Methodist] worship in UK, following a BUSY spell as an active local politician which took me out of the front preaching line for a while.I am in need of a 'refesh' and this helps.
Posted by: Alan Allcock | Aug 23, 2007 9:54:36 AM