Nine and one...
Introduction to Jeremiah 29
The text was written almost 600 years before the time of Jesus, "after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem." (Jer 29:2) The cream of society was sent into exile by the Babylonian conquerors. Jeremiah was writing to people who felt as though their world had come to an end and that God had deserted them. People who wondered, perhaps, if their understanding of God and the world had been entirely wrong. As we live in a world might seem to be falling apart, with climate floods of Pakistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the crumbling of civil society in the USA, we could feel the same. God had a message for such a time:
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon... : 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Introduction to Luke 17
Leprosy: Leprosy was the name given to a whole group of skin diseases. It wasn't the Hansen's disease we call leprosy today. If you had one of these diseases you were cast out from society, you had to stay well away from people, and it was often thought that God was punishing you. If your disease got better, you had to show yourself to a priest, who would check your skin was clean. If it was, you then had to undertake a series of three sacrifices and rituals which would let you re-enter society. But if you were a Samaritan, I think you would go to a Samaritan priest, not the priests in Jerusalem!
And that… is because
Samaritans and other Israelite peoples didn't get on; typically, they hated each other. They had big differences about how and where to worship Yahweh. So, folks up in Galilee, where Jesus was, would not take the obvious road through Samaria to get to Jerusalem, which was down in Judea. They'd take a longer path out to the east, to avoid Samaria altogether. It would be like us in Adelaide travelling up through Broken Hill to stay well away from Victoria on the way to Sydney.
So the first line of the reading is a little puzzle. It says, On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee... That's like me saying On the way to Sydney from Adelaide, Jesus was going through the region between Victoria and New South Wales… That doesn't make sense… because there is no such region…
But Luke's not talking about geography in this story, and this apparent error in geography is the sign that he expects us to realise this. He is talking about how we experience the world. This is a story is about being in the borderlands of life, about times of transition, times of crisis and decision. He is saying that in the borderlands of life—what some folk call the liminal spaces—in the borderlands of life where we butt up against the things and people we don't understand, or even fear and hate, and in the times of uncertainty, there is an offer and opportunity of grace and healing. Let's hear the reading…
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.’
John's Gospel tells us that if we have seen Jesus, then we have seen God. (John 14:9) In other words, Jesus shows us the nature of God. So today's Gospel reading about Jesus is ultimately a story about the nature of God. And the story shows us that the nature of God is to heal. God heals even feared and hated outcasts like lepers.
The Greek text says the lepers stood far off, which is what was required if you had one of the skin diseases that were called leprosy. You couldn't go near other people, and it was commonly understood that you were also far off from God. But Jesus makes these ten lepers clean because the nature of God is to heal us and bring us back into community.
If you had leprosy and it got better, then you showed yourself to the priests, who would certify that you were clean, and then when the right rituals had been performed, you could re-enter society and come near to people, and come near to God. You were included in society again.
If we read it closely we can see the text tells us that as the lepers set off to see the priests they were made clean. But one of them saw not only that he was made clean, but that he was healed. The Greek word for this is: ἰάθη. This man turned back to Jesus, who said, "Were not ten made clean?" Where are the other nine? And he told the man to go on his way because his faith had made him well. (Greek: ἐκαθαρίσθησαν: they were made clean; ἰάθη: healed.)
So, in this story, nine are made clean, but only one is made well! And Luke is watching us just like someone who's told us a dad joke, and he's saying, "Do you get it?"
We might think about this and wonder what's the difference between being made clean, and being made well, which is the first question Luke would like us to ask.
And we might also think... well, the nine did have faith in Jesus! They set off for the priests even before they were made clean—surely that's faith!
Luke's first readers, who spoke Greek, could see some of the puzzle straight away, because there is a Greek word σῴζω which means heal, just like ἰάθη means heal. But σῴζω also means preserve, save, do well, be made whole, and σῴζω is the word Jesus used to tell the man who has been healed that he has also been made well... or is that made whole... or is it saved? It's a very clever pun.
I think Luke uses that pun because it is the nature of God to heal us, no matter who we are, and no matter how we respond. But the way we respond to God's healing sometimes seems to open deeper riches for us; we experience a being made well, or made whole, which is what I think being saved is all about.
Maybe you've seen this in someone's life, perhaps even in your own: We can get run over by a car and get put back together—we can be healed... or we can get run over by a car and it turns our whole life around.
