Luke 17:11-19 – Jesus was passing between, literally on the border of Samaria on the south and Galilee on the north. Jesus spent most of his ministry in southern Galilee and he had been to Samaria before—he was not opposed to going into territory other God-followers thought was below them! In Luke 9:53 we learn that he had been rejected by a Samaritan village because he was headed toward Jerusalem (apparently bigotry and dislike for other peoples went both ways in Palestine). His journey would have taken him close to MT Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place and he was going to Jerusalem. James and John wanted to call down a strike of angel-fire on the villages! Jesus acts as the peace-maker and rebukes them. But he is “turned away” and this narrative of Luke is arranged around themes of unlikely people welcoming Jesus or believing in him, while his own people rejected him . . . so we must place the location here closer to Luke 10 as Luke is not intending to write a geographical-chronological account but rather a thematic one. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time and may be 50 miles out.
It is curious to find this band of brothers as a company of inappropriate associations, united in their common misery of Hanson’s Disease or Leprosy. This affliction dulls the sensitivity of nerves to heat and cold, pain and bruising so that the loss of fingers and toes occurs because there is no mercy of pain. No way for the brain to tell the limb when to stop reaching toward the fire or to tell the hand “WITHDRAW from the burning hot skillet”. No way in working with rough objects for the skin to get a message to the brain that it is being torn open.
Nine Jewish and one Samaritan united by affliction “outside the village” and rendered unclean. This village is a border town between Galilee and Samaria, on the route East and South, crossing the Jordan near Beth-Shan, going south and re-crossing near Jericho . . . this event likely occurs in the northern part of the journey.
For me, Hanson’s disease has a face and strong memories. As part of my families five years among Muslims in Northern Cameroon, eating with the men of the neighborhood every evening, we occasionally had a leper join us. I cannot forget my first encounter, remembering where I sat and where “he” sat, this gentle man with stubby fingers and sores. In the traditional way of eating in this rural village of a few thousand folks, the men would sit in a circle, on the boulevard, with the food bowls placed on mats before us. The “host” (person whose home we sat in front of) would usually take the first dip into the bowl and we would follow in clockwise fashion, each one taking a turn to break off the hot niirri (a millet like bread that resembled hot play dough in consistency). Only the rude and the very rich would eat inside alone for in this place, identity was in community and I could no more ignore this meal than ignore my neighbor when he greeted me (if I was to be a good member of this community, that is). This piece of niirri would then be shaped into a small scoop with the RIGHT HAND using the index and middle finger and thumb (the LEFT HAND was for other jobs!)—there was no silver ware. This small scoop was then the means to dip into the sauce (a thickened substance of mostly leaves and herbs, sometimes beans and pieces of meat (dried minnows or fish, goat or beef) absolutely no pork! If one was adept, the hand hardly touched the sauce, only the half-dollar sized piece of cooked millet and then it was flicked into the mouth by one’s thumb off the platform of the first two fingers of the right hand. After the leper partook, it gave me pause, even though I had resolved to not let it bother me, committing the event, as I had to do with so many other “questionable” things, to Christ. He dipped, others dipped and then I dipped again . . . but it was harder to chew and swallow, thinking I may now get leprosy! I learned later that leprosy is not generally spread by occasional human contact but by living in close, damp, non-ventilated quarters where clothing and bedding is not washed often or well. I sensed the danger and entertained excuses that would allow me to go back home . . . but grace, mercy and not wanting to be ashamed in front of my Fulani friends kept me there. The unclean designations are outlined in Leviticus 13:46 but who’d have thought I’d be placed at the same food dish with a leper?
Jesus healed another leper near Lake Tiberius (Sea of Galilee) but there it was just with a word. Why does He respond to the cries “Have mercy on us!” with a command to “show yourselves to the priests”? I have wondered . . . going to Jerusalem is like hiking to either Fargo or Pelican Rapids from St James church, 50-20 miles away from the place this event occurs-why does he want or need to respect the priests in Jerusalem? There were other priests in the area. There were priests in the villages and in Samaria, they were Samaritan priests. In 2 Kings 17:28 a Samaritan priest was captured and then he returned to Beth-el and he taught the way of the LORD there. But Bethel would not be closer on the route Jesus and his group was on.
This is a long trek for a leper, besides, what would the Samaritan leper do when he entered the Jerusalem, be driven back? They had to stay “outside the city.” How would a Samaritan and a leper enter the temple area—not possible! Would a priest from the temple go outside Jerusalem to see a Samaritan leper? Unlikely, and even more unlikely, how would this poor leper or all ten find the means to offer the sacrifices of birds (one to kill and one to let out in the open field to fly free) and the lamb for the sacrifice and the other prescriptions of meal and oil offerings—Leviticus 14:1-32;they barely had enough to live on where they were!
