Luke 17:11-19: Faith in Strange Places

If you can imagine a map of Israel, you might close your eyes and see the small Sea of Galilee in the North feeding into the Jordan river and leading to the larger Dead Sea in the south: Galilee—the home of Jesus—at the top, Samaria in the middle, and Judea—where Jerusalem is located—at the bottom. Jesus is on his way from his home in Galilee to his death in Jerusalem. And in between he has to pass through a kind of no-man’s-land, the region of Samaria.

Samaria is a strange land—a land of strangers. The Samaritans are a kind of illegitimate cousin to the Jews. While the Jews of Galilee—Mary and Joseph, for example, who lived in Nazareth in Galilee—travel all the way down to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, the people of Samaria worship on a mountain galled Gerizim. Samaritans and Israelites disagree about many things, but mostly about Mount Gerizim:

  • Jews believe that God sent Abraham to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. Samaritans believe God sent him to Mount Gerizim.
  • Jews believe that God ordered the temple to be built on Mount Moriah. Samaritans believe God ordered to the temple to be built on Mount Gerizim.
  • Jews believe Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah, is the only legitimate place for worship. Samaritans believe it is Mount Gerizim.

Their disagreements are so fierce, that they do not speak to one another. When Jesus encounters a woman at a well in Samaria, he asks her for a drink, and she is so surprised that she says, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” That sort of thing is just not done.

But Jesus is a crosser of boundaries. And in this story, his reputation seems to have crossed the boundary between Galilee and Samaria before him. He encounters ten lepers, and at first the story of this encounter plays out like many other stories about miraculous healings:

  • The lepers, seeing Jesus approach him, know—sort of—what they are supposed to do. The rules are set out for them in Leviticus (13:45-46):

“Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Lepers were required to live apart from society and to shout out when approached so that people would know not to get near them. But these lepers—knowing that they are being approached by a man with a reputation for being a healer, shout out “Mercy! Mercy!”

  • Jesus, when he hears them, also follows the law. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he says, because Leviticus also contains rules for being cleansed of leprosy (14:2-3):

The leprous person at the time of his cleansing . . . be brought to the priest; the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall make an examination.

A priest was required because leprosy was not just a physical disease, it was a spiritual disease. It put the men and women who suffered from it out of right relationship with God. Examination by a priest was required not just to confirm that the physical disease was gone, but to restore the person to right relationship with God and to community.

The rules for dealing with leprosy and for restoring lepers to right relationship with God and their community were strict and based on hard evidence. You might think of Leviticus as the Physicians’ Desk Reference of its day and its rules as the kind of rigorous medical protocol that doctors observe. They included specific symptoms to look for—“ if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease” (13:3)—and strict periods of quarantine—“If the spot . . . appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall confine the diseased person for seven days” (13:4) And when healing was accomplished, they included rituals for being folded back into the community:

If the disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed. 5 The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel. 6 He shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. 7 He shall sprinkle it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean, and he shall let the living bird go into the open field. (14:3-7)

Because it is largely a book of rules and procedures, Leviticus doesn’t make for very interesting reading. I’ve read the Bible through many times, but I confess that I merely skim Leviticus . . . “show yourself to the priest” . . . yeah, yeah yeah . . . “wash yourself in water” . . . yeah, yeah, yeah . . . “bring two male lambs . . . one ewe . . . and a grain offering.” Yeah. Got it.

But in this story, something happens that raises it above the letter of the law and into the realm of faith:

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. . . . [Jesus] said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

The something that transforms this from a story about the law to a story about faith is the Samaritan’s praise and thanksgiving.

I love that in this story, Jesus does not try to change the Samaritan. He never expects the Samaritan to change his views about Abraham and Isaac, he never disputes with him about which mountain is holier; he never tells him how or where to worship. In fact, he makes a point if lifting up the man’s differences:

“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?”

Jesus sees past the man’s race, language, nationality, and even religious differences. It is almost as though faith consists not so much in our creeds, in using the right words, in making the right gestures, and in doing these things in the right times and places, but simply in stopping, turning around, and expressing praise and thanksgiving to God.

One of the things I am most looking forward to on my trip to Israel next week is the opportunity to worship and learn with a host of people from all different faith backgrounds: we will visit the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters of Old City Jerusalem; experience Mass at the Sanctuary of Bethphage (BETH-fuh-gee) on the Mount of Olives, and a Syriac Catholic Mass at Tantur Institute, we’ll visit Yad Vashem—the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem; have lunch with a Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem; and travel through the Druze community in the Golan Heights. What I have discovered, in allowing myself to be open to the experience of other faith traditions, is that we are more alike than we are different. Whether we practice our faith in the many and varied Christian traditions, or in the context of the Jewish and Muslim traditions, the heart of faith is to praise God and to live our lives in thanksgiving to God.

I think that this is what Paul means when he writes to Timothy:

The word of God is not chained. . . . Remind [people] of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

In this past week’s Presbyterian Outlook, editor Jill Duffield writes:

God’s Word is unstoppable, unchained, uncontrolled by people, undeterred by earthly divisions, unconcerned with human boundaries, whether those of Babylon or Samaria, lepers or wrangling believers. Jesus brings reconciliation, restoration, healing, wholeness, to the outsiders regardless of their attitude or willingness to acknowledge the source of abundant new life.

. . . Do we realize the restoration, the healing, the cleansing, the reconciliation Jesus gives us and respond by giving God praise and glory? Do we live this newly gifted life with such outward gratitude and joy that others are drawn to us and, through us, to Christ? Do we do all in our power to proclaim the gospel, putting aside our petty wrangling . . . ? The good news is that God’s word is unchained. Jesus grants mercy to Samaritan lepers. . . . Nothing will stop the earth shattering, boundary breaking, assumption upending, religious rule bending, human comfort zone shattering Word of God. The question is: How will we respond when it runs counter to our rigid expectations and treasured beliefs?

If we can set aside our wrangling, our need to be right, our vindictive urges and our unspoken hope for karma rather than grace for others, we will discover abundant, good, beautiful community for all people. Our welfare is inextricably linked to the welfare of others. Our cleansing witnesses to God’s will to restore even the most unclean to right relationship with God and others. Jesus came that we might have life and life abundant and that “we” encompasses the entire world he came to save. . . .

God’s Word will not be chained. Jesus will not turn back from Jerusalem. Redemption, upending, boundary breaking, division bridging, breach repairing reconciliation will come. How will we respond?[1]

Let’s pray:

Earth shattering, boundary breaking, assumption upending, religious rule bending, human comfort zone shattering Word of God, break through the boundaries of our hearts. Tear down the walls we build between ourselves and those who are different from us. Turn us back to you with praise on our lips and thanksgiving in our hearts, that all who see us may see your love reflected in our words and our deeds and our very lives. Amen.

[1] Jill Duffield, “Looking Into the Lectionary,” Presbyterian Outlook, October 7, 2019.