FAITH IN A GOD WHO LOVES
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
In Faith and Real Life we spent a lot of time trying to imagine how gratitude and faith fit together. It is clear that the leper who turned back was visibly grateful and extravagant in his praise—but does that mean the others were not? After all they were literally doing what they were told—following Jesus’ instruction to go to the priest to have their cure validated so they could return to worship and to healthy society. The single leper, the foreigner, interrupted what he was supposed to be doing to return to Jesus to give thanks. How did the lepers’ gratitude connect to Jesus’ Statement about faith “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”? Can you be grateful without being faithful or the reverse—faithful without being grateful? And while we are at it, we need to look at the difference between being healed and being well (also translated ‘whole’).
As usual, assumptions will often lead me astray. When I check them out, there is more to the story. My assumptions about leprosy had these men as pariahs forced to lives of permanent isolation—more like ebola carriers would be viewed in our day. But upon further review I learned that biblical references to leprosy actually referred to a wide variety of skin conditions (modern day psoriasis, eczema, boils etc)—most of which fall far short of the disfiguring images I associate with the word leprosy. Leviticus 13 actually gives a series of detailed diagnostic criteria about how to assess a variety of skin conditions that are collectively translated as leprous. The priest’s job was to determine when such people were clean or unclean, how long they should be quarantined and if they should they should be deemed incurable. I also learned that the role of prophets was to cure leprosy; the role of the priest was to validate the cure. So it was well within the norms of the day to seek help from the prophet Jesus and his instruction “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” was equally ordinary. The priests served as the health inspectors of their day.
For me at least, this changes my first reading of the story and makes it more ordinary. These ten lepers were indeed isolated but were not necessarily viewed as carriers of the black plague, AIDS, or ebola. Whether it is day care centers or workplaces, there are usually rules about showing up with a fever. Running a fever does not necessarily stigmatize but it does usually isolate the patient. Apparently the same thing was true of leprosy in the first century. These ten were indeed on the margins (they kept their distance) but not necessarily permanently.
So these guys, on the fringe and careful not to get too close, call out to the prophet. They want to be healed and they wanted to be allowed back into the mainstream. This is certainly an ordinary yearning. They did not want to be identified as different or dangerous. They did not want to be quarantined. Jesus heals their affliction and sends them to the priest to be formally re-accepted into the community—in first century terms, to be declared clean.
The foreigner, the Samaritan, however fits into a different category. The Samaritans were descendants of Jews in the Southern Kingdom (586 BCE) and had intermarried with their captors. By religious standards they were half breeds and no longer qualified as part of God’s chosen people. He could be healed but he would still be an outcast.
In real life, one thing that seems evident to me is how ungrateful I am in real life. I almost never give a second thought to the light that is available at the switch, the water that comes from the tap, air conditioning in my home, the food I can microwave. These are part of my ‘normal’ life and I easily forget that they are luxuries. All I need is a power outage or the internet going down to remind me how dependent I actually am. I forget there are millions of people that do not have what I consider basic. Interpersonally, I make the same error. Far too often I fail to acknowledge the kindness of my wife, the clerks who help me in the store or the waiters that serve me. After all, that is part of their job description. In contrast, I have no trouble being disgruntled and complaining if any of those things are not as expected.
We live a form of entitlement which allows us to lose sight of the fact that our lives depend upon thousands of people we have never seen not to mention our failing to appreciate the particular people who add to our lives each day. Our entitlement denies our right relationship with God—It is he who has made us and not we ourselves. When we forget that, we can continue doing what is expected but never realize the real gift was wholeness. When Jesus offers healing to the ten, he did not distinguish between Jew and Samaritan. Jesus’ healing was less radical than his inclusion. The nine would have hardly noticed. They expected to be able to return to the community. They just needed to do the next right thing—go to the priest. By contrast, the Samaritan would have been stunned! He was included in a world where Jewish social values would have excluded him.
In real life we actually have no ‘right’ to the lives we have. Our lives are a gift we cannot explain. We have no ‘right’ to the love of God. It is always a gift. It is a gift given to everyone. Our only choice is whether we will enjoy it.
We want to believe we deserve. We easily take extravagant gifts for granted. We often act entitled. We are more like the nine than the one. We want to believe it is our hard work, perseverance or our God given specialness that makes the difference. But that is really no different than the nine believing their community was a given. We forget that there are many people in the world who are smarter and who work much much harder who have much much less. We are expected to be good stewards of our gifts but those gifts—our lives, our birthplace and our talents are inexplicable gifts from God.
It is no accident that the church is growing in the third world and declining in the first world. The marginalized often understand grace far better than the mainstream. They can often see the gifts we take for granted. If we look inside, each of us can name parts of us that would exclude us. We may keep such things secret but we live in the fear that if we were fully known, we would deserve exclusion. But that is not how God loves. Gratitude is an expression of a faith in a God who loves—even the outcast, even the sinner—even us. There is no greater gift. The Samaritan realized the magnitude of Jesus’ gift. In so doing, his gratitude and praise expressed his faith in a God who loves without regard to the world’s view of who is acceptable.
In our own lives, we would do well to remember to be grateful and to praise him.
Live in the faith that God loves us and makes us whole. Praise Him with thanksgiving. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.