I’ve spent time recently thinking about privilege and entitlement and our own personal feelings about discrimination. Its not an easy subject to think about, let alone talk about. We all have our own views on what is right or wrong, which we sometimes share without consideration for those listening, more focussed on saying what we think than thinking about the impact of such words.
I listened to a debate on the radio this week about the casual racist discrimination in this country; for example, our selective deafness to our words when we speak about Indigenous Australians. We don’t often realise such words give insight to our true thoughts. We often label this feedback as ‘political correctness gone mad’. How often have we said this ourselves? And my response is to ask you what particular subject was being discussed when you said this? What aspect of my privilege or entitlement was I defending when I said it, to make sure I did not lose out?
But, as one who has been at the wrong end of some discriminatory behaviour and words in my life, I would say strongly and clearly to anyone who is listening: courtesy, thoughtfulness, kindness in speech and a willingness to avoid what hurts and insults someone else is the mark of a thoughtful adult. I would also add, in today’s world, this kindness of behaviour is also the mark of a prayerful kind, compassionate Christian. Sadly, in today’s world, it is very counter cultural.
Let’s not call it ‘political correctness’, let us instead call it polite and courteous speech. Because as we listen to our speech, our thoughts and our unintended discrimination, we can start to see those on the margins who are there through no fault of their own. Instead, it is our fault when we perpetuate it and entrench it and wilfully turn our back on it and do not do anything to restore individuals.
At this point I can imagine you beginning to ask what this has to do with today’s gospel reading with the story of the 10 lepers. Let me show you how I arrived at this point.
We are told Jesus was travelling through the countryside between Galilee and Samaria – a kind of no man’s land, on his way to Jerusalem. It is a place outside the normal.
He’s accosted from a distance by 10 lepers; individuals cast out from their homes and communities because they were considered unclean. Leviticus 13:45-46 lays out the law concerning skin conditions, not just Hansen’s disease. In Torah, the lepers must live outside the community (Num.5:2-3) not simply for the sake of hygiene, or to prevent disease spreading, but because the skin condition renders them ritually unclean, and ritual impurity in itself is contagious.
Those listening to Jesus’ story would have known the lepers were Jews because Jesus’ instruction to ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’ (v.14).
According to Leviticus 14:10-32, after showing yourself to the priest, a cleansed leper must then offer several sacrifices to complete the removal of ritual impurity. The fact the lepers took Jesus at his word meant they trusted in his mercy; they believed healing would happen and they did as they were told; and, they were healed as they went.
We can see from the story healing often occurs as we respond faithfully to the commands of God. The verses prior to this story reminded us what some of God’s commands are to us; living exemplary lives, practicing forgiveness, deepening our faith.
We are invited to see that instead of becoming stuck in self pity or waiting passively for miraculous transformations to happen to us, to be done to us, healing occurs when we step forward, engage and follow actively, trusting and faithful.
However, it is what happens next in this story that is most startling. It is the actions of the one leper who returns. This is not simply a ‘healing’ story found only in Luke, it is a story of a man who is unwelcome in the Jewish community, an outsider, an adversary of Israel, who comes back to thank Jesus for his restored health.
The fact the one returns to acknowledge the source of his healing is worth remarking upon, as the healed leper gives us an example for our own behaviour. Recognising healing has taken place, he turns back to praise God and falls at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving.
The words used in the story, ‘praise’ and thanks’, ‘doxazo’ and ‘eucharisto’ are used in our own worship, doxology (words of praise) and Eucharist, (thanksgiving). As we worship this morning, gathering as a community, we are connecting our behaviour and practices with words of praise, sharing and inclusiveness. We seek God’s mercy and to be transformed as a church.
Martin Luther is said to have defined worship as ‘the tenth leper turning back’.
The Jewish lepers make the right response by obeying Jesus and going to do what is required by Torah. The 10th leper, the Samaritan who is not eligible to go to the priests for ritual cleansing, is singled out for 3 reasons:
1. Although a despised foreigner he is also made clean by Jesus’ words;
2. Like Naaman, he responds to his healing by praising the one true God (v.15); and
3. By prostrating himself before Jesus and giving thanks to him, he acknowledges God’s power is at work through Jesus (v.16).
The ‘fault’ of the 9 lepers is not that they do not see God at work in their healing, but that they do not see God at work in and through Jesus. All 10 lepers are cleansed, but only the Samaritan is also made whole, spiritually saved by coming to relationship with the God of Israel through Jesus
The Samaritan experiences more than simple healing.
When Jesus speaks to him, he experiences a new self-image, restoration within the community of God, a shift from isolation to restored social status and a redeemed relationship with God. The Samaritan shows that human boundaries and exclusions fall when God is revealed and his relationship with God is restored.
The leper’s physical healing does not remove his status as a Samaritan and foreigner; but his wholeness shows us we are able to experience restored relationship with God and our neighbours despite our physical and social situations. This wellness is accessible to all who see, turn and respond in praise.
We celebrate and know Jesus as a healer and mediator for us. However, I know the phrase ‘your faith has made you well’ can be difficult for all who struggle with physical diseases and where this phrase has not been their reality, in spite of diligent prayer, faithful lives and deep faith.
However, this statement does also speak to restoration from places of marginalisation due to gender, illness, impurity, disability or social stigma. Social ostracism due to language, class, immigration status, race, sexual orientation, gender and age continue to marginalise people today.
The lepers were very aware their own marginalisation was due to a condition beyond their control. It was not their fault.
And so, I come back to where I started. Experiences of brutal labels and scapegoating, vitriolic language, imposed physical and social differences can diminish people so easily and drive individuals into isolation. Healing for the Samaritan came as he saw himself made whole and identified Jesus as the source of his restoration.
As we draw near to Christ at the communion table, this is a place where earthly labels are insignificant and of no account, where all are welcomed as children of God. Your own sense of privilege and entitlement fades too; as all things come from God.
We have not earned anything, our worth is not determined by us, our own power and agency is a gift from God, and we know that unless we call for mercy and turn back to Jesus, our own healing and our capacity to make a difference in God’s kingdom is diminished.
In this story we see one leper, a Samaritan, a hated foreigner had the eyes to see what Jesus had done did not just mean his own health and quality of life would improve; rather, it meant something more.
In the healing work of Jesus Christ, the love of God is both present and powerful. It reached beyond the boundaries of clean and unclean, healthy and unhealthy, even Jew and Samaritan. It was in recognising this love, returning to Jesus and praising God, the Samaritan was made truly well.
The Lord be with You.