How does this work? And what is the faith Luke is talking about, because, on the surface of things it seems the whole ten had faith in Jesus' ability to heal them.
Do you notice that there are ten lepers; ten invalids who are also invalids. They are excluded from society, which is a very typical human response to illness, especially the illnesses we are afraid of. Why ten? It pays to ask this question because bible stories almost always have a reason for the numbers they use.
The Greek text makes it clear that there were ten men. Ten men was the number of men needed to form one of the basic units of Jewish society, a synagogue—and yes, like ours, it was a very gendered society. Ten was also a number used to symbolise wholeness.
Can we see that in this story that even ten lepers, ten people excluded from society, natural scapegoats if you like, form their own little society that is seeking some kind of wholeness? People can't exist on their own. And this little society even has its own scapegoat, someone who can be picked on or excluded, and he is drawn to our attention; he is a Samaritan, an outsider in Judean society.
The really sad thing is that the nine of them are rushing off to the priests to be certified as clean, as healed, so that they can go straight back into the society that has excluded them rather than care for them. They don’t notice that there is something about Jesus which is different to society or culture… and to our society or culture. They have faith in the rituals of the temple, of their current society, to complete their healing. They think that the place that excluded them will now make them whole. The Samaritan man saw that Jesus was something different. We could say that instead of going back to his own people, he joins Jesus' society.
Please note that this story has nothing to say about Jewishness. It just happens in a Jewish context. It is a story about us because... we do exactly the same things in our society. We form our own little groups, particularly if we feel we have been excluded, and who can blame us!? We need a group—a community—in which we can be safe. But have you noticed that each one of these groups we form, right through from the local footy club to the church council, has a scapegoat: someone who doesn't quite fit in, doesn't pull their weight, doesn't get the real purpose of the group...
There is always someone, and maybe you've noticed that if we get rid of them then, invevitably, someone else becomes a problem, which... might just make us wonder... if maybe the problem is us, and the way we form groups and alliances... and community… because our culture is based on exclusion. We think that to be whole... to have unity... you have to exclude some people.
The leper who was made well doesn't go back to his home, or go off to the Samaritan priests, to be validated. He steps even further out of society and goes to Jesus. The ten stood far off, and come no closer. But he comes close to Jesus; he falls at Jesus feet. He worships him.
Perhaps Luke is giving us a broad hint that worshipping Jesus sets us free from the patterns of our society and culture. Luke says, along with the other Gospel authors that there is a new way of being human which they call the Kingdom of God; today, we might call it the culture of God.
Well... what does it mean to worship Jesus and be a part of his culture? It's not about doing church the right way. We know that we can have a church full of Ministers and Priests and Levites and have a toxic abusive culture that can be far worse than the local footy club. ... ... Did you get it—my little joke? ... What story in Luke has a Priest and a Levite... and a Samaritan?
It's the parable of the Samaritan traveller who risks his life and leaves an open account at the pub so that his hated Jewish neighbour, the one his people would normally exclude, can become well.
So, what does it mean to worship Jesus? Maybe it is about being church the right way. Maybe worshipping Jesus is about giving ourselves lavishly and wastefully to others. And especially giving ourselves to those our society wishes to invalidate or cancel, and exclude. And even more especially... giving ourselves to those we personally don't like—the ones we would make our personal scapegoats. If you have tried to do this you know it's not a nice social justice program, is it? It's painful. It means we pray desperately to live something that does not come naturally to us. Something that costs us and scares us. It can be dangerous.
I'm not good at this. It frightens me. But even with the tiny little bit I've managed, I've been made well.... which brings us right back to Luke's distinction between being healed and being made well. I'm still snarled up with some of the mess of my childhood— it looks like I haven't been healed at all! But my witness is that something has happened to me—turned my life around. It's been given to me, done to me, not by me. I have been made well and found a richness in life far beyond what I expected. God heals.
And with that, I could say: Amen… except…
…what about the Samaritan? Why does Luke make a fuss about him?
The culture of God includes everyone, that's why. And there's something else. It's often the outcasts and the difficult people who show us how to live. We don't include people simply because it's right. The people we struggle to include enable us to see the culture of God among us. My experience is that it's often them who seem to channel the healing of God which makes us well.
(Andrew Prior Oct 2022)
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