TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three Sunday Readings here
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”
The brevity and apparent simplicity of this text hide its theological content; word for word, this narrative of another of Jesus’ healings delivers an amazingly intense content. It directly follows last week’s Gospel from Luke 17 about the nature of God’s kingdom, who will be admitted, and what one must do to be admitted, and in our text at hand Jesus turns many assumptions about God’s deliverance on their heads.
Luke 17:11 indicates that the journey to Jerusalem has commenced with vigor, although in keeping with the theme of the paragraph Luke does not identify exactly where Jesus is except to say he is somewhere between Samaria and Galilee. This is roughly the equivalent of saying Jesus was driving through New England Patriots territory, which could be anywhere from Burlington to Bridgeport. The inclusion of the territory of Samaria in the narrative, though, is critical to the interpretation of the text.
Samaria, today the territory of the contested West Bank, was originally a Canaanite district until conquered by Israel. After the death of Solomon in 931 B.C. the region of Samaria broke off of Israel as a separate northern Jewish kingdom, only to be carried off into a lengthy slavery by the Assyrians. Over many years the Samaritans returned as the northern neighbors of Israel, but their social status was deeply scarred by the original break from Israel and years of forced intermarriage and a watering down of the religious and ethnic bloodline. Shunned by temple Jews, the Samaritans developed a sort of parallel Judaic religious life, worshipping at Mount Gerizim, erecting a temple, and maintaining a priesthood. The Gospels of Luke and John emphasize the second-class status and isolation of Samaritans in such texts as “The Good Samaritan” and “The Samaritan Woman at the Well.”
Jesus, at an unidentified village, encounters ten lepers, at this stage of uncertain origin. Joel Green (see home page) devotes considerable attention to the textual reference that “they stood at a distance,” (i.e., they were separated.) Green observes that “leprosy” covered a wide range of skin maladies; the true presence of Hansen’s Disease in this context is unlikely. (p. 619 n8) He goes on to discuss how the religious and social ramifications of an “unclean” skin disease were often more painful than the malady itself. For at least one of these unfortunates, the stigma of Samaritan heritage added to his woes for reasons cited in the previous paragraph. Put another way, we have one (at least) suffering soul who has been judged unfit for the Jerusalem Temple for just about every imaginable reason.
The faith of the group is strong, and it certainly resonates with last Sunday’s Gospel where the power of a faith as tiny as a mustard seed is able to accomplish great wonders. Collectively they hail Jesus as “Master” and beg for pity. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has cured other lepers early in the text, when such healings were an example of the power of God come to earth through Jesus. But this encounter, later in the text, has a different agenda. Jesus responds to their requests with the command to go and show themselves to the priests (who would verify healing and returned ritual purity.) I have to admit that Professor Green stunned me at this juncture of his analysis when he asks a very elementary question I have never thought of: which priests?
It is easy to forget that two distinct religious allegiances are probably in the mix. Green observes that it is impossible to know for sure. What is clear is that one of the ten lepers “realized he had been healed.” Since Jesus sent all ten to the priests, the assumption can safely be made that Jesus had no doubt their skin afflictions would be quickly healed. But such a healing would be visibly and physically obvious to all ten. What is Luke’s intention here in emphasizing that one of the ten realized he was healed?
Green is of a mind that the term “healed” takes on a holistic meaning here. (p. 624) This tenth leper perceives that he is the recipient of divine blessing at the hands of Jesus. He sees and believes that Jesus is Lord, with all that this implies. Falling to the feet is a public act of submission and a recognition of the authority of another. There is another interesting twist here; the Samaritan leper actually disregards the original instruction of Jesus to show himself to his priest. Going back to that pesky “which priest” question, I think it is useful to look at a text from St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 4, to explain why Luke leaves this question a mystery.
John 4 (read on the Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle A) involves the prolonged narrative of Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well, she of five husbands fame. As their discussion of true religion and worship becomes involved, there is this exchange:
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [Gerizim], but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
I think what we have on Sunday is a theme developed in Luke. John, a few years later, will develop the thought with blunt clarity. The Kingdom of God has rearranged worship and society to such a degree that the one who worships “in the Spirit and in truth” will be saved—even unclean leprous Samaritans from the wrong side of the Jordan.