Week of Sunday October 10 See 2019: Walk the line, here.
Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
11 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.’
(20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ 22 Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it….)
God sends rain on the righteous and sinners alike. Jesus heals the lepers, righteous or not, sending them on their way. God just does… regardless of our faith or obedience. This is “a very good thing,” as they say. Imagine what life would be like if blessings only came when we worshipped God properly.
We could argue, at this point, and suggest that all ten lepers had asked for healing. That was a kind of faith, we might say. That was a kind of obedience- that coming to Jesus and setting off to the priests. But the fact remains that God just does... The rain comes, the crops grow, we get over our coughs and colds and much worse, with the inbuilt healing power of God. All this comes regardless of whether we pray, or have faith, or even believe.
The question is whether we will notice Jesus.
What I’m playing with here is the realization that God is, well… a “pluralist!” If we get past the idea that God is “biding his time” before punishing everyone except his favourites; that is, us, this pluralism is inescapable. God lavishes plenty upon saint and sinner alike. We seriously pervert that plenty to our own purpose with greed, violence and idolatry, but the rain still falls.
I’ve actually had people say in response to observations of this kind, “Then what is the point of Jesus?!” Jesus has been, for them, a kind of cosmic fix for all the world’s sin, and if God is not especially vicious to sinners, and even loves them, what is Jesus for?
As Luke tells it, the healing of the disease, and the being found clean by the priests is not the issue at hand. Indeed, those nine men were healed. But the point, Luke is saying, is that Jesus is the centre. The person who comes back and gives thanks to God by falling at Jesus feet is the one who is made whole, not just healed. The two Greek words are different. Ten were cleansed, only one was made whole, or saved.
This Jesus at whose feet the Samaritan falls is on the way to Jerusalem. He is on the way to Canberra, or Washington, or London- the seat of power. He is going from the place of his popularity to the place where he will be utterly rejected. He is preaching the subversive kingdom of God. This is a kingdom totally at odds with the Establishment and the “powers that be.” This is the Jesus we are to worship, says Luke. This is the Jesus who makes us whole!
The fact that only the Samaritan “gets it,” makes the story blunt, to say the least! Someone I was reading suggested it reflects the fact that by the time Luke is writing, the Jewish community has already largely rejected Jesus. Only the outsiders, the Samaritans and the Gentiles see him for who he is.
We see that immediately after this “making whole,” people want to know, “When will this wholeness happen for the rest of us?” The “despised” Samaritan “suddenly becomes our high priest, as it were, our model of salvation.” Bill Loader makes this astonishing statement. The Pharisees (v 20) see this exactly. They know what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of wholeness and salvation. If the Samaritan, of all people, is whole and fit for the kingdom, when will it come for us—surely it will come for us too?!
It is not coming, says Jesus, with “things that can be observed,” for in fact “the Kingdom of God is among you.”
Jesus is at the centre. He is the one “among us.” Will we see this?
It is as though all the teaching and all the healing is shaken into is shaken into perspective at this point of the gospel. “On the way to Jerusalem” what is important? Is it one more gift of healing from the God who heals by default? Is it the preaching of the kingdom? No. It is the person to whom all this points: Jesus. The Kingdom is not a thing coming to be observed here or there; it is among us. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them, it says in another place. (Matt 18:20)
There is an inescapable tension for we people of century 21.
We see the God whom I labeled a “pluralist,” the God who is so much larger than our tradition. We inescapably realise the Christian faith is but one approach to GOD and wholeness. We may fiddle with the edges of such a statement, but the basic fact remains, despite our discomfort. The temptation is to ask if perhaps Jesus is “optional.” Vosper, for example, seems to suggest we should go beyond Jesus, and the limitations of his world view, into the humanity to which he points. Others would note that the politics of Jesus’ Kingdom of God can be enunciated apart from Jesus. They are largely implicit in the Torah and the Prophets.
Is Jesus necessary? Luke claims he is. Luke places him at the centre. The making whole of the outsider, the Samaritan, happens in the context of politics that we can articulate without Jesus, but it happens through Jesus. Jesus is at the centre.
One thing is clear: Jesus grounds us in the political now. The making whole happens on the road to Jerusalem. There is no retreat for us into some kind of ethereal spiritual system. Kingdom of God among us is kingdom of God among us in the real political, personal, social, full of grumpy neighbours world. An old friend told me of the habit of many folk in his valley over the hills from the City; they went to church, but didn’t take the paper. This retreat from the world is the antithesis of Jesus who went to Jerusalem.
But do we need him? In our grounded world, is this enigmatic figure any more than a figure of history that we could largely forget, now that we have heard his message? Is he not just one more Messiah, anointed for the time being?
The elephant in the room first: Of course GOD may be approached by a different path. What kind of GOD would pin salvation to a person of whom most of the world will never even hear? But… let us pay attention to the context in which we say there is more than one path to GOD and wholeness. When I hear people asking this question, and talking about many paths to God, it’s usually like this: “OK, I won’t get clobbered if I don’t follow Jesus, because there are other ways to God, so now I can go off and do my own thing, and ignore the whole issue.” As though Jesus not being the only way means there is no need to thoroughly embrace some other Way.
If we do not pay serious, extended, persistent attention to approaching GOD, then the grace of wholeness, it seems to me, remains an unwrapped, un-enjoyed gift.
But let’s say we have chosen, or been born into, or wandered into the Jesus tradition. Do we need Jesus, or is the centrality of Jesus an old mystical-magical thing we post enlightenment people have outgrown; a superstition even?
I have come late to Jesus. GOD was my thing; a consuming obsession which has filled my life. Jesus was a merely a cipher, a door, a symbol; disembodied. Something has changed for me. The truth of Jesus, this man Luke puts at the centre, even makes the Centre, is brought home to me in an old Bob Dylan song. Fresh from conversion to Christianity, he wrote “you gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody”—no matter who you are.
I’ll step around his cosmology of the time, “the Devil or the Lord,” to the unmistakable message of his song. You gotta serve somebody. As a solitary introvert I have spent my life puzzling over ideas, concepts and ideals. They’re all important. But slowly and painfully I realise that, as a human, my deepest meaning is in people, and in my relating to them. Even for socially awkward, shy, exhausted-by-people me, the path to wholeness is in and through people. Concepts and ideals are not enough. You gotta serve somebody- not just the ideals of GOD.
Luke is telling me this Jesus is the person to serve, to have as my star to follow. If I want to follow the Judaeo-Christian path to GOD, into which I was born, Jesus is the one to serve. He is the Centre. He is the man far enough removed, distilled and refined by the tradition, that his human foibles and failings will not distract me from GOD and wholeness. And he is remarkable enough, whole enough, and real enough to remain a constant inspiration and gateway to GOD. Wholeness is serving Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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