Walk the line
Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem he was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. (καὶ αὐτὸς διήρχετο (to go through) διὰ μέσον (middle) Σαμαρείας καὶ Γαλιλαίας) 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, (ἐπιστάτα) 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. (ἐκαθαρίσθησαν)15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, (ἰάθη) turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at his feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? (ἐκαθαρίσθησαν) 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.’(σέσωκέν)
Walk the Line
Ten lepers come to him. Only one thanks him. Only this same one is shown giving glory to God, and— surprise!— this one is a Samaritan. And a foreigner. At the end of the story, according to the casual racism of the day, the least likely of the separated ones has fallen at his feet, no longer separated, and free to go on in life as someone who is saved and well.
He is again entering a village which has a Samaritan association. (cf 9:51-55) Again there is rejection and separation, only this time the lepers are separated from him and everyone else, as the custom required; they are the rejects of the village. "The village" is a vignette, a signifier, of our default ways of being. The lepers call out to him— see how their separation is emphasised— and in Luke's habit of using names1 as signifiers rather than merely to identify, he becomes Jesus (God Saves) and Master.
He sends them to the priests.2. "And as they went they were made clean - ἐκαθαρίσθησαν." One of them sees that he has been healed - ἰάθη, and turns back praising God. Praising God— with a loud voice— he falls at his feet. Then he said to him your faith has made you well.’(σέσωκέν)
If we unpack this we see that all ten are made clean. We can see in the Greek word ekatharisthēsan (cleansed) the roots of our word catharsis. But this one man has seen something beyond merely being made clean. Something beyond merely being able to be re-enter society because he is found to be clean – right before God. He is healed. (iathē) But in coming back, and in coming near to Jesus, he is sesōken which comes from sózó, which has a meaning clustered around being saved, healed, preserved, rescued. We are meant to see a progression of consciousness, of choice, and of becoming well. To be truly well is, finally, to be saved.
And the command Jesus makes— get up— is anastas (Ἀναστὰς) which has a hint of resurrection about it; in Luke 18:33 it says Jesus will anastēsetai from the dead.
At base, this might be a story against separation and racism. It is the third Lucan story where Jesus interacts with Samaritans. In Chapter 9 he refuses to call down fire on a Samaritan village which has rejected him. In the story of the traveller attacked by brigands (Luke 10:23-37) a Samaritan is the one who shows the mercy of a neighbour, which is the mercy of a person modelled upon God. And now we see a Samaritan is the one who is well, who is whole; indeed, he is the one who is able to worship well. The clear message is that the casual unexamined (often) racist stereotypes we have inherited, and by which we navigate our lives, have nothing to do with being well, or with salvation.
Where does wholeness come from? The number ten has a sense of wholeness about it. There is something ironic about ten lepers for that deliberate naming suggests a completed sort of group who are, in fact, incomplete and not whole.
In a startling comment on Mark D Davis' page, Mark Rich notes that ten men is the minimum number of men required to form a synagogue. The ten rejected men have a certain kind of wholeness, a solidarity and community based in their common rejection because they are unclean. A synagogue comes to Jesus seeking mercy! Rich notes that "The leprosy was even stronger than the hatred that defined relations between Jews and Samaritans at the time."
When mercy is granted the lepers go to the priests. But, as Rich says,
as soon as God acts to heal/cure/save them through Jesus, it is not that fact that is most important to the nine, but rather the fact that they can now rejoin their former social identity and community, which is what would be accomplished by showing themselves to priests. Ironically then, they would then be free to resume their enmity of each other.
This story holds out the possibility that there can be a community based not on religious/ethnic identity, nor upon hatred, nor upon shared sickness, but upon healing. [I have added the emphasis.]
Hardin and Krantz make the implications of re-joining former identifies explicit:
They made a beeline back to the social matrix from which they had been thrust, back to families they may have missed, back to the world of social respectability. They made straight for the religious dimension of the sacral mechanism, the priest, who would declare them socially acceptable. They failed to see that God, in cleansing them, had already accepted not only them, but also their fellow leper, the Samaritan. A new sociality had been given in the miracle that they failed to grasp and so they took this gift from God and walked right back to the system that had previously extruded them without seeing or understanding that something indeed was bent about the system. (Quoted here)
Indeed, extruded by the system is an excellent phase. We have been extruded by the system, shaped and bent by it. Our "village" is twisted.
There is something profound in the way Mark Rich expressed all this. We understand racism is wrong, yet we say, "I'm not racist, but...." because if we let go of the types by which we navigate our lives, we feel lost. Or we claim to be healed, yet have a faith which is sustained by having an enemy. How many of us rejoice in our healing and yet have a secret Samaritan, a certain sort of sinner against whom we measure ourselves? The theology of doctrinal shibboleths— no gay marriage here— is often rooted in this secret Samaritan who is, in reality, someone to hate and to set ourselves against. We have shared sicknesses, and shared rejections; there are churches bound together by their rejection by other churches. My congregation makes a point of accepting the unacceptable folk, and so we are always at risk of that faithfulness devolving and degrading into an identity politic: we are not like those other churches or synagogues. Which is to say, those Samaritans whom we build our own solidarity against.
