It’s a bitingly cruel word, sometimes represented by a thumb and finger “L” on the forehead.
I suspect all of us have noticed people who were different and smugly appreciated being better, or at least more secure than they were, even if we feel a little ashamed of ourselves for it. I don’t want to tell you how many times as a child I hoped I wouldn’t be the shortest kid in the class or the last one chosen for a team because I seemed so little and useless.
In Jesus’ day, people with noticeable differences were shunned, especially people with skin diseases. The crippled, the widowed, the orphaned might attract some helpful attention from the big-hearted, but the person with the skin disease was just as bad as a foreigner: unacceptable, marginalized, out of bounds. In the science of the first century, and in the religious law carried about for a thousand years, a discoloration of the skin marked a person as sinful. It was considered to be an outward and visible sign of the person’s inner condition, and it gave the priests power to banish a person from the faith community.
This story contains many nuances of first century life we may not know or remember easily.
17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
At the beginning of the story, we find Jesus walking somewhere on the edge. I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that the second half of Luke’s gospel is taken up by a journey to Jerusalem that makes no geographic sense; it is not a direct route. But it takes us to all the places we need to go, and in this case, it takes us to the edge of the acceptable world, where it clearly brushes up against the unacceptable. Samaria represented a breach between the ancestors, one group now the Israelites, the other group now the Samaritans. And although from this distance their differences might not seem so important, they mattered at the time, and they mattered a lot.
Lepers were people with skin diseases presumed to be contagious. The diseases they had were not the same thing as modern leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, though the same fears applied as we have seen in modern times, both with Hansen’s and with other diseases assumed to be passed by human contact. It hasn’t been that long since we made many false assumptions about HIV and how we might contract it, so we know it’s easy for emotion to get in the way of reason and science. People in Jesus’ time had their own science, and it was based on their observations.
Skin diseases were particularly repellent because they were OBVIOUS. People were frightened of a difference they could see. They were frightened of catching something that would move them immediately to the category of leper, of Loser. It was common to try and hide a skin disease, to “pass” as normal for as long as possible, especially because it was not unheard of for a leper to be cured. Jesus ate dinner with Simon the Leper, for instance, but note that even after he was cured, he was considered a Leper.
Lepers cried out “Unclean, unclean,” to give warning to the people they approached. They followed the rules so things wouldn’t get worse for them. And these lepers kept their distance from Jesus because that would have been expected.
Keeping their distance 17:13 …they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
So we know they knew him. By this time, Jesus was established as a person who could heal others. In Chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel, he healed another leper, so he had a track record, like a doctor you know has done well with your particular ailment.
17:14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests."
For Jewish people deemed religiously unclean, as these people were, even a cure didn’t count until the priests had verified it. The lepers would have understood Jesus immediately. He was not only restoring them to health; he was restoring them to community.And as they went, they were made clean. It’s interesting that even though Jesus cared enough to heal the ten, we don’t get a touchy-feely moment between them, do we? The healing happens not through touch but through their obedience to Jesus’ command, and sent off by him they keep going.Well, most of them.
17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 17:16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17:17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 17:18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 17:19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
The hero of today’s gospel lesson has been called a Double Loser.* He is not only a leper; he is also a Samaritan. He was not only a Person from Away, he was also a Person to Avoid. The text makes sure we can make no mistake about it. The Samaritans shared a common ancestry, but were not part of the Temple culture of Judaism. Really, there was no reason for a Samaritan to go along to show the priests he was better. He was a double loser in the eyes of the religious establishment, not only unclean due to his disease, but because of his very nature.
Luke, in writing this story, leaves us in no doubt. The one who returned to give thanks was a foreigner, a Samaritan. And that has me thinking about the people who need healing today, who might not know or care to go to the priests, the people who are shut out of religious communities. We draw all sorts of lines, declaring all sorts of people to be losers. We’ve drawn them based on race, on gender, on religion and on sexual orientation.
This week the news has been full of a series of shocking stories about young people who have, in despair, taken their lives. This happens all the time, but the recent stories have been dramatic enough to be declared a pattern, a horrifying pattern, and they are on TV and in the newspapers. The young people who have given up are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered and questioning. The bullying directed against them, both physical and psychological, has driven them to believe there is no hope, to believe they are that terrible L word, Losers.
It hurts to know that most people who don’t go to church assume that all people who DO go to church have one frame of mind about the L Word and how to apply it. We’re seen as caught up in our sense of righteousness and properness and judgment, so much like the skin-examining priests that we cannot offer the L Word that really matters: Love.
Now, in my experience, lots of churches actually do this very, very well. We remember the times we felt like the Losers ourselves, with the big L pasted on our foreheads, and we remember the way people used the other L, Love, to bring us back into relationship with God and each other. We remember that Jesus healed lepers and told stories that reflected well on Samaritans and reminded us that no matter how Lost—another L Word—we might be, God would still be looking for us, ready to reclaim us with Love.
The Samaritan felt the upsurge. I know it well. It comes when we least expect it, that warm burst of Love that makes things right inside us, so right it almost doesn’t matter what our physical condition might be anymore. He turns around and says thank you, because he doesn’t take it for granted, probably didn’t expect to be included in the healing at all.
And Jesus? Even Jesus expresses amazement that a person on the outside would know how to respond to this healing. The Samaritan recognizes the gift he has received, repents by literally turning back toward Jesus, gives praise to God and thanksgiving to the one who brought healing. Then Jesus gives him one more thing to do, sending the Samaritan back out into the world: “Get up and go on your way! Your faith has made you well.”
It doesn’t matter what kind of Loser other people might consider him to be. His belief and his expression of it have made him well. Every one of us here today is somewhere on the spectrum between Loser and Love. We’ve all felt the feeling of being on the outside, and that’s one of the reasons we keep coming to church, to be embraced by Christ’s loving community, to experience the Love that transcends all the world might have to say about us and how we dress or how smart we are or where we were born or who we love. We heard it in the Psalm.
66:8 Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of God’s praise be heard,
66:9 who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
66:10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
66:11 You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
66:12 you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
Even we have been brought out to a spacious place, no matter the trials we have known. The Samaritan was never outside the circle of God’s concern, even when he was a leper. May we all live in the L word he came to feel, God’s Love, and may we take it out into the world in Christ’s name. Amen.
*Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life. (Cowley Publications, 1993.), p. 112.
Image Attribution: JESUS MAFA. Healing of the ten lepers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.