This foreigner

13 October 2019; Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 23C (RCL); Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19.

This is one of those Gospel passages that makes me slightly uncomfortable. When the Samaritan leper returns and worships at Jesus’ feet, Jesus says, “Was no one found to return and give praise to God but this foreigner?” The word for foreigner is allogenes – literally, ‘other born.’ It occurs only here in the New Testament, and is not attested much outside the New Testament. One of the few other places the word occurred was on the gate between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Israel in the Jerusalem Temple – an inscription warning foreigners not to enter the Court of Israel on pain of death.

The word carries a negative connotation. Jesus is showing disdain in his comment, “Was no one found to return and praise God but this foreigner.” It sounds a little like his encounter with the Syro-phoenician woman – “it is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” I wonder if this passage ‘encodes’ an encounter between a Jewish Christian group and some Samaritan converts. John Chapter 4 seems to give evidence of a similar encounter.

The reason, then, that the Samaritan returns is because he cannot show himself to the priests. If some Christian community understood itself as primarily Jewish, then what to do with these Samaritans who have also been healed, and brought back into ceremonial fellowship? It would not have been a question easily resolved. Hence, the discomfort of an initially negative characterization of the Samaritan, who nevertheless is the first person in Luke’s Gospel to worship at Jesus’ feet.

The outsider often points out aspects of our common life that we simply fail to see because of familiarity. The Samaritan is pointing out that the healing within the Christian community is in fact divine, and not connected to the Temple or its priesthood.

In the passage we read from Jeremiah, he encourages the Exiles to make their home in Babylon, to build houses, plant gardens, marry, and give their children in marriage. He encourages them to seek the welfare of Babylon — a stark contrast to Psalm 137, that looks forward to someone smashing Babylonian infants on the rocks. The position of the Exiles is somewhat different from that of refugees – refugees leave home because home has become dangerous, Exiles are forcibly removed, but refugees also seek the welfare of the city where they settle.

We often speak of them with a bit of disdain as ‘other-born.’ And it is perhaps true that they cannot worship in our churches, but likewise they can point out to us things we might not otherwise see.

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