The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Many physical places serve as a transition between two other spaces. In locations where outdoor temperatures can be frigid, some homes have a vestibule, which is an enclosed entryway that serves as a buffer between the warm interior and the cold exterior. Architects and other designers will often refer to transitional zones as “liminal spaces,” which means being at the threshold of something new but not quite there yet.
In nature, a common transition is the riparian zone. This is the space that has land on one side and water on the other; think of the space where cattails and such naturally grow at the edge of bodies of water. These zones have many benefits: filtering water, curbing encroaching floods, preventing erosion, and providing the most suitable habitat for many amphibians and insects to thrive.
When the riparian edge is eliminated (e.g. a neighborhood pond that has lawns up to the edge of water), the results are typically less wildlife, unclean water with algae blooms, and erosion.
Now consider the transitions around borders. My grandparents lived in Belpre, OH on the border between West Virginia and Ohio. It was common for adults to live on one side and work on the other, there was a common culture that was uniquely both Appalachian (WV) and Midwestern (OH). Often the areas alongside national borders are referred to as borderlands. In these transition zones, it is common to find the exchange of goods, employment, languages, and cultures from one side to the other. When the border becomes “harder,” these exchanges are reduced, in both human and ecological terms.
The gospel reading tells us that Jesus is traveling through the region between Samaria and Galilee while on his way to Jerusalem. Borders often designate, from the perspective of a particular group, what is considered safe and what is forbidden. Jesus is in a borderland. It’s difficult to distinguish between the two sides. Perhaps that is why these ten men with leprosy are located here: neither side wants them. So they are in this borderland, although this space socially isolates them and economically relegates them to meager living.
The leprosy discussed in the Bible is a catch-all term for any number of skin ailments. Some of these ailments are contagious after long exposure, but some cannot be passed to other people. Regardless, once someone was labeled a leper, they were removed from the community out of fear, though caring individuals would periodically visit or offer supplies.
Yet it is in this borderland, a forbidden zone that neither Samaria nor Galilee desires, that Jesus does something special: he makes it holy. By bringing healing to those ten men, Jesus allows them to return and be fully engaged in their communities. This borderland that once symbolized their hopelessness becomes the symbol of God’s action.
The story ends with one of the ten—a Samaritan—returning to Jesus to give thanks. To be honest, if I were in their position, the first thing I would likely do is bolt to my loved ones to embrace them. Yet this one Samaritan returns to Jesus, and Jesus points out that there were nine others. He then tells the one, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
One clear takeaway is that we should give thanks to God, but I believe this lesson has more to say than that.
- First, it tells us that people on both sides of a border bear the image of God.
- Second, the story shows us how God is often revealed in places of human hopelessness.
Combining all this, we see that God is at work in the borderlands, among all people, often bringing hope where they have lost hope, doing so regardless of whether they stop to give thanks. That is because love is the nature of God.
Luke specifically mentions Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. To mention he is between Samaria and Galilee is an unexpected route for a couple reasons.
- First, geographically it is not the most predictable way one would travel to Jerusalem. The mention of it amplifies the geographical importance to drive home the theological one.
- The second names the fact, Jesus is in a location where the differences culturally and religiously are high and tense. In this uncomfortable place Jesus meets ten outcasts who have leprosy.
What happens when look for Jesus that we and the world deem uncomfortable? What does it look like when the dome in which God reigns comes near in those places? We find God already there and at work. As an ELCA Church we are connected with ELCA World Hunger and other amazing ministries that go out and serve people on the margins. When it is on earth as it is in heaven, those who hunger are fed. Those who are sick are healed. Those who are outcasts are reconciled and brought back in.
While traveling to the priests, like Jesus commands, they are fully healed. We don’t actually know if any of them make it to show themselves to the priests, however we do know, the Samaritan, the outcast of the outcasts, is so grateful he turns around, and goes to thank Jesus. He kneels at the feet of Jesus. This verb for thank is the same word we find in Luke 22;17, 19 when Jesus thanks God for the bread and cup at the last supper. It’s the basis for the word Eucharist.
Do we allow ourselves to stop, turn around, and be grateful for the healing and grace we receive from Christ? Either way we are healed, we are made whole, we are touched by God’s grace, and I wonder… do we just jump right to the next thing. Go about our day, our tasks, our responsibilities? Or do we give ourselves permission to do what we were created to do, and praise God, not because we have to because we don’t. We turn back and give thanks because it is our joy. It is what we were created to do.
There is a Peanuts cartoon: Lucy is doing her math homework. She is working on a word problem. She is stuck, so she asks Charlie Brown for help. “I’ll be eternally grateful,” she promises. Charlie Brown says “Fair enough. I’ve never had anyone be eternally grateful before. Just subtract four from ten to get how many apples the farmer had left.”
Lucy says, “That’s it. That’s all there is to it. I have to be eternally grateful for that!? I can’t be eternally grateful for this; it was too easy.” With his usual blank look, Charlie Brown says, “Well, do whatever you think is fair.” Lucy thinks a minute, then says, “Thanks Bro!”
Charlie Brown goes out into the yard where he runs into Linus, who says, “What you been doing, Charlie Brown?” Charlie replies, “I’ve been helping Lucy with her homework.” Linus wonders, “Did she appreciate it?” Charlie – “At greatly reduced prices.” Charlie was gracious – Lucy was not grateful.
In the Gospel lesson, we hear another story of grace and gratitude. After receiving the benefit of an outstanding moment of grace, nine out of ten fail to be grateful. As Jesus says, all ten received were helped graciously, all ten were healed freely. There were so strings attached, no payment asked, no act of obedience required. They asked for mercy and Jesus granted it.
And they all believed Jesus; it was not a matter of a lack of faith. They all set out immediately, before their healing “kicked in,” to show themselves to the priest. And when they were healed, when the promise was fulfilled, nine continued on their way. Only one turned back to thank Jesus and praise God.
An interesting surprise is that the one who returned was a Samaritan, one who was permanently outside the community of faith rather than one seeking to be readmitted. Perhaps the Samaritan was doubly grateful for his healing because he did not expect it; while the others somehow believed that they deserved it—could it be that their lack of gratitude grew out of a sense of entitlement?
Sometimes you still occasionally here or read of someone being referred to as being “well-bred.” This, of course, had nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with the way you were brought up. Another term for it is being “raised right.” In my house being “raised right” was learning to express profuse “thank yous” at every appropriate moment.
It is interesting to note that the one person in the story who we are certain was not “well-bred,” had not been “raised right,” was the one who came back to say thank you to Jesus.
As we ponder this story, it is important that we move beyond questions of disease and healing, to a consideration of God’s many acts of grace to us and appropriate ways for us to express our gratitude to God for all this goodness that fills our lives.
Too often, too many of us, myself included, are like the man with a broken arm I heard a comedian talk about. He was at the Post Office and saw a man with his arm in a sling. The comic listened as the man asked for help from a Post Office employee. The postman obliged, writing the man’s note of the card, filling in the address, putting on a stamp. Finally, he handed it back and asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The man with the broken arm looked the card over a minute and then said, “Well, you could write a line apologizing for the bad handwriting.”
Are we like that, like the demanding man at the P.O.; like the nine who took their healing and ran without a second look or a second thought? I know that all too often in my life I take God’s grace to me for granted and fail to whisper a prayer of thanksgiving; let alone go out my way to help others in response to Christ going out of his way to help me.
God’s call to us today is to take a good look at our lives and find a way to express our gratitude to God in words and acts of prayer and thanksgiving, words and acts shared not only with God but everyone in our lives.