Luke 17:11-19 Through Difference to a Common Humanity
Caitlin Trussell on Thanksgiving Eve, November 26, 2014, with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver
Luke 17:11-19 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
There is a lot of talk about distance in this story about the lepers. Jesus is cutting through the region of Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is code language in Luke for his death on the cross. But he’s not there yet. He makes a detour on the way to the cross. The ten people with leprosy, the Bible’s catch-all label for a range of skin diseases, are also distant. They are “keeping their distance” as they call out to Jesus. The story is silent about whether or not Jesus moves toward the lepers. He simply tells them what to do and the lepers go away to do what he tells them to do, putting even more distance between the Jesus and the lepers.
We are left with the impression that this initial encounter between Jesus and the lepers happens pretty quickly. Jesus walking along, lepers yell, Jesus yells back, lepers gone. All the while there is no contact, no laying on of hands mentioned as the lepers are made clean. Another way to translate being “made clean” out of the Greek is to be “made whole”.
There is no physical contact until after the man is made clean, made whole. Noticing his cleanness, his wholeness, the leper turns back and drops at Jesus’ feet. Picture this, the man lays flat on his belly on the ground. The now former-leper is also a Samaritan which is a double-whammy. Samaritans, being the outcasts of the day, had no business being near any Jewish man. This was not their place in the social network. But there he is, flat out, collapsing at Jesus’ feet, collapsing the distance between them.
Also collapsing as the man drops to the ground are the distinctions between faith, gratitude, and wholeness. It’s difficult to tease apart the mash-up as the man lays there in the dirt at Jesus’ feet.
A few weeks ago, knowing I was going to be preaching on Thanksgiving Eve, I e-mailed the Prayer Chain of people who pray over the weekly prayer requests. In that e-mail I told the people on the Prayer Chain that I’d love to hear from them about a practice or behavior of gratitude that works for them or something for which they are grateful. People e-mailed back specifics but one common theme seems to be something about acknowledging God in the mix of life’s ups and downs regardless of outcome.
More specifically, I have permission to share with you this story from last week’s Congregation’s Council meeting. Council members take turns each month talking about something related to their experience of faith. This time at the beginning of each meeting is called “the devotion.” Our Council Treasurer volunteered to open this latest meeting. He talked about Thanksgiving coming up and the topic of gratitude. And then he told us that in the middle of thinking about his gratitude for certain things in his life, it occurred to him that he had not been directly thanking God. He talked about his awareness without judging it and then read Psalm 145 to us. When he was done, I suggested that perhaps he could the preacher on Thanksgiving Eve. Clearly that suggestion didn’t pan out.
The point is that Psalm 145 is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for who God is and what God has done. Prayers such as this Psalm drop us at the feet of God. Prayer such as this Psalm collapse the imaginary distance we put between us and God. Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus’ death on a cross, collapses this imaginary distance for us. It is already done whether we take notice of it or not. The question is, “What happens when we notice that there is not distance between ourselves and God?” What happens is that we get to see things differently, we get to participate in this life differently.
Notice that man who is made whole isn’t made whole by erasing his Samaritan-ness. The distinction of his ethnicity remains a part of him in his wholeness. Differences remain. This is an important part of the good news in this story for us here today. Across the differences we set up as barriers, Jesus acts to make us whole. Making us whole individually. Making us whole collectively. Seeing our differences within the container of our common humanity. Celebrating our differences across infinite shades of brown even as we all bleed red.
We live in a world that would have us believe that we need to choose one over the other. Either I choose to see only that you are different and need to keep you at a distance or I choose to negate our difference by wondering why you can just be more like me because clearly that’s the best way to go. Jesus making the Samaritan man whole reveals this as a false choice. These days we face hard questions about the flaws and strengths of our country’s slow crawl out of historical, yet still devastating, racism and classism.
I was sitting with some friends recently, all four of us in our various shades of skin from the palest tan to warm chocolate. The subject of race came up and one friend said to the other, “When I look at you I don’t see your color.” After a long pause, my other friend said, “When I hear you say that, I hear that you don’t see me.” Both of my friends are sincere, earnest people who care deeply about each other and who have been friends long enough to say what’s on their minds. It is a tough conversation that isn’t over. This kind conversation is where we can take the wholeness of Christ out for a spin. Where we encounter each other as foreigners, different from each other. And as humans, the same as each other. Both are true.
Like the 10 lepers, we too are made whole by Jesus. We are given this wholeness regardless of whether we turn back and thank Jesus for it. This Thanksgiving Eve, may I humbly suggest that we turn first to God and give thanks and praise to God for all that God is doing through Jesus. And second, may we say a prayer or two this week thanking God for our differences and ask for the humility to offer ourselves in real relationship across those differences to share in our common humanity.
Jesus makes us whole. Through the power of the Holy Spirit may we be given eyes that see, ears that listen, minds that think, hearts that connect, and hands that give as well as receive. And may we at all times and in all places say, “Thanks be to God!”