Rich does not list as a solidarity the fact that we are all sinners, even if forgiven. This omission is good, even if not deliberate. This is because an emphasis on my sinfulness has been to foster an internal hatred; that is, it focusses me upon division even within myself, which then always bleeds out into hatred against others because I cannot stand myself. When I focus on what is wrong in me, I inevitably find I focus upon the wrong of you, lessening the pain of my own brokenness. Even a focus of forgiveness tends towards focus on what is wrong and broken.
Indeed, the lepers, even when they were still ten, had their own "singular marginalized person, the Samaritan." (cf Hardin in Nuechterlein.)
To focus upon, and to build community upon what is being healed is to begin to walk the fine line toward the completion of creation. It takes the focus off me, it takes my eye off you, and it reminds me that there is no Jew , no Greek, no Samaritan, no slave nor free, no male and female, but only those who are being healed.
And in this little story we see that everyone is being healed. The Samaritan is made whole, but the others are being healed. Everyone of us is being healed, even those who like the younger son are still headed, at the moment, towards a far country.
There is one more verse to consider. The story could simply begin with the words "As he entered a village..." (17:12) But this is a village of un-whole people "on the way to Jerusalem." (17:11) And it is a village in the "region between Samaria and Galilee."
In other words, if you want to understand my story, says Luke, take account of these two facts with which I begin the story.
As I say in Crossing the Chasm, "the finality of love, the peak of love, is to die for the loved one, and that is where this progression through the gospel towards Jerusalem is taking us." The man who is made whole is not simply one more person who happened to meet Jesus. He is chosen to tell us, with Jesus, something about journeying to Jerusalem, the place where we are finally made whole.
(And then I remember that the incident of the first Samaritan village was prefaced with the words "When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.")
But the route of Jesus' journey is expressed somewhat oddly. He goes through the region between Samaria and Galilee. This is a geographical non-sense; it is designed to have us say, "Wait, I thought...." and, indeed, I found that the border between the two regions runs from east to west, while Jesus needed to go from north to south to get to Jerusalem. Particularly observant Jews would head well out to the east to avoid going through Samaria at all. Could the Greek phrase mean he went straight through the middle of Samaria? Apparently not. NRSV, which loves to clarify the meaning, translates the Greek (μέσον) meson as between; Davis says "Given the word order, I think the borderland is intended."
This is not a gospel author who is ignorant of the geography, as some older commentaries used to claim. This is Luke saying Jesus is showing us that to travel to Jerusalem, to be made whole, we need to travel the borderlands. We need to travel the places of insecurity. Our village cannot be a settled place with neat categories of 'in' and 'out.' We are called to travel, to travel the uncertain, sometimes frightening path of being healed and coming near to others who are being healed.
The story tells us that the man who realised he was healed— that there was something more than simply being made clean to continue on his old path— this man was a Samaritan. But Jesus— and it is Jesus, not merely he— Jesus injects two other signifiers into the story.
The first is that those who, no doubt grateful, are heading back to their old path and their old villages, are only nine. They are being healed. They have been made clean. But there is something incomplete about their community. The Samaritan does not go back to his old village.
But the one who is healed and whole and sent out "on your way," is not called a Samaritan by Jesus. He is called a foreigner. The word Allogenēs (ἀλλογενὴς) implies something like other-born.
To be whole is to travel to Jerusalem as the other-born. The traveller is the one who chooses not to be 'at home' with the established categories and stereotypes; they are born of somewhere else. The traveller walks the fine line between the mores and habits that everyone else thinks are solid and trustworthy. For the traveller does not believe, and no longer has faith, that our types are trustworthy descriptions of a whole humanity. Our only wholeness is that we are being healed and drawing closer, in thanks, to the healer.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!
Also on One Man's Web
A Priest in a Taxi (2013)
The Blessing of the Outsider (2013)
Want wholeness with that, or just healing? (2010)
Janet Hunt: Between Samaria and Galilee
Paul Nuechterlein: Proper 23C This gives detail underlying my image of the "the village" in which we live, and its stereo (ie solid and trustworthy) types, and exclusion.
1. The text in verse 11 does not say Jesus. NRSV adds this for clarification. So we may call me "him" or "Andrew." In my culture this has little significance; perhaps Andrew is more personal. But both are simply identifiers; for example, we are talking about Andrew and not about Ken. But in many cultures, he identifies. Andrew is likely to say something more: the name means manly or masculine from the Greek word for man. The art of reading is to discern whether the author is simply using he and Andrew as interchangeable identifiers, or in a progression of significance in a story. Cf Crossing the Chasm at the heading A Name. See also the progression from he to Jesus to the Lord in Luke 13:10-17
2. Paul Nuectherlein notes: Michael Hardin, at PreachingPeace.org (the “Anthropological Reading”), offers the reading of Jesus command — “Go and show yourselves to the priests” — as a plural, “priests,” that points to the differing worship practices. The nine Jewish lepers were to go to their priest; the Samaritan to his priest — thus, the plural “priests.” The Samaritan ends up choosing his priest as Jesus, modeling true worship.