Proper 23 Year C: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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I was talking to a friend one time, who was telling me about a friend of his who for twenty years had not spoken to his neighbor two doors away. It seems that one of them had said something to offend the other, and ever since they’d been bad-mouthing each other to whomever would listen. Well, my friend said that his friend asked him one day what started the all troubles in Ireland. So he explained that at the root of it all was the fact that the Roman Catholics and the Protestants there had never been taught that they should love one another as neighbours, regardless of their differences, and that it was not okay to hate each other. It’s an oversimplification, but it made the point. And then my friend looked his friend in the eye and said, “And you guys would fit right in over there because you’re just like them. You’re both just as stupid and ignorant as the Irishmen who killed each other for all those years; the only difference is that you two haven’t shot each other yet!” How’s that for speaking the truth in love? My friend told me that this guy eventually went and apologized to his neighbor, and they’ve been at least civil to one another ever since.
The gospels give lots of examples of encounters Jesus had with Samaritans. And in every one of them, there’s the hint that Jews didn’t think very highly of Samaritans. In fact, there was a lot of deep hatred between Jews and Samaritans in those days. So it’s important for us to know the backstory to that. Shortly after the death of King Solomon nearly a thousand years before Jesus, his servant Jeroboam set himself up as king over ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and reigned in Samaria, leaving Rehoboam the son and heir of Solomon to reign over the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 12). These then became known as the kingdom of Israel (aka the Northern Kingdom) and the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). And the people in the Northern Kingdom became known as Samaritans, while those in the Southern Kingdom became known as Jews. Later on, because of the iniquity of Jeroboam, the northern king, God allowed Sargon the king of Assyria to invade and to carry off all the priests and other key people from Samaria and scatter them among the pagan nations of his empire, and then to relocate pagans from those places to Samaria. Then Sargon was informed that the God of the Israelites had sent lions among the new settlers in Samaria because they didn’t know God’s law. So the king sent an Israelite priest back to teach them the law of Moses. But that didn’t totally convert them. Instead they incorporated that teaching into their pagan practice, so that they worshipped the God of Israel alongside their own gods. And that’s how things continued until the time of Jesus, so that by then the Jews despised the Samaritans even more than ordinary pagans because of their syncretism, their mixing of the two religions.
Up until the split, they were all on the same page in terms of what they regarded as sacred scripture, the five books of Moses, the first five books of our Old Testament. It wasn’t until after the split that the rest of the books of the OT began to be written, all of which were written in Judah by Jews and, by the time of Jesus, were regarded by most Jews, but not by any Samaritans, as sacred scripture along with the books of Moses. And we know by the way Jesus regarded all those other books that they have an authority equal to the books of Moses. So with that in mind, you can see what a put-down it was for Jews listening to Jesus when he told stories in which the Samaritans were the good guys, and the Jews didn’t measure up. The prime example is the parable of the Good Samaritan—I’ll come back to that.
In today’s gospel Jesus is travelling on the border between Galilee, which is Jewish territory, and Samaria, and was met by a group of ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan. Ordinarily, Jews wouldn’t have been seen in the company of Samaritans, but the circumstances in this case changed everything. A common predicament will often bring together the worst of enemies, forcing them to cooperate for their own good. In this case, ten people were quarantined because of a contagious disease; nine Jews and one Samaritan. In better days, when they were all healthy, the nine wouldn’t have had anything to do with the one. And it’s quite likely that this one Samaritan was not treated as an equal by the others.
So here they were, forced to form their own tiny community for the sake of survival. Not only were they isolated, but according to the law of Moses–recognised by both Jews and Samaritans– they were forced to humiliate themselves as well. In Leviticus, the law says,
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev 13:45-46)
So, since they weren’t allowed to come near other people, they stood afar off and called out to Jesus for help.
Now here’s something that’s as true today as back then: When people get what they want, they often tend to forget about how they got it. Jesus sent the ten off to the priests, and as they were going, they found that their leprosy had disappeared. The law required that even though a person had recovered from leprosy, he had to present himself to the priest to be officially pronounced clean before being allowed back into society. “And as they went,” Luke says, “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.” The Samaritan was so excited and so grateful that he returned to Jesus as soon as he saw what had happened. No doubt the other nine went on to the priests in order to get the official stamp before they forgot the source of their healing, but the Samaritan, the real outcast, he came back. He realised that this gift was from God himself, though he probably could not have articulated who Jesus is in relation to God.
It’s obvious that the first point Luke is making here is that we should give thanks to God always, and for everything, recognizing that all good things are from God alone. But the other thing Luke is getting at is not so obvious, and it’s one of the points that he makes in the parable of the Good Samaritan as well. Jesus told that story in the middle of a discussion about the law which, he said, is summed up in the two greatest commandments, love God; and love your neighbour. In that parable, a priest and afterward a Levite saw an injured Jew, one of their own, lying in the road ‘half dead’ and refused to help. But a Samaritan, one of “those people,” did everything he could to save this Jew. This hated foreigner was willing to obey the two great commandments when two prominent religious men, supposed to be shining examples of godliness, were not. And in this case, the Samaritan also followed the more difficult teaching of Jesus, which is to love your enemies, and to do good to those who hate you.
In today’s gospel, it’s the one Samaritan, rather than the nine Jews, who comes back to Jesus. One of Luke’s intentions for his gospel was to show that salvation through Jesus Christ is open to all people, everywhere, Jews and Gentiles (= non-Jews) alike. Luke himself was a Gentile, not a Jew. And in a subtle way he shows that by the time he was writing his gospel, there were more Gentile converts in the Church than Jews.
These are the lessons that Luke was trying to get across to his first audience. But the lesson here for us is one that every generation has to learn for itself—the lesson of gratitude, thanksgiving. And the lesson of gratitude is tied up with the message of sin and salvation. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul (Rom 3:23). And because of this there’s no way we can earn a place in God’s kingdom—not by heredity, not by working hard at being a good person. It’s a gift—it’s the greatest gift. And as such it deserves our deepest gratitude, expressed by falling beside the Samaritan at Jesus’ feet in worship. But the things that we tend to remember are more often than not the things we work hard for rather than the things that we don’t have to work for, the things we think we’ve earned on our own, rather than the things we’ve been given. This is what happened to the other nine lepers. The one leper, on the other hand—the odd man out—recognised not only how great a gift he’d been given, but also acknowledged the source of the gift as being the Source of all good gifts.
God’s response to that leper is the same as his response when each of us approaches him with a penitent and grateful heart. And whether our bodies are healed or not, it’s the healing of our souls that’s most important, because we’ve all got to die, and for some of us that process will involve greater suffering than for others. But this life and that kind of suffering are only temporary. Our souls and our resurrected bodies are for eternity, which is what Jesus was all about in his ministry. He came to establish an eternal kingdom, and to invite all people to become part of it. So regardless of the nature of our healing, and regardless of the suffering we may have to face, we need to be mindful always of the grace of God working in our lives. We need to fall before him in grateful adoration, we need to hold out our hands to receive him and to hear him say to us, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” In the Name of…