First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 21

Pentecost 21: 9 October Luke 17:11-19

These ten lepers are much better behaved than the one who annoyed Jesus by ignoring the established safety barriers and rushing to his feet in Luke 5:12-16 (based on Mark 1:40-45). They keep their distance in accordance with the Law (Lev 13:45-46). It did not prevent them calling out for help. Interestingly Jesus also kept his distance, responding not with touch, as in 5:13, but with the same instruction as there. They are to go to the priests. The priest’s role is to inspect the symptoms and if all is well declare the person fit to re-enter social life (Lev 14:2-4). Associated with the declaration was an offering.

The leprosy is not the Hansen’s disease we know as leprosy today. It seems to have been rather a term for a range of skin diseases which are assumed to be contagious. It meant being isolated from the rest of the community as "unclean". Once known, it was a wretched experience, not unlike those who contract modern leprosy in traditional communities. Such lepers are forced out and forced to fend for themselves. As we shall see, they often also gained a reputation for being bad or contentious. People often have little patience when sufferers are contentious (they shouldn’t complain!).

It is not at all evident how the healing occurred, just that it happened. As usual in such stories the assumption is that divine power in Jesus was able to effect such cures. There are stories about skin conditions suddenly clearing, but we need not modernise the story by inventing a plausible explanation that fits our science. In their science this kind of thing could happen. Here it happens simply by the spoken word, literally and symbolically powerful.

Off the lepers go. It is while they go that they are healed. This was implicit in Jesus’ command; otherwise why go to the priests? The word used here means "purified" or "cleansed" in a cultic sense, because the healing would put them in a state of cleanness when they could be declared safe to return home. Lepers were healed, by whatever means. We read, for instance, in Mark 14:3-9 of Simon the former leper who entertained Jesus.

In the healing of the single leper Luke emphasises observance of the Law (5:14). Here it is without emphasis, but assumed. Luke assumes the Law stands. This story feeds off the first story. Luke is fond of doing this, both within the gospel as well as between the gospel and Acts. The similarity usually has the effect of highlighting what is different.

What is different here? Only one said, "Thank you!" Did Luke have a low view of lepers? Many did. The single leper of the first story angered Jesus according to Mark and Luke retains the detail about his blabbing about what had happened whereas Jesus had instructed him to keep silent (5:15). The nine healed lepers go off apparently ungrateful. Only one returns. I remember the story from my childhood. "Don’t forget to say, 'Thank you!'" That is harmless enough. Is that all there is to it?

He was a Samaritan! Not so surprising, since 17:11 tells us Jesus is passing through Galilee and Samaria. But the point is not one about demography, but about norms and prejudices. You wouldn’t expect a Samaritan to say, ‘Thank you!’, because ‘you all know what Samaritans are like.’ This also forms a pair with the parable of the good Samaritan. Luke is subverting a racist stereotype. In Jesus’ words the man is a foreigner, some of another race (allogenes).

It should not be difficult to find parallels in our own communities. "You all know what Muslims are like" was a common response after the bombings. Or in this part of the world we heard that the asylum seekers are those kind of people wanting to come here to live, although in fact they are mostly people fleeing the injustices we otherwise deplore. These are simple but devastating prejudices.

Rubbing the salt in, Luke has Jesus announce that this tenth leper, the Samaritan, has been made whole, a image of full salvation, the very aspiration of the best people who would seek to avoid Samaritans and others who today might be written off as Palestinians. Similarly the Samaritan who came to the aid of the traveller lying beaten up on the roadside embodied the heart of Torah: loving one’s neighbour.

My childhood lesson about saying, "Thank you!", went only part of the way. The leper did come back to say, "Thank you!" to Jesus, but it is interesting that this, too, is rephrased. According to Jesus he returned to give glory to God. "Thanking Jesus = giving glory to God. Therefore Jesus is God." Yes and no, and certainly not as simply as that sounds. But it does reflect where Jesus’ priorities lay. Giving glory to God, recognising that in Jesus God was in action, focusing on God was what made it appropriate for Jesus to declare the man’s wholeness in a broader sense. True worship is recognising where God is active and, as the following verses in 17:20-21 indicate, acknowledging when the reign of God is in our midst. So the wrong kind of worshipper according to common prejudice is giving the right kind of worship. As the good Samaritan embodies love for neighbour, so this good Samaritan embodies love for God. Together they embody the twofold centre of Torah.

The story is deliberately subversive. Lepers were not very respectable and Samaritans were despised by many. Suddenly one of them becomes our high priest, as it were, our model of salvation. And those who belong get it wrong. A simple but disturbing story that lives itself out in every generation.

Epistle: Pentecost 21: 9 October  2 Timothy 2:8-15