The Word of God in the Life & Mission of Our Church
He was passing through Samaria and Galilee....He was met by lepers...one of them saw that he was healed...he turned back...he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17: 10-11;16)
Jesus is along the borders of two areas in the country. The Samaritans lived in one area. They were a despised and hated people by the rest of the country. Yet, it is the Samaritan, the despised one, who emerges as the ‘hero’ of the story. This is a complex story. Is Jesus speaking to a community’s deepest hatreds and painfully exposing them?
Certainly. This is also a story about two contrasting ‘faith traditions.’ The ‘nine’ in the story belonged to what they said was the ‘true faith.’ The Samaritan was regarded as affiliated to an ‘inferior-faith-tradition.’
The story follows in the heels of what we heard last week. The apostles ask Jesus to ‘increase their faith.’ Is the story about Jesus’ on-going discussion of the nature of ‘true-faith?’ Certainly.
Beyond faith and prejudice, the story is also about ways in which communities stigmatize and marginalize certain people. This aspect of the story hovers over the incident it describes. A clarification is in order. The more accurate description of the ‘ten’ in the story is ‘leprous persons.’ Leprosy, as we know it today, was first identified by Dr. Hansen in 1871. In the world of the Bible, a ‘leprous person’ could be any person afflicted with an unsightly skin condition such as ulcers, eczema, psoriasis, or ringworm.
One aspect of the story. It is about ten people in a deplorable human condition. They were stigmatized simply for who they were. Nine were of one ethnic, national, racial, and religious background. The Samaritan was of another background.
Did the nine, in some way, ostracize the Samaritan? Were they, sharing a common condition, able to overcome centuries of social animosity? Jesus thinks that they were not able to do so. He speaks of the Samaritan as a ‘foreigner.’
The Samaritan as ‘victim of victims?’ Maybe, in the story, when Jesus speaks of ‘wellness,’ He is speaking of deep-seated human divisions that are far more serious than being a ‘leprous person.’ The soul can be far more sick than the body. They did nothing to heal the breach.
Another aspect of the story. Jesus speaks of the ten as being ‘cleansed.’ The Gospels use three different words to describe Jesus’ healing work. The word used here gives us the English word ‘catharsis.’ Healing as a ‘cathartic experience?’ Perhaps a kind of healing of the soul or a healing of the spirit.
Another aspect of the story. Jesus instructs them to go to their priests. He is talking about a social system that insisted on the sole right to declare, sometimes arbitrarily, someone as ‘clean.’ Here is where the story can get a little subtle. Is Jesus challenging that system’s standards of ‘cleanliness?’ Is he saying: Go show yourself to them and they will see a new standard of judging these things is in place? Entrenched systems do not like to be challenged. Jesus is surely throwing
down the gauntlet.
Another aspect of the story. Where did the other nine go? Did they make a beeline back to the social system that once rejected them? Did they fail to see what really happened to them? They disappear from the pages of the Gospel. Is the reader/listener being asked to identify with the nine or the Samaritan?
Another aspect of the story. The Gospel is very careful to describe the Samaritan’s ‘return.’ Does his return imply that he was the only one who rejected one standard of ‘cleanliness-determination’ and accept the standards of Jesus?
Certainly. That word for ‘return’ in the Gospels suggests a person who has undergone a deep transformation in life, a change of mind and heart, and an approach to life from a new point of view. He is described as ‘praising God in a loud voice.’ That expression is used in the Gospels in stories where ‘demons’ are
driven out of a person. Without getting into ‘demonology’ in the Bible, suffice it to say that we are asked to imagine one ‘spirit’ leaving a person and another ‘spirit’ taking its place. He fell at the feet of Jesus. This is meant to impress the reader/listener with the depth of his self-renewal. His ‘worship’ of Jesus as the bearer of a unique revelation of God.
Jesus speaks of giving ‘thanks to God.’ The word for this in the Gospel gives us our English word ‘Eucharist.’ Thus, a ‘eucharistic’ thanks to God is everything that is implied or expressed in the response of the Samaritan to his ‘cleansing.’
The apostles asked for an ‘increase of faith.’ Jesus holds up a despised person as a model of faith thus offering still another aspect of an ‘increased faith.’
All of this got me wondering about something else, too. It is mentioned in the story that Jesus directed the ten newly-cleansed to go to their priests (for verification of their cleansed state.) Is it possible that the Samaritan who came back to Jesus did so because he considered Jesus his priest? Might that be the reason Jesus praised him and said that his faith is what had saved him.