“Mortal Enemy, Moral Example”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 2, 2016

Luke 17:11-19


Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq.

Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.

Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia.

Yankees fans and Red Sox fans here in Connecticut…

Samaritans and Jews in the time of Jesus.

They had a long history of fear, suspicion, and animosity that went back centuries, back to time immemorial.  There had been conflict over land ownership, over worship practices, over ethnic heritage, over political allegiance.  Although they had much in common to begin with, by the time the story we heard this morning took place, Jews and Samaritans had very little interaction, and what relationship they had was marked by judgment, mistrust, and condemnation.  Each group saw the other as ethnically inferior, culturally backward, theologically heretical.  They were a Threat; they were the Other; they were the Enemy.  They were the kind of person you would not want to meet on a lonely roadside at the far edge of town.

Unless, of course, you were Jesus.

When that group of lepers came toward Jesus on the outskirts of that unnamed village between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus did not turn away from the Samaritan man.  We don’t know how Jesus knew he was a Samaritan—whether it was his dress, or his facial features, or his hairstyle, or his accent—but in any case, Jesus did not deny him the mercy he requested.  He did not ask him to step out of line for a thorough pat-down or make him wait for the completion of a rigorous background check.  He simply helped him, just as he helped the other nine.

You may remember another story from Luke’s gospel in which a Samaritan features prominently.  A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, along a dangerous wilderness road.  He fell into the hands of bandits, who took his clothes and his money and left him for dead on the side of the road.  A priest passed by and did not stop—in fact, he looked away and crossed to the other side of the road.  A Levite passed by and did the very same thing.  Finally, a Samaritan came along that lonely highway.  When he saw the injured man, he stopped, bound up his wounds, carried him to an inn, took care of him, and payed his bills while he recovered.  It would be a striking story of mercy and compassion regardless of who the characters are, but it is more than that when you realize that the hero of the story is the one seen as Other, as Threat, as Enemy.

A similar thing happens in today’s story.  Ten lepers approached Jesus and asked him for healing.  He obliged.  Nine departed immediately to see the priests, presumably for the ritual by which they would be reintegrated into their community.  You can’t really blame them for being eager.  The purity codes of the time meant that a person suffering from skin disease was basically banished due to their illness until such time as the priest declared them clean again and conducted the proper sacrifices and offerings for their purification.  They were cut off from conversation with their friends, hugs from their families, collaboration with their coworkers.  Their only human contact would have been if they happened to run into other sick people who had been similarly ostracized.  So as soon as they realized that their skin had been healed, I would think they would have run as fast as they darn well could to be reunited with their people.

But the Samaritan man turned back and fell at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks and praise to God for his recovery.  And Jesus, celebrating the Samaritan man’s response, said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”

“Your faith has made you well.”  If that phrase sounds familiar to you, that’s because you’ve probably heard it before.  It shows up three other times in Luke’s gospel, all after stories of healing.  Once, Jesus says it to a sinful woman (tradition has inferred that she was a prostitute, although the story does not actually indicate the nature of her sins).  Another time, he says it to a woman who has suffered with hemorrhages for years.  And another time, he says it to a blind beggar whose sight he has restored.

In each of these cases, the person whose faith Jesus celebrates is an outsider, one considered by their society to be unclean, or impure, or tainted, or irredeemable—one considered to be the Other, a Threat to the good, upstanding citizens of their town.  But Jesus sees them differently.  Jesus not only heals their ailments, but also lifts them up as examples of faithfulness, as ones who have something to teach the rest of us about what faithful living means.

If a Samaritan leper—a double outcast—could be an example of faithfulness for Jesus and his disciples, then to whom might we look today?  Might we look to the people of color who are crying out for mercy and justice in a world that behaves as if their lives do not matter?  Might we look to the refugees who are traveling across oceans and continents in search of a better life for their families?  Might we look to the immigrants who come to this nation bringing their heritage, their traditions, and their unique perspective, and are often met with prejudice, discrimination, and exploitation?  Might we look to our Muslim sisters and brothers who are treated as though they are terrorists simply because of the language they speak or the clothing they wear or the faith they follow?

Unless you have been wearing earplugs and a blindfold 24 hours a day for the past several months, you can’t help but have heard some of the rhetoric that has filled the airwaves about these and other groups.  You’ve heard the insults.  You’ve heard the fear-mongering.  You’ve heard the false sense of scarcity, like if they get a piece of the pie, there won’t be enough for you.  You’ve heard them called Other, Threat, Enemy.  But our faith calls us to a better way.

If today’s story and the others it evokes are to be believed, and I believe that they are, then Jesus is already on his way to stand with these marginalized communities, bringing mercy and healing and restoration.  He calls us to join him there, to be in solidarity with all who are outcast and otherized.  And—this is important—he calls us to treat them not just as charity cases to be pitied, but as examples of faith, as teachers from whom we can learn.

Because we humans have a long history of fear, suspicion, and animosity.  We are only too good at judgment, mistrust, and condemnation.  And just as he did two thousand years ago, Jesus comes to us today to transcend all those unholy divisions, to heal our hearts and our communities, to nourish us at this table, and to send us out to be ambassadors of reconciliation and justice and compassion and love.

May it be so.


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