2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Luke 17: 11-19
One of my childhood memories around Christmas is being made to sit down on Boxing Day and write thank you letters. Did you have to do that? Mine were all identical apart from the name of the present:
“Dear Aunt Mary and Uncle Peter, I hope you are well. Thank you for my Meccano kit. We had a nice Christmas. I hope you did too. Love, Richard.”
I have heard sermons suggesting that today’s gospel story from Luke is basically a whinge about how only one out of ten people came back to say thank you – and them a foreigner. I want to suggest to you that it is about something a bit more important.
Lets imagine the scene. So you are a leper – a disease that was widespread in first century Palestine. It was known to be contagious, so anyone with leprosy was compelled to leave their home and live apart in a leper colony. Food was taken out to them, generally by family members – I imagine conversations happening at a distance, much as we did during lockdown.
This explains how Jesus and his party come across this group of lepers at the edge of a village – living at a safe distance from the rest of the community. They call out – “Have mercy on us.” I imagine what they had in mind was food. But instead Jesus responds by telling them to go to the local priests to be inspected. This was what you did when you believed your leprosy was healed – a rare occurrence. The word of the priest became your passport back into the community.
So what do the lepers do? Lets imagine the discussion amongst the group, some more enthusiastic than others. “Come on, lets go – it’s not as if we’ve got anything else to do.” And in response: “This is a really stupid idea – none of us have been healed, we can tell. We’ll walk all that way round the village and just get shouted at.” But on balance they decide to go – I imagine with the naysayer grumbling at the back of the group, but going anyway so as not to be left on their own.
So it was while they were on their way that they were healed. How could they tell? Well, the main symptom of leprosy is a numbness, starting with the extremities, so presumably they noticed that suddenly the feeling in their hands and feet had returned.
It’s worth pausing a moment to make clear that they were all healed – even the most reluctant of them, who in my imagined version had argued against going. All of them. It was enough for them to step out along the way – not to complete the journey, just to make a start, for all their doubts. There is something here for us to reflect on – the generosity of God which is portrayed in so much of Jesus’ teaching.
But what do they do next? They are perhaps only half-way to the priests. Do they carry on? This is where the nine make one decision and the one another.
For the nine, they carry on. They do as Jesus told them. Behind this is perhaps a worry that, were they not to follow his command, the cure might be withdrawn.
By contrast, the one, who is a Samaritan, does not complete the task as instructed. In his joy he forgets what he was told to do. He is overwhelmed with emotion, shouting his praises to God as he runs back and throws himself at Jesus’ feet. There is something extravagant, untidy about this person. I am reminded of Peter and his protestations of loyalty to Jesus, which he spectacularly fails to live up to.
So what would you do? I confess I would feel a strong temptation to follow the rules. I have been privileged in my life always to experience law and authority as things which are there to protect me. So my instinct would be to obey.
But there are others, and some here, for whom at times in their lives, the law has been a tool of persecution. Perhaps you, like the Samaritan, would have reacted differently.
What are we to make of this story? Well, as I have already said, it is an example of indiscriminate generosity in the way Jesus heals. In that we have a picture of the abundant generosity of God.
It is also a picture of how wide the reach of that generosity is. The reading is coupled with the story of Namaan the Syrian, also foreign and also cured of leprosy – and quoted earlier in Luke’s gospel as an example of God’s generosity extending beyond the people of Israel.
The Samaritan leper is doubly excluded – not only because he has leprosy, but even in the leper colony he is part of a hated foreign nation. He is the marginalised among the marginalised. This is the person on whom Jesus heaps praise.
And finally, I see in this story a subtle judgment against the religious institutions of Jesus day, how the leaders are trapped in their culture of law. For in continuing to the priest, are they not operating out of a sense of mutuality? Do this and you will be healed, you will get your reward, says Jesus. But before they have performed their side of the deal, they are already healed. And yet they cannot embrace the gratuitous nature of this healing. They must convert what has happened back into a mutual arrangement, they have to keep their side of what they see as a bargain.
In that sense, what Jesus and the Samaritan have in common is sheer gratuity. Jesus heals without thought of the merit or obedience of those healed. The Samaritan is overcome with thanks, without thought of self-justification. This is a world of freedom we can only aspire to.
Richard Young (Rector)