The story of the ten lepers in unique to the gospel of Luke. The author of this gospel is clearly wanting to highlight an important point by telling this story. The question is, exactly what is this point? It is easy to see this story in terms of gratitude only. In fact, it has often been described as the story of the ‘grateful leper’, inferring of course, that the other nine lepers were ungrateful. If we follow this line, it is easy to become moralistic, and use this story as a weapon to browbeat people into being more thankful. Statements such as “You ought to be more thankful for what you have and for what God has done for you” or “Don’t be ungrateful!” to people who may be worried or anxious can too easily follow on from this story, and are less than helpful.
If we see today’s story as solely being about gratitude or moralising people, we miss the point Luke wants to make. Firstly, we need to note where this healing is taking place. Secondly, we need to pay careful attention to who is being healed. Luke has structured this story to around rituals, borders, boundaries and spiritual realities. It is about inclusion and restoration to wholeness. The underlying call of Jesus is to include people who are deemed as outside of our boundaries by virtue of their cultural or religious status.
The first thing to note is where Jesus is. He is somewhere near the border between Samaria and Galilee. In the bible, and for that matter, in much of our world today, borders are dangerous places. Borders define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. They define nationality, and a place that may not be welcome to those who represent the ‘other’. Wars and state disputes begin over borders. In regard to our national borders, we can feel vulnerable and exposed, so we put up barriers such as walls, guard towers, surveillance cameras and military patrols, to keep people out who “need” to be kept out. So easily we fall into the thinking of “us and them,” with ‘them’ perceived as neither desirable nor good. We have seen this played out here in Australia, with the demonising of asylum seekers from across the sea who would seek our help.
The bible also defines places such as this as “in-between” places, liminal spaces where the veil between heaven and earth can be lifted momentarily. Luke tells us that this story takes place while Jesus is in the region between Samaria and Galilee. This is significant – we are not in Samaria, and we are not in Galilee. We are, in fact, in no-man’s-land. It is in such places that the divine is encountered in the bible. It is a place of transition, a place between states, both in the physical as well as the non-physical sense. Such places are always dangerous, because of their liminal and uncertain nature. These places signify change and transformation. Think of Jacob wrestling with the unknown man, Hagar in the desert, or Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness.
And we are not disappointed. Here in this liminal no man’s land, the divine touches the lives of the ten lepers to heal them. To stress this, the story uses three different words for the healing process: made clean, healed, and saved. Jesus didn’t just cure them of the disease. He made them clean (verse 14), the Samaritan saw he was healed (verse 15), and Jesus finally says to him in verse 19, get up and go, your faith has not just cured you, it has saved you/made you well/made you whole.
The next boundary in the story is that the ten men are Lepers. Lepers were not just perceived as a physical threat in the culture of the first century, they were also seen as a ritual and spiritual threat. They were potentially infectious; and they were ritually unclean. They were cast out from society in the same way demons are described as being cast out of people. The Greek word often used is ekballo, and it means to be hurled out. This was because their disease was thought to be not just physically contagious but also spiritually contagious.
And this group is unusual because it is described as consisting of nine Judeans and one Samaritan. Normally sworn enemies, their shared disease in the social wilderness seems to have rendered their religious differences irrelevant, and they have bonded together. There was only one way back in to society for at least the Jews in their number. According to the law, if a priest declared them clean after an appropriate examination, they could rejoin their families and take their place in society again.
And these lepers know their place. Luke describes them as “keeping their distance” and calling out to Jesus to have mercy on them. Jesus does not touch them, but tells them to ‘go and show yourselves to the priests’. Luke recounts that ‘as they went, they were made clean’.
It was important that the Jewish lepers did exactly this, as the priest’s word was necessary to allow them to re-enter society. And while they’re still on the road, they realise that they’re healed. But only one of them, the despised Samaritan, comes back to say thank you.
Here Jesus has transgressed another border, by including a hated Samaritan in the healing. And Luke really pushes this point, by making the Samaritan (named in the story as the foreigner) the person of true faith who returns to thank Jesus.
Before we condemn the other nine lepers of ingratitude, we need to remember that they are obediently doing what Jesus told them to do – go to the Temple, do what the Law requires them to do. They are being good, observant, faithful Jews. Jesus wonders where they are, but we know, and we can assume that he knows, that they are obeying him so they can go back to their families and former lives. While the outsider, the Samaritan, is so full of gratitude that he turns back to Jesus, we also need to remember that the Temple isn’t a place he would be welcome even if he was cured of his leprosy. In Jesus’ time, there was no cure for being a Samaritan, a group despised and scorned by Jews.
When Luke wrote his Gospel, he constructed his stories about Jesus in a way that was designed to teach the early Christian community he was involved in. It was about understanding the gospel in their own context, and to hear God speaking into that context to help them, deal with the problems their community may have faced. One of the things these early communities wrestled with a lot was the question about how they related to the Jewish roots of their faith, and how they related to the Gentiles and Samaritans choosing to join this new religion. Many of the gospel stories are told in this light, and this one is no different. It reflects Luke’s community trying to work out who they were, and why all Jewish people didn’t choose to follow Jesus. This story is constructed to make them think, and to be astonished that an apparent outsider was the one who showed the greatest faith.
Today, our churches are not struggling with the same Jewish-Gentile question, but we have our own versions of it. Many churches still put up barriers to those of different race, status and sexual orientation. The society we live in still looks to define groups like Muslims as the ‘other’.
I suspect we tend to act more like the nine lepers, in that we fulfil expectations of what we think a good Christian looks like, and do our duty and obey the Law like good citizens. We want to be good church-going people, rather than behaving like radical disciples overflowing with the joy and power of the gospel. We avoid the no man’s land of uncertainty and transition, and seek to remain quiet and comfortable in our faith, stuck in following tradition rather than breaking the boundaries and spilling over with joy and gratitude. We tend to keep a low profile in the face of such problems as rising hysteria around nationalism, border control, and the demonising of the other.
Crossing boundaries always comes at a cost, and at no small risk. Liminal spaces are always risky, even dangerous places. But they are also opportunities for growth. Liminal periods are both temporal and spatial places where we can grow, where we can ‘find ourselves,’ and where we can orient our lives to shape what the future will look like. They allow us to explore questions like: Where are we going? Where is God taking our lives? Who is the ‘other’ that I need to welcome?
It is worth remembering that the people of God would never have come into their own without their experience of going into the liminal, in-between space of the wilderness. Being exiled in Babylon also shaped the people of Israel again, and brought them to love their scriptures in the search for their identity. Jesus’ experience in wilderness formed a prophet into a Messiah.
Let us, then embrace the place between borders, the unsafe and untamed space of the wilderness, for there incredible potential waits. It will be uncomfortable and strange in the wilderness, but it holds the hope of healing, transformation and restoration. In the wilderness there are no barriers to inclusion and faith. But there is the promise of healing, and the promise of gratitude, joy and wholeness. The wilderness provides the space and time to celebrate the indiscriminate, all-encompassing love, grace, and life of God, and for us to hear the call to live out this radical joy and inclusivity in our times and circumstances.
In a world that too easily wounds and breaks, we long for those who will heal and restore;
In a world that too easily divides and dissects, we long for those who will unify and interweave;
In a world that too easily excludes and judges, we long for those who will include and understand;
And in a world where your call, O God, can still be heard, we long for the courage to answer, and to be the ones we long for.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine