Cleansing of the Ten Lepers. Codex Aureus Epternacensis. c.1035-1040

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 17:11-19

If they had waited for something to change, nothing ever would have. If they had waited for a miracle, they would never have seen it.

Healing of Ten Lepers. Stained glass window, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore.
Healing of Ten Lepers. Stained glass window, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore.

Ten lepers stood at a distance outside a village, separated by their disease, calling out to Jesus for mercy across a no man’s land. Maybe they only expected a coin, or some bread. Maybe they knew who Jesus was and had heard stories about him, had heard that he healed the sick.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he’s going to do anything. Instead, he tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests. They get the point, that they are going to get word that they are healed. All ten of them head off, though they are still lepers when they start walking: the story says that they were healed after they were on their way.

This is a story of borders and of barriers, of the walls we build to separate ourselves from other people and the walls they build to keep us out. It is about looking over the walls, peeping through the cracks, stepping into the gap.

Luke writes that Jesus was walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. The geography of the story is a little vague, but the point isn’t—Jesus was walking in the borderlands, the regions in between here and somewhere else, places where people dropped out or were shoved out, where people slipped into the cracks of society.

That’s where the ten lepers were standing, in the gap, a lost place, near a village but not part of it, one of the places that people in the mainstream only see from the corners of their eyes and forget, or never notice. Luke says that Jesus saw them all.

We might wonder who we fail to see. Some of them are hidden in the deserted places, the alleyways and halfway houses and other deserts that we build into our societies. There are the homeless and the poor, but other people who are in plain sight may be just as invisible, or at least when we look at them we are blind to their injuries and their loss. Sometimes it is because pain can be hidden so well. Sometimes we are more nearly like the priest in that other, more famous, Samaritan story. We see the man lying by the side of the road, but we choose to walk away.

This Samaritan came back. Out of the ten men who go off to find themselves healed, only this Samaritan turns around and comes back to Jesus. Now we might point out that the other nine were doing precisely what Jesus told them to do—go to see the priests, he had said, and they kept going. So why does Jesus welcome the one who disobeyed? Why does he question the absence of the other nine he had sent away?

Christ Cures Ten Lepers. Woodcut. From the Wellcome Trust.
Christ Cures Ten Lepers. Woodcut. From the Wellcome Trust.

That is a problem, isn’t it?

Maybe it is the difference between knowing the rules and knowing why we have them. If you understand the why, you don’t need the rules anymore.

A theologian might say that this is the message of the gospel—live in the presence of the Spirit of God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The Samaritan understood that the ritual didn’t matter; ritual was only a method to respond to God, and this man knew a better way.

A Samaritan and a leper, twice outcast from mainstream Jewish society, and he understood how to respond to God better than the rest of them. Maybe he understood precisely because of the walls that had separated him. For years he had witnessed life through the cracks, looking into life from lost places.

What might people whom we don’t notice see as they watch us? We may not want to know. That might be part of the reason we try not to notice them.

Meanwhile, what miracle are we standing still and waiting for? Maybe we should start walking, and see what happens along the way.

The Trouble with Neighbors


Eighth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 10:25-37

The Trouble with Neighbors

He already knew the answer, this lawyer, but he asked the question anyway. Scripture commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This much he knew, and the commandment is plain, but this lawyer, much like ourselves, lived for the wiggle room between the words.

We have to love him. That’s what Deuteronomy says, right?

A straightforward answer would have done the job, but Jesus, true to his nature, didn’t give one. Instead, we and this lawyer get a story. It’s pretty famous, as stories go. We’ve even named it—the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we call it, as though this Samaritan were an exception, different from other Samaritan cretins we might know.

The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt c.1630. Wallace Collection, London.
The Good Samaritan. Rembrandt, c.1630. Wallace Collection, London.

Samaritans were nearly Jewish, which made them more loathsome to the Jews than had they been completely gentile. They were the product of centuries of exile, a people group who filled the void left when the Assyrians destroyed Israel and the Babylonians hauled off the best and brightest of Judah. The Samaritans worshiped the God of Abraham, but in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, at least in the eyes of the Jewish people.

We most hate those people who are most nearly like ourselves. Long tailed monkeys are amusing, but chimpanzees make us uneasy.

In the story, the priest and the Levite fail, but the Samaritan shows mercy and compassion, and he rises to God’s expectations. He spends his money, invests his time. He gets involved.

That is the trouble with neighbors—their nearness. If they were far away, an orphaned kid on a poster, we could write our checks and feel compassionate. Neighbors? They are right here. They know where we live. They might come back. Get involved in their messes, and we may not get free.

They’ll want handouts and money, time and favors. And Jesus is telling us not to say no?

Not exactly.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is an odd way of shaping a commandment. In particular, there is much that it does not say. For one thing, it doesn’t say to give people anything they want. That’s not love, that’s indulgence, or stupidity. It doesn’t say to destroy our own lives, families, or peace.

The Samaritan took the injured man to an inn, but he did not devote the rest of his life to looking after the man. He engaged, he helped, and he also brought the social resources he had available to bear—in this case, some of his wealth, some of his time, and the future help of the innkeeper. His response was loving, it was reasonable, and it was directed at returning the injured man to health and to his own recognizance.

Sometimes we refrain from helping the needy neighbor because we recognize that the neighbor is in the business of seeking help. It is a reasonable response. Standing on a street corner passing out twenty dollar bills is not reasonable. It is the difference between helping our neighbors out of their problems and perpetuating them in their problems.

Fair warning, though—that is no reason not to help. It is a reason to think of constructive ways to help.

The Samaritan came up with the idea of carrying the injured man to an inn because there were no hospitals. Perhaps had there been hospitals, ambulances, and social services available, he would have gotten help for the man in a different fashion.

The point Jesus makes is that the Samaritan saw a need—no, saw a person who needed help—and helped. We have to wonder what the other characters in the story saw. What did the priest see? Maybe he saw a man who fell prey to robbers because God had judged him. Maybe he saw a man whose situation was the result of his own sins. There was plenty of that kind of theology 2000 years ago; there is plenty of that kind of theology now.

The Good Samaritan, Dutch, 17th century
The Good Samaritan. Pen & ink. School of Rembrandt, 17th century. Harvard Art Museums.

What did the Levite see, this man whose role was somewhere between the priest and the laity? Perhaps he saw trouble, and obligation. He knew that to lay aside one’s obligation to the stranger was wrong, but was it wrong if he never took up the burden? Perhaps he pretended to be blind, because that helped him pretend to be decent.

And where were they all rushing? What awaited them that was so urgent as to justify leaving a man to bleed by the roadside? We might supply many answers. All of us have plenty of experience justifying ourselves. No doubt we would recognize their answers as our own.

We like to picture ourselves as Samaritans, at least in this parable. Some of us have found ourselves in ditches. The hard truth Jesus is telling is simple, and we don’t appreciate it. We are the priest and the Levite, of course. We turn a blind eye to the needs of our neighbors. Worse, we resent the clear implication that if we fail to help, we have failed in the eyes of God.

We want to point out that God does not understand how complicated it gets, but even in our most self absorbed moments, we suspect God manages.

It is simple.

We need to stop imagining that our destination is more important than the people we pass along the way. Theologically speaking, spiritually speaking, we might say that the people we pass are, in fact, our journey. And when we see them, we need to look long enough into the mirror of their eyes to see ourselves. Maybe then we can love them.

The Good Samaritan, Jan Wijnants. c.1670. Hermitage Museum.