A reflection on Luke 17:11-19
Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the past century, famously said that when we read the Bible we should hold the daily newspaper in our other hand. He was making the point that the ancient Scriptures are a tool for interpreting modern life. The old text is the key to understanding the events happening all around us in our community and the world, and these events in turn are the context in which we read and interpret Scripture.
The war in Iraq, approaching environmental catastrophe, the growing gap between rich and poor—and, closer to home, the events in the lives of our congregation—are the context in which we read and interpret the Scriptures.
Consider, for example, Luke 17:11-19. On first reading, it is a story of Jesus healing 10 lepers and the example of one returning to give thanks. On the surface, it seems to be about the importance of saying thank you. That’s how we teach it to children.
But the kicker in the story is that the one who returns, glorifying God, the one who gives thanks to God, is a Samaritan, whom Jesus calls “a foreigner.”
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable that we know as the story of the Good Samaritan: A despised outsider comes to the aid of an injured traveler while religious leaders pass on by. Jesus points to the Samaritan as an example of keeping the second part of the greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Samaritan in the lesser-known story is an example of keeping the first part of that same commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.”
Both times, the foreigner with the wrong religion acts more faithfully than the people with the correct belief system.
Jesus heals 10 lepers, and only one returns to give praise to God. Jesus says to his disciples, “Were not 10 made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
A Samaritan who knows how to truly worship God is even more shocking than a Samaritan who knows how to love his neighbor.
Jewish hatred of the Samaritans went back 400 years. Both communities worshiped the Lord and followed the teachings of Moses, but they did not agree on anything else. The Jews worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans at Mount Gerizim.
It reminds me of what’s going on in the church today.
American policy makers, many of whom are public about professing their faith in Jesus Christ, have been pursuing a policy of revenge ever since Sept. 11, 2001, and a policy of greed that goes back to the earliest days of European colonization of this continent.
At a time when fear and hatred of Muslims is on the rise in this country, most Christians are hiding in the temple, while others are taking the lead in interfaith peacemaking.
Why aren’t more evangelicals actively engaged in following the One who taught: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.”?
Jesus didn’t just say that. He did it. He practiced what he preached. He healed a Samaritan leper as well as nine Jewish lepers, and he used the Samaritan’s gratitude as a teachable moment to show the disciples that God’s love isn’t limited to people from the right religion.
God is not like us. God’s salvation comes to people who have no right to expect it—people like the Samaritan.
Lepers were the ultimate untouchables, physically, medically and ritually unclean.
When Jesus heals the 10 lepers, Luke uses a Greek word that means “he made clean.” But when he speaks to the Samaritan who returned, he speaks of more than cleansing from leprosy or healing from disease. He says, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” Well is the NRSV and NIV translation of the Greek word “sozo,” which actually means “save” or “rescue.”
Ten have been made clean; one has been saved. Nine return to their homes and families, changed on the outside; one experiences salvation.
Nine fail to see that when the Lord cleansed them he accepted all of them, including the foreigner. They take the gift and go on with life as usual, not understanding that something new has happened, that more than bodies have been healed. A division between Jew and Samaritan has been healed. No longer is there insider and outsider, us and them.
The peace of Christ is not the absence of war or the end of tension or the feeling of well-being. The peace of Christ is the gift of salvation, which, in its fullest meaning, is not about shipping souls to heaven but healing broken bodies and broken relationships. And it’s not just healing of individuals but the healing of the nations.
This is what we have been called to share—the peace that is God’s active, energizing presence in the world, bringing life and hope and healing. This is how we can be “good Samaritans,” loving both God and neighbor.
Eve MacMaster is pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Gainesville, Fla.