9 October 2016
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23C (RCL)
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
This story in Luke stands out of its context and calls attention to itself in several ways. In the sayings immediately preceding this story, Jesus addresses his disciples about occasions of sin, correcting a community member who sins against one, and forgiveness. The “apostles” ask Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus replies with the figure of the mulberry bush. Faithfulness this size of a mustard seed could uproot the complex root system of a mulberry tree — perhaps standing in for the systems of sin and injustice within a community. Then, the disciples are instructed not to expect thanks for doing the hard work of addressing community systems.
This story returns to the travel theme: On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus encounters ten lepers. The geography doesn’t make a lot of sense — perhaps Jesus is skirting Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. The vocabulary in this story is unusual. The lepers call Jesus Master (epistata), a Greek word indicated military command or magistracy. In Luke’s Gospel, this title only shows up on the lips of the disciples, except here. Jesus instructs them to journey to show themselves to the priests. The word journey is the same word used of his own journeying toward Jerusalem. As they turn to go, they are cleansed, and one of them notices that he is healed. Cleansed is the technical term for a leper determined by the priest no longer to represent a threat to the community and allowed back in by sacrifice. Healed indicates a cure. The one who turns back is a Samaritan, and finally, a foreigner. The word Luke uses for foreigner is an exceedingly rare word in classical Greek — allogenes. Etymologically, it means other-born. The gnostics used it as a designation for those who recognized that they came from somewhere else. It occurs only here in the New Testament. It should immediately draw our attention.
One of the few other places it occurred was the inscription in the Temple on the gate between the court of the Gentiles and the Court of Israel: medena allogenes eisporevesthai — not a single foreigner my enter. The word for enter has as its root the same word that Luke uses for Jesus’ journeying toward Jerusalem. In turning toward the priests, the Samaritan would have realized that he would not be able to show himself to the priests and offer the sacrifice appropriate for cleansing of leprosy, at least not at Jerusalem.
Luke’s Gospel is written, of course, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The questions confronting all Jews would be where to find God’s presence in the world; where do we offer the sacrifices expected by the law? The Samaritan identifies Jesus as the place where praise is offered to God. Jesus instructs the Samaritan to “rise up and go on your way.” The verb “rise up” is anistemi, the same verb as to be resurrected. And, no surprise, the verb for go your way is the same verb as used of Jesus’ journeying toward Jerusalem. Jesus says, “Be resurrected and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”
The very next pericope finds the Pharisees asking Jesus when the Kingdom will come, and Jesus replies that it is “among you.” The Samaritan has recognized it, while no one else does.
The story fits with Luke’s emphasis on the universal nature of God’s kingdom. It lines up with his inaugural sermon, in which he pointed out that Elisha healed only Naaman of Syria (up north, like Galilee and Samaria). The other nine did just what Jesus instructed them to do. They could show themselves to the priests, and be re-incorporated into their community. The Samaritan could not, and so he returned to Jesus and the only community he could find, the followers of Jesus on the way. Jesus’ community is the community of misfits, who can find no other place to belong.
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles fits with the Lucan reading in an odd sort of way. The exiles, the refugees, should not listen to the prophets who are telling them, they will return soon, but should build houses, create families and pray for the well-being of the of the city, since they are going to be there for a while. They are not to hold themselves in a tight enclave, separate from the city, but to create a new community in place. This might look like instructions given from the perspective of the Samaritan in Luke’s story. The refugees in our world are to do their best to make their place where they are. Luke’s insight for us, as the society into which the refugees come, would be to recognize that they see their need of God’s grace far more clearly than we see our need for God’s grace. We can just go on our way, go to Church on Sunday, and think everything is fine with the world. The Samaritan knows better. It is only by the grace of God that he is well.