October 13, 2013

“When Reaching Out is a Stretch”
Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah 29:4-7
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.

Luke 17:11-19
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
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.’

A conventional way to interpret this passage is to take up a tone of criticism of the nine lepers who have been healed, but who fail to return and give thanks. I believe that this is an exegetical error. It is too easy to once again, assuming that we are the ones who have the good sense to turn and give thanks, criticize those who do not pay the Master his due honor of gratitude.

This would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because as Jesus himself says, “were not ten made clean?” There is no clause here that requires thankfulness for the miracle to have occurred. The scene in fact is too much like our own world where some people are healed and others are sick and there is no good, moral, reason for either condition. The point of this text and the point of the blessing itself cannot be to move us to gratitude. Neither is the blessing dependent upon the gratitude.

In fact, the point of this miracle of healing is not healing. It is a sign. By witnessing it, those around Jesus get special information about who he is. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God, sent by the Father to redeem the world. The prophet Jeremiah is busy revealing the nature of God and so the nature of God’s people when he tells them:
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.

So it is likelyI the scene upsets some commonly held beliefs. That is, this messiah does not only serve the chosen people of God. This messiah works both sides of the street. Did you notice? It is almost a throw away phrase. Luke tells us what every observer already knows, just in case we missed it. This person is a Samaritan. It is bad enough that Jesus is messing around with lepers. Even worse is that the one leper who recognizes the situation for what it is, can you believe it, is a Samaritan. It is that bad cousin, the one crazy relative that isn’t welcome at our house any more. It is one of those folks with the weird religious practices. Samaritans were the unlovely outsiders of Jesus’ day, and we can think about who that might be for our congregations and ourselves. This is the one, two strikes, a leper and a Samaritan, who is thankful. Yeesh.

What this text is about is informing everyone who will listen, where the boundaries of participating in the Kingdom of God lie. We should be reminded that the boundaries of grace and restoration are way beyond our conventional wisdom about such matters.

It is also demonstration. If you say, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one,” this is what you’d get. The truth of the gospel is shown in Jesus’ action. This is what you do, my disciples. See, when it is said of me that I have come to save the world, it is the WHOLE WORLD. No exceptions. If this guy is included, everyone is included.

And so there are two things that this pericope is really saying. The first is that if you are really my followers you will reach out people who do not, at first glance, appear to be people who deserve our help, even though they want it. This is a lesson that reaches beyond the limits of religious outreach into social convention as we as a nation serve the poor. We do not ask questions first. We see a need and we help.

Secondly, this pericope is a judgment. It is a judgment on every follower of Jesus who will not reach out to those whose lives are beyond our understanding of proper and healthy. There is no doubt something to be understood here about the people who live on the margins of our communities, who are treated as invisible or unlovely because of how they look or who they are or where they come from. Jesus clearly notices and loves them and calls us to do the same.

If we cannot follow this example, reaching out even when it is a stretch, can we really call ourselves followers of Jesus?

Finally, this judgment also says something about ourselves. We are often our harshest critics. I suspect there are places in your life that you think are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Consider the parts of us that are hidden in the borderlands of ourselves where we may least want to be seen and most need to be touched. Jesus, who is not afraid of borderlands, does not mind meeting us in those places, and it may be that by recognizing him there, we will find in our deepest selves a new outpouring of the grateful love that makes well.