Inside Out – Outside In [Luke 17: 11-19]
A fundamental promise made at Baptism is that we will follow and obey Christ. As odd as it seems, following often is much more challenging than obeying. Consider where he goes in this little episode from Luke – he is on the way to Jerusalem between the regions of Galilee and Samaria - a kind of no man’s land, a kind of wilderness that is meant to remind us of the 40-years-experience after the Exodus. It is also meant to remind us of exiles such as Jeremiah writes about. Exile is a new kind of wilderness. Both exile and wilderness connote a place with no power, no resources, and, perhaps most importantly, a place where we are not at home.
In this borderland between Jesus’ homeland, Galilee, and Samaria, a place his family and ancestors consider a foreign and unclean territory inhabited by what were considered half-breeds – commoners not carried off to Babylon in the exile who intermarried with pagans and other remnants, and who considered Samaria, not Jerusalem, the center of the world and religious ritual – Jesus comes across 10 exiles who approach him and call out for mercy.
We are told they are lepers, which is an unfortunate translation of a word that simply means they have imperfect skin – psoriasis, flaky skin, or patchy skin like vitiligo; like I have. Hansen’s Disease, or Leprosy, did not exist in first-century Israel. For the imperfection or even coloration of their skin they were ostracized from the boundaries of any town being considered unclean. Jesus has been raised not to associate with such people, and likely rarely sees them since they are not allowed to live in either the Galilean or Samaritan towns.
They are an exile community, similar to those Jeremiah and others of the prophets address. As we will see, even this exile community is itself not homogeneous. The mercy they seek is a release from exile so they may return home. To be in exile is to be homeless.
One notes that unlike other healing stories, Jesus himself does not touch them. He does not mix up spittle and mud to smear on them, nor does he lay hands on them. He simply speaks, just as God spoke creation into being in the beginning. Perhaps this is the same voice that once said, “Light!” And there was light.
He sends them to “the priests,” those priests in Jerusalem who control the boarders of the community with the powers to declare a person clean or unclean, inside or outside the community. As they run off they are healed.
One of the ten suddenly stops running. He realizes he is not like the rest. He turns back, and approaching Jesus praises God with a loud voice while falling to the ground at Jesus’ feet. He thanks Jesus. The text simply says, “And he was a Samaritan.” That is, he was a quintessential outsider. He was not one of the nine to begin with. Jerusalem for him and his people is just another town of no special significance. That city’s priests have no significance for him, and, more importantly, they have no use for him. In fact, he would not be allowed inside the gates of Jerusalem. He would continue to be an exile. He would continue to be homeless had he continued with the rest. So it makes sense that he would stop and say to himself, “Why am I running to Jerusalem only to be rejected again? Look! I have been made well. I can go home to Samaria. But first let me stop and thank this man whoever he is.”
It seems Jesus did not know this, or else why send him with the rest to begin with? As Richard Swanson observes in his commentary [Provoking the Gospel of Luke], it would be like sending a person with a skin disease to an auto mechanic. The mechanic might sympathize with you, or know others with a similar condition, but unless you need a new water pump or radiator there’s not much to be done there.
Which makes it strange that Jesus appears to chastise the others for not coming back with the Samaritan, for after all, they are doing just what he told them to do. And the Samaritan is not really a glowing example of thankfulness since he is just doing what he and his people have always done – stay away from Jerusalem and have nothing to do with its priests.
We must remember that it is Luke, not Jesus, telling this story, and telling it for a purpose. Which purpose is to explain the impact Jesus has on the world about him. What is significant is that against all cultural norms and practices he has anything at all to do with these unclean exiles in the wilderness between two worlds. He simply gives God’s power of love and acceptance to any and all that he comes across. He ignores the borderlines and normative boundaries of “the community.” What is truly healing is that Jesus says, “You can go home now – you are no longer in exile, you are no longer homeless.”
One needs to remember that Luke, more than any other gospel, champions the notion of accepting “the other” – which in this case means both people with disturbing irregularities of skin, and persons from a foreign and considered unclean or dangerous culture. I can recall how frightened I was when my skin first showed signs of vitiligo. Patches of white where there was no longer any pigment began to first appear on my hands. My first thought was cancer. I was scared to even go to a doctor, but finally found a dermatologist who told me, “What you have is a biblical disorder, one of the earliest recorded skin conditions, and for which we have no known ‘cure,’ but you can be assured it poses no known health threat.”
That was the equivalent of Jesus’, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Or, you are OK the way you are so go home and live life fully and with no fear.
So faith has something, perhaps everything, to do with accepting and approaching “the other.” Faith, that is, has nothing to do with creating and maintaining boundaries; nothing to do with insiders and outsiders; nothing to do with building borders and walls to keep others out; nothing to do with seeing some people as clean or unclean, acceptable or unacceptable. Faith has everything to do with breaking down all such barriers and ideas that keep some people out; certain people, any people, out. Faith has everything to do with responding to the call of the exiles, the outsiders, the perceived to be unclean, and giving them the dignity of a response.
And faith, as Jesus examples it in this story, has everything to do with allowing others to return or remain in their own faith traditions. Faith, as it turns out, is God’s love and acceptance in action. As Neil Young once wrote, and Nicolette Larson once sang, “It's gonna take a lotta love/
To change the way things are. It's gonna take a lotta love/Or we won't get too far.”
Or, as another New Testament writer once observed, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It’s time that such things be seen. Amen.