Curiously, they only had gone a short distance when ALL ten were cleansed! Notice they were cleansed in the going, before getting to any priests but Jesus honors the OT prescription, even though the Spirit heals them from a distance before they accomplish their prescription! It is very likely that they were going to show themselves to the Samaritan priests residing in that village for the Samaritans were also looking for the Messiah (we learn that from the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel). Samaritans broke from Judaism and established their holy place on Mt Gerizim. According the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, Mt Gerizim was a 2887 foot outlook about 30 miles from Jerusalem. It is explicitly mentioned in the OT as place where blessings are received (Deut 11 and 27). Six of the tribes are to stand there to receive the blessing. In Samaritan tradition, it is the “oldest, most central and highest mountain in the world”, the location of the Garden of Eden and the place Abraham brought Isaac for the sacrificial test. This is why the Woman at the well (John 4:20) says it is their sacred site of worship (you Jews worship in Jerusalem and we worship on this mountain). Luke doesn’t tell us anymore. What is told, however, is that the lepers did not address Jesus in the Rabbi title but as “Jesus, Master” (epistata), the language of the disciples for Jesus, “Master, what about these, we don’t have enough bread?” and so forth.
Their simple cry for help is one repeated in millions of voices throughout the ages in the liturgy using Greek words, “Kyria Elieson” (ˈkir-ē-ˌā-ə-ˈlā-(ə-)ˌsän) LORD have mercy! And, Jesus does have mercy!! Mercy to spare! Rarely do we hear this kind of heart-felt cry in the world today, much less the church, unless it is in liturgy but here we have humanity feeling the weight of their pain in leprosy and more so, the psychological pain of exclusion, of being ignored, cast off, rejected, which is far, far worse- to feel and see oneself as “unclean”.
I was drawn in my grade-school years to the haunting theme of the “Rifleman”, “Branded, scorned as the man who ran . . .”, played by Chuck Connor’s. In each episode, the shameful dismissal is replayed, taken out, stripped of medals and uniform, rank and title, sword broken in half . . . a sword he carries throughout the series.
“All but one man died…There at Bitter Creek…and they say he ran away.
Branded! Marked with a coward’s shame.
What do you do when you’re branded, will you fight for your name?
He was innocent . . . not a charge was true . . . but the world would never know.
Branded! Scorned as the one who ran.
What do you do when you’re branded, and you know you’re a man?
Wherever you go for the rest of your life you must prove … you’re a man.”
According to the story, he had the means to clear himself, but in not wanting to sully the reputation of his commanding officer, he bore the shame and did not seek to clear his name.
Shame and being outcast is universal throughout history in all communities . . . the Scarlet Letter, Native peoples driven from the land and force-marched away to “reservations”, the Irish in New York, blacks, yellows, browns and whites. Go to any city in the interior of China today and as a white person, you will hear the “Gwai Lo” title, loosely translated “foreigner” but is more literal in meaning as “ghost-white guy”. It has a “long history of being racially depreciating” (Wiki) . . . a pejorative.
Not only “race” but ways of thinking can cause others to exclude, abuse and reject those whose only crime is to want to learn. Recently, Malala Yousafzai has received the Sakharov Prize, which comes with $65,000, after a member of the Taliban shot her in the face on her school bus in October 2012 for ‘Western thinking.’ Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pakistani-teen-shot-backing-girls-education-awarded-eu-human-rights-prize-article-1.1481662#ixzz2hXpdnfOr
After cleansing the lepers in a divine-human venture of faith obedience to the Word spoken; God offering mercy and humans responding in faith, the Samaritan turns and prostrates himself in front of Jesus and “eucharists” him (euchariston). Renders him full thanksgiving, the word describing our Lord’s supper. Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well!” This much is clear, we are brought to understand God by some event where God offers the Word that carries the possibility for us of enacting faith, when we take it and act on it in faith, God has healed us! Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you!”
Let us take whatever rejection by others, whatever shame or fear placed on us, either by our own fault or simply by misunderstanding or just by events as interpreted by others—be it sin, fault, weakness or life, and call out today in faith, “Lord, have mercy!” The same LORD who healed an unworthy foreigner is among us today, mystically present in the Word and in the embodiment of that Word of Mercy in the bread and wine.
If you are “on the border” today, neither fitting into the rules of religion or church but not without an awareness of something more than yourself, perhaps this word is also for you. “Lord, have mercy!” What is the threat in that cry? Receive this word however you are able, where you are . . . you need not make any promises to God or humans—just take it. Eat it. Drink it. Let this word of mercy be fully yours for this is the character of our God. The saying is sure “If we have died with Him” (by looking to the cross, baptized into his mercy) “we will live with him. If we endure, we will reign with him; if we deny him he will also deny us. IF we are faithless, HE REMAINS FAITHFUL, FOR HE CANNOT DENY HIMSELF.” He will not deny himself but I must deny myself. Deny what your feelings tell you, what your mind reasons about a mercy and grace and love that go “beyond reason”. Be united in spirit with One who was “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief . . . the Lord has laid on Him ALL of our illnesses and diseases and by His stripes, you ARE HEALED (Isaiah 53)!
This is not just about being saved for heaven, listen to our Psalm reading again . . . You let our enemies ride on over our heads and we went through fire and water . . .BUT YOU BROUGHT US OUT INTO A PLACE OF REFRESHMENT. This is not a religious “pie in the sky bye and bye but a piece on our plate at this date”— Let us confesses our need and then fall down and give thanks as God meets us with grace and mercy larger than our need! This is the Gospel of Christ for us all. Amen!