Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him–and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Michael and I are studying a book called Seeking Faith, Finding God by John Rackley, and this post is adapted from one of those studies. The study was called The Faith of the Marginal, and reminds us that the gospel and the love of God shown through us, is for everyone.
Even in parts of the world today, people with leprosy are excluded from society. Because of the fear of infection, they are not allowed to come anywhere near others.
We are told nothing about these men, only what they suffered from. Their condition defined them, created the borders of their life, forming an exclusion around them. They are within sight and sound in the story but beyond reach.
The ten men with leprosy knew their place. They kept their distance, isolated and out of reach. They were nothing else but lepers – a horrid-sounding word for a horrid disease.
Jesus too knows his place. He does not approach them. He stays put, for he is already on difficult territory. A Galilean Jew, he walks a border with Samaritan territory which, from his earliest days, he would have been warned not to enter. He is in neither one place nor another. He is ‘outside the camp’ and beyond the houses where others can be safe and secure.
The disciples also know their place, and it is not where Jesus has taken them! Jesus has done this before. He took them to Caesarea Philippi, a place of pagan worship. He went down to the coast, where they met a Syro-Phoenician woman who gave him a very difficult time.
It seems to have been Jesus’ policy to introduce his disciples to experiences and questions that were new, different and challenging. You remember he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, for his disciples eating without washing first, and for associating with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Why did he do this? Why did he take them to the edge of their world? Here are some answers.
Going to the edge gives us a glimpse of something different.
Walking on the borders allows us to look in and out of a situation.
Going to the edge enables us to become a connection, a conductor for what is out of reach at the centre.
On the margins we are less in control, less certain of ourselves, more ready to learn.
Going back to the lepers, they beg Jesus to have pity on them. Then the healing starts. In a cleverly constructed account, Luke uses three different words to describe what happened.
On the way to show themselves to the priests, the lepers are ‘made clean’: Jesus releases them from the taboo of their disease so that they can rejoin society, family and synagogue.
Luke then says they saw they were healed: signs of ill health are no longer visible or distressing.
But only to one of them, the man who returned to give thanks and worship, can Jesus declare that he is ‘made well’. This is total transformation. This is an experience of harmony and integrity – a person no longer fragmented and out of sorts but at one with God, creation and self.
But the encounter takes an ominous turn. The one who is on his knees in a position of worship is a Samaritan. It would be easy to miss this seemingly innocuous piece of information, were it not for Luke’s continual references in his Gospel to the marginalised and the faith of the stranger.
The Samaritans were renegade Jews. They believed that Mount Gerizim (not the temple mount) was God’s holy mountain – remember, the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4 asked Jesus about it. They respected only the first five books of the Hebrew scripture. Their origins were among the people who married non-Jewish colonists during the exile. For this they had suffered rejection by other Jewish tribes and clans. This was a blood feud that had gone on for centuries.
Nothing in this man would recommend itself to the background of Jesus and his disciples, except his need. As the other nine go on their way to the priest, he rushes to Jesus. He can no longer use his illness to hide his religious and cultural identity. Among the people with leprosy, he had a place. Where he had come from, what he believed, where he worshipped had not mattered. Why worry about that when an infectious disease kept you away from your critics but gave you companions in ill health?
He has nowhere to go but to Jesus. He is left behind by his erstwhile friends, who are ready to follow the path of their orthodoxy. He stands with the one who has nowhere to lay his head, the Christ who acts as the priest, going outside the camp to declare the healing done.
The man seeks more from the one who has healed his body – what can he do about his past, his culture, his position in society? Jesus does not mention any of that, but simply tells him that his trust has given him the freedom of being well. He would live on among his people, but be able to speak of an enemy who had healed him.
Two enemies became friends because each was prepared to walk on the edges of what was acceptable. A Samaritan, a representative of an apostate people, was able to see God at work for him in Jesus, despite his lack of suitable qualifications. Jesus welcomed the faith of the apostate because he was prepared to transcend it.
With his true identity revealed, he and Jesus create a prophetic community, one that challenges the conventions and traditions of both Jewish and Samaritan worlds.
In Jesus, we see that God will not dwell ‘within the camp’. God will not stay where we place our tent, temple, shrine, mausoleum, sanctuary, chapel or church. God will not reside in the certainties, correct language and proper belief that can inhibit us as much as shelter us.
Have you ever looked at someone and thought that they would not accept the gospel, before you even tried to tell it to them? I know I have. You should go to Zac’s Place, where bikers, addicts and rough sleepers are all welcomed and taught about Jesus. The leader of Zac’s, Sean Stillman is president of the British section of the God Squad, a Christian biker organisation. He dresses like a biker and wears his hair long and raises a few eyebrows in churches where he goes to speak. But when he tells stories of how God has worked powerfully in the hearts of bikers and Hell’s Angels, it raises your eyebrows for an entirely different reason!
When the church first began, the first Christians were all Jews. It took a dramatic vision to convince Peter that the gospel was for everyone. Remember? He saw all kinds of animals let down in a sheet and a voice commanded him to kill and eat. When he refused, because some of the food was unclean, he was told, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Three times this happened, and then Cornelius, the God-fearing Roman sent for him, and Peter knew the gospel was for everyone. (Acts 10:1-28; 11:1-18)
Going back to the ten lepers, the nine healed lepers were only following orders! They did what Jesus told them, which was the correct procedure, according to the rituals of purification. There seemed no joy in it, though – at least, none that they cared to share with Jesus. They may have been doing the right thing but it was not the complete picture. That day a choice was made: some were made better; one was made whole.