There are times in our lives when we find ourselves occupying an in-between place shared with in-between people. We are disconnected. Perhaps we’re on the way somewhere, having left but not yet arrived at the next destination; we know the past, but are unsure of present or future realities. This can be a physical experience, emotional, mental or spiritual or all of them. It can be about dying and preparing for death. In these in-between times, our responses to God and the people around us and the places we occupy, can change our lives forever .
The story in Luke’s gospel, 17:11-19 known as ‘Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers’ is only found in Luke. Jesus is in an in-between time and place. He is on his way to Jerusalem and in the region between Galilee and Samaria. Death is a reality anticipated by Jesus but unknown and disbelieved by those around him. He is dislocated by experience, knowledge, relationships and faith.
In this in-between place, Jesus encounters fellow Jews infected with leprosy who are required by law to live outside the towns and consequently outside of community and family life, culture and synagogue. They are barred from participating in anything to do with life. They are outside of everything and excluded, they are unclean.
In this group Jesus is also speaking to a non-person, a despised Samaritan included in the group, who because of his leprosy is also apart from his normal community. Rejected on three counts: he too has a disease which excludes him from everything, and he is religiously ritually unclean like the others, but additionally, he is a hated and despised foreigner treated with contempt.
In Luke’s story, Jesus is pointing to things which cause separation in our lives: illness, race and ethnicity, cultural differences and family structures, geography and alienation from familiar places, poverty, religious obligations and a whole range of other discriminatory reasons.
We all know separation from whatever cause, brings grief, brokenness, entrenched distances in relationships which become too hard to overcome; and for those who regret this very personal separateness and intimacy, arises a repeated prayer to God which we still speak today: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner.’ Known as the Jesus prayer, our hearts turn instinctively to God for healing, for reconciliation, for courage and comfort for our pilgrimage.
The lepers call out to Jesus in this in-between place: ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ (Luke 17:13) Without any questioning or demands, Jesus immediately responds: ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ (Luke 17:14)
He needed no further explanation from them. And, to be honest, whom else do we expect to encounter in these in-between places, bereft, alone, abandoned, separated, ill and dying to self, to life, to God? Whom else do we expect to meet when we cry to God, ‘Jesus, have mercy on me?’
I expect everyone has had times in their lives, when that is all that is left to cry. We have no words for anything else. Either on their own behalf or for someone they love.
The extraordinary miracle recounted by Luke, shows us very clearly it is in these places, in these times and with such people, it is God we encounter, a healing, loving, practical God, who sent the ten lepers immediately to the priests to show they were healed. In faith, they turned from Jesus while still bearing the disease and left him behind and went to do this ‘long-for’ task. It was a sign of healing, reconciliation, ritual cleanliness and restoration into the community and family. No longer having to be in-between but now fully restored and belonging. It was on the way to the priests we are told, they were made clean.
And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.’ (Luke 17:14-16)
Jesus comments on the ten who were made clean and noting only one, the despised Samaritan, the foreigner returned to shout out with joy, the simple, grateful task of saying ‘thank you’ to Jesus and to God. Jesus said to him:
Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17:19)
The difference between cleansing and healing, shows up as the difference between restoration to a present life and offering saving hope for the future. We celebrate with all ten lepers for being cleansed, for encountering God and being made clean and restored to old lives. The lack of awareness of the nine, is not that they do not see God at work in their healing, but they do not see God at work in and through Jesus.
All ten lepers are cleansed, but only the Samaritan is also made whole spiritually, saved, by coming into relationship with the God of Israel through Jesus. Only one saw what Jesus had done did not just mean his own life would improve; rather, it meant something more. In the healing work of Jesus Christ, the love of God was both present and powerful. It reached beyond the boundaries of clean and unclean, healthy and unhealthy, even Jew and Samaritan.
Recognising this love, the Samaritan returned to Jesus, and beyond a physical healing, the restored man to whom Jesus speaks, experiences a new self-image, restoration within the community, a shift form isolation to restored social status and a redeemed saving relationship with God.
As we think about healing, those marginalized, those ill, those dying, it means we can still be welcomed inside to meet Christ in the story and in our hearts. The leper’s physical healing does not remove his status as a Samaritan, a despised foreigner; wholeness points towards an ability to experience restored relationships with God and neighbour irrespective of his physical and social location.
In our own in-between places, we encounter God in Jesus. God is always there! We call out in fear and in despair, in dying to self, and it is God who heals, restores and saves. It moved the Samaritan to joy, praising God with gratitude and hope. Fear gone, hope replaced, and we follow the Samaritan to restored life, beyond this life and into the next in Christ.
God’s kingdom is present now. It is present in the most unexpected times and places and with the most unexpected people. Jesus’ hope for us is we will not be frightened any longer. We will learn to trust God and our prayers are answered. God’s will be done for each and everyone of us, on earth as it is in heaven.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Ed’s]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Johnson, L.T. [Harrington, D.J., S.J., Ed.] 1991. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.3. The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.