Homily for Thanksgiving October 10, 2010

The Thankful Samaritan

Deuteronomy 8.7–18 Psalm 65

Refrain You crown the year with your goodness, O Lord.

Or v.13 or CR 2

2 Corinthians 9.6–15 Luke 17.11–19

 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ 

Ten lepers approached Jesus.  Lepers in that time and place were required to keep a certain distance between themselves and “normal” people, and to shout “Unclean!” as a warning to others to keep away from them.  They often were required to wear distinctive scarves or articles of clothing so people could easily identify them and avoid them.  The story thus raises images of Jewish people required to wear yellow stars of David on their clothing, or black people  shuffling about on the margins of American society or perhaps Native Americans being isolated on “Indian reservations.”  It is painful to be stigmatized that way.

At one point in my life I had a serious outbreak of eczema, which left my hands and feet looking like raw hamburger. I wore gloves and two and even three pairs of socks. I went through bandages and potential skin cures too many to count.  I was acutely self-conscious during this painful ordeal and hated being outside the world of the normal and acceptable.  Having suffered that chronic humiliation, I can identify to some degree with what lepers might have felt like.

Keeping their distance, the lepers called out to Jesus, saying “Have mercy on us.”  Obviously, Jesus did have mercy (a distinctive characteristic in anyone close to God) and Jesus is portrayed as sending them on a journey to the priests, during which they found themselves healed.

Jewish tradition of that time apparently required authentication from a Jewish priest before the newly-healed lepers could be allowed to resume life in the community, so no doubt they would have instantly headed for wherever the nearest priest could be found – maybe Jerusalem.  There is nothing surprising about their response.   Ironically, Jesus is journeying toward the priests at Jerusalem, and the response will not be acceptance but rejection.  It’s a bit of irony anyway, because in Jesus’ scheme of things, no one is truly “clean,” in the sense of being perfect, and no one is really beyond the bounds of God’s love.  So the Gospel is a comment on how people often make quite arbitrary divisions and categories, often based on fear and ignorance. 

“Lepers” approach us all the time – people who have been labelled as dangerous, objectionable, unfashionable – people we fear – people who have been banished from polite society.  It’s always difficult to know where to send them — to a Food Bank? to the Salvation Army? Social Services? the police? – or how to respond – pity? Indifference? Condemnation? Avoidance?  If people like that were sent to the church, to the priests of our era, to be received back into society, would we know how to deal with them? 

The Gospel portrays Jesus as a WAY – a way back into the community – into acceptability – a way back into life.  In every society, including ours, people lose the way, and end up living on the outside looking in.  In the presence of Jesus, the ten found themselves healed. The incident serves not only as an illustration of the healing power of the person of Jesus, it also points people toward an “attitude of gratitude.” 

The ten are symbolic.  The Gospel of Luke has a unique focus on inclusion of those considered to be beyond the pale – his Gospel tells of good Samaritans, prodigal sons, lost coins, etc. but this is the ultimate outsider story.  The idea of lepers being received into the community would have been uncomfortable and difficult to accept.  Everyone in that era would understand the horror of the situation, as leprosy was a term used to describe any number of disfiguring, incurable diseases and people were removed from the community and quarantined because they had no idea of how to cure any of it.  

Jesus is portrayed as travelling through Samaria and Galilee, themselves parts of the world that were rejected, banished from polite company, across the tracks, as it were, and it is no doubt intended as significant that the one leper who expresses thanks is a Samaritan.  The story makes a point about how ungrateful the nine seem to be in contrast to the Samaritan, who on the surface seems to be the only one with good manners.   Yet as annoying as it is when people don’t thank you for doing something nice for them, this is not the major point being made by this Gospel.  People having suffered for years, maybe their whole lives, having been banished from community, feared and despised, were more likely to feel relief than gratitude.  So it’s not surprising that they head immediately to the priests for re-entry back into normal life.  That’s what Jesus asked them to do in any case.  So they aren’t really being blamed – their reaction is quite normal. 

Escape from the prison of isolation and exclusion.  What a gift.  When my eczema finally disappeared, I was immensely relieved not to have to suffer not only the affliction itself, but also the suspicious and apprehensive responses I received from others.  Given a quick cure, I’d have been running to find the priest as well. 

The focus is on the Samaritan leper because the point Luke is making relates specifically to him.  The Samaritan, though linked with these others in their disease, would not have continued to be included among them after his cure precisely because he was a Samaritan – as the New Testament suggests, Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  The point Luke seems be making with the way he tells the story is that it is precisely those who have been most excluded, despised and rejected who will be most grateful to find themselves included in the kingdom of God. 

Where are the nine? Jesus asks. They’ve chosen to become invisible again, to blend back in with everyone else. Given the opportunity to escape their predicament, they’re gone in a flash, which is unfortunate, because they seem to have lost the opportunity for a deeper understanding of what their journey in the valley of the shadows has really meant. It took me a long time to get over the pain and embarrassment of my ordeal with eczema, and longer to integrate that experience into my understanding of my faith journey.

The nine were re-connected with their religion and community, whereas the Samaritan connected with God, and that is a discrepancy that continues to be an issue in any religious institution and community.  The nine were rendered conventional again, which is all most people want, and resumed their old ways.  But the Gospel shows the Samaritan arriving at a different kind of awareness, a different level of relationship, and gratitude is the initial sign or indication.  The nine seek out their priests, but the Samaritan finds in Jesus the great high priest, one who actually seems connected with the healing, restoring power of God.  

What healed them?  What did Jesus bring to their situation that would have changed things so drastically?  Jesus told them their faith had done it.  Interesting, because usually, when people are ostracized and put down, the first thing that goes is faith in themselves, and often people get abused and pushed to the sidelines in the first place because they have no faith in themselves.  So there is a lesson here about maintaining faith even in extreme adversity. 

Significantly, Jesus himself took no credit. He didn’t suggest anything about any divine factor at all. Maybe the simple act of acknowledgement, recognition of them as fellow human beings, and the fact that someone like him actually cared, triggered some amazing power that was already within them.  That is an interesting way to look at faith.

But only the Samaritan, by virtue of his gratitude, and perhaps by virtue of having nowhere else to go, came to know that it was his faith, something already inherent in him, that had allowed the healing to happen.  While the nine scurried off to get themselves re-validated with the religion and society that had excluded them in the first place, the Samaritan was led to understand something profound about the nature of God.   Thanks to Jesus, he discovered the well of living water within him. 

I find so often that it is people who have been lepers of one kind or another who seem to develop the most spiritual and emotional depth, the most wisdom, the most perspective and honesty, and the most compassion, because in their extreme situation in life they either find that or they self destruct.  In our suffering, in our humiliation, in our distance from others, we can discover a deep reverence and appreciation for life, a deep humility, and a deep awareness of our own uniqueness, as painful as that may be to accept. 

Suffering and those who suffer, are always difficult to integrate, but the poorest, the least acceptable, are given a place in the kingdom of God, which is about equality, justice, and universal shalom.  This is a Gospel of inclusion, where someone considered completely outside the realm of acceptability (for a number of valid reasons) is offered a new doorway into life. 

The ten were able to approach Jesus because he was approachable.  So often our churches are perceived as unapproachable, and ironically we are quickly becoming like foreigners (or like lepers) within our own communities, as fewer and fewer people seem to have any idea of how we fit into the general scheme of things. 

Maybe the point of the lesson today is that we learn to identify with the leper.  To be a Christian in this society is to be considered somewhat suspect – it often creates a distance of suspicion and prejudice.  But again, it is often when we are pushed out of the unconsciousness of the conventional and the acceptable that we are most open to growing depth in the Spirit.  As George Orwell said “Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” 

Maybe this time of being marginalized is actually an opportunity, even a summons from God, for us as Church, and as people of God, to grow more deeply into a sense of hope and spiritual depth, to re-discover the deeper mystical roots of our faith, and to delve into the healing power of discovering how to encounter God more directly through the person of Jesus. 

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, be deeply grateful for your blessings – even ones received in and through adversity, and be deeply conscious of those who are outside the circle and out in the cold. 

We indeed have much to be thankful for, and one of my major roles as priest is leading you in “making Eucharist” so we become people with the attitude of gratitude.   As today’s Gospel reveals, this awareness, this attitude,  can bring us very close to God.  

The Rev. Grant Rodgers

October 2010