Ordinary 28 C October 10, 2007
Healing Beneath the Skin
If you want a “good read,” you find a novel – a good story to take your mind to another place for awhile – maybe a scary place, or a suspenseful place – perhaps a place of romance, whatever your pleasure.
But if you want to win the Nobel Prize for literature, you have to write about “the human condition.”
That phrase, all by itself, suggests a problem. The question “What condition is she in?” is the one you ask just before the question, “Will she make it?”
If you are in a “condition” you are probably not well. It is universally understood that “the human condition” is a state of not-wellness.
Of all the things that Jesus may have said or done, stories of people he healed were treasured and saved for us. People in the “human condition” have a vested interest in stories of people becoming well.
This healing story, with its precise numbers, provokes questions: How many sick people are there really in this story? How many people are healed by the end? Are there any people left out of the healing? Where are we, in this story?
Children often hear this story the incident of “the one thankful leper;” as a lesson in being polite: saying “thank you.” If that’s the point, I’m not sure it’s enough to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning. Say “Thank you” OK.
Besides, the Roman statesmen Cicero already said “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all virtues.” We do not need Jesus to teach us what every Roman knew about the virtue of saying “thank you” 100 years BC.
There must be something more going on here.
There is, and it is indeed about the human condition and about healing. We need to hear this text, we people in the “human condition.”
The story opens in a place. The place is hard to identify on a geographic map: between Samaria and Galilee – so perhaps Luke is trying to set the story, not spatially, but ideologically. This story happens between two groups of people; people that despise each other: Samaritans and Galileans, that is, Jews.
In this space appear 10 people – not a dozen, not “several” but 10. Why the precise number? What does 10 mean to an Israelite? Are we supposed to be reminded of the 10 tribes of Israel that were conquered by the Assyrians, lost, and never heard from again?
These 10 are lepers – they are not what we identify as lepers today, but people with a skin disease. They were ostracized from the community by their affliction, which made them religiously “unclean”; they had to stand “far off”.
“Far off” was an important term for the prophets. Are we supposed to be reminded of the prophecy in Isaiah that the Lord would gather all the exiles, the ones who were “far off” and bring them back to their home land, a healing of the national wound?
If so, and if we are good Jews reading this story, we remember that when our people returned from exile, when the one remaining tribe of Judah returned, the land was not empty, it had Samaritans living in it – and they were not ready to be pushed aside. There was ethnic trouble. It’s only natural; part of the human condition.
These 10 lepers call out from afar off, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Have mercy? It sounds more like a prayer to God than a plea for healing. It is indeed a plea, from people who know they are ill, who know that their condition is not what it was created to be; who know that they are in need of mercy from the Master.
The master is characteristically responsive to people who are willing to acknowledge that their condition is not-well, and in need of mercy. The master was often dogged by people who pretended to have no need of mercy, to be whole; but these 10 knew their condition was not well.
Jesus responds oddly: no words of healing, no gesture, no touch; only a directive to go do what Torah teaches: “go show yourselves to the priests,” he says, and they go.
The narrator is holding out on us. He knows something that we do not yet – and since we are not told of it, we do not know if Jesus knows it yet either – that one of those ten is now in a very uncomfortable position.
To which priests does a Samaritan leper go? Not to the ones in Jerusalem; Samaritans do not acknowledge them as legitimate. They worship on Mt. Gerizim – which the Jews do not acknowledge as legitimate.
To whichever priests this one leper heads, in this nether-region between Samaritan space and Jewish space, he and the other 9 are all healed; literally, “made clean.” Everyone who asked for mercy from the master was restored to a healthy condition. Story over?
The story is not at all over. There is a plot twist. Ten go away, just like the 10 tribes of Israel went away into exile, but now, just like the one tribe of Judah, one leper returns.
He does not return, like Judah, to find Samaritans on his land, he IS a Samaritan on the land. Listen to how Luke describes his return: “He prostrated himself at Jesus feet and he thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.”
There are a variety of words that we translate “thanks.” This one is the word from which we get “Eucharist.” The great meal of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, given to us by Jesus, is Eucharist – thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, Eucharist, is the response of those who have been healed, made clean of their un-well condition by the mercy of the Master. This Eucharistic thanks is offered by a non-Israelite – and accepted by Jesus in the name of God.
Three rhetorical questions follow:
1) Jesus asked, were not 10 made clean?
2) Where are the other 9?
3) And finally, the stinger: Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this person of another race?
Was none of them found? The lost coin was found. The lost sheep was found. Even the lost son was found and welcomed home; if all were healed, were the others en route to the priests still lost? Perhaps their illness was deeper than the skin.
Only one was found to return. Return is what the people in exile longed for. Return was what the prophets promised. Return happened, and along with it, bitter ethnic strife.
One returned, but he was, literally, “of a different race.”
And yet he was there at the Master’s feet, having Eucharist.
Go, Jesus said, your faith in the mercy of God, given to you through Jesus Christ has “saved you.” Not just “healed you” but “saved you” – way below “skin-deep.”
This serious, deeply complex story sits comfortably here in Gulf Shores among us today.
We are here not because we claim to be in a well-condition. We are here acknowledging, like the lepers, that we are all caught up in the human condition – and it is an un-well state. This is step number one for receiving the mercy of healing: knowing ourselves as sick people, calling out for mercy.
And though we are not even yet fully healed of that condition, we are here because we have received the first-fruits of that healing. We have opened our hearts to the mercy of God, and he has been merciful to us. He has forgiven us. He has found us.
But the ambiguity at the end of the story with its 3 questions forces us to keep the story open-ended. It’s not over. Mercy has been extended; all 10 healed; now what about our response?
In this fuzzy story-space between Samaria and Galilee, between people whom we acknowledge as like us and those that are of a different kind, we have choices to make.
When the healing we have experienced is more than skin deep, if it is truly salvation, then we are ready to gather to have Eucharist, thanksgiving, at a common table with everyone that has been found by the master’s mercy.
Those to whom making distinctions is still relevant, that is, identifying the outsiders and excluding them, may indeed be cozy with the priests at the national shrine, but they have not been found, they have not returned, they do not know the power of Eucharistic Thanksgiving that follows deep salvation.
The human condition is deep; our need for healing is deep. It goes to our very souls. We are the ones who need mercy every day.
And having received mercy, having responded with Eucharistic thanksgiving, we are renewed with faith to go back out into the world of us-and-them as agents of mercy which rejects such distinctions.
It is our mission to extend the reach of the master’s mercy – right across the street, up the road, and to the world.