A few weeks ago I was a part of a workshop with other Central District pastors where we were encouraged to try to think in parables in a manner similar to Jesus. Parables that attempt to have a resonance with a contemporary audience in the same way that Jesus’ parables would have had with his.
Today’s gospel passage of the healing of the Samaritan man with leprosy isn’t a parable, it’s a story that Luke tells about an event in Jesus’ ministry. But because it comes to us in story form, it has some similarities to a parable format. Our attempt to understand what’s going on in the story requires similar methods for trying to understand what is going on in Jesus’ parables.
So before looking at the biblical text, I’d like to try out a couple parables on you that are set in our time that hopefully have some connections with the gospel story. Just to break these up a little bit I’d like for us to sing a verse from the song “Take my life and let it be” after each parable, and then we’ll finish the song at the end of the sermon.
There were a certain ten people who had lost their jobs during the recession. They had all once been doing very well for themselves, making a steady upper middle class income, prosperous and enjoying a nice house and comfortable lifestyle. Now they were all just barely getting by. Several of them were in the process of foreclosure on their homes; several others had to trade in new cars for an older model; a couple of them were in marriages that were strained to the limits because of financial stress; a number of others were pulling from retirement savings in order to maintain some semblance of a normal life, trying not to think about what it would mean down the road and how much later into life they would have to be working to bring in the money they would need to survive.
One day these ten people went to interview for a job opening at a company that offered a generous salary and good benefits. They all arrived for the interview at the same time and rather than speaking to each one by one the CEO of the company came out to the room where they were waiting and she declared, “I’ve looked over all of your resumes and have positions for all ten of you. You can start working tomorrow, and, because I know that times have been tough for everyone, I’m giving each of you your first pay check in advance.”
And they could barely believe what they were hearing, but it was true. The CEO handed each of them a big check, thanked them for coming, and shook their hands as they exited out the door.
Very quickly they all started thinking about how this changed everything in their lives. They began talking about what they would do with their paycheck and their reclaimed wealth. They began dreaming out loud about new cars, large shopping sprees, additions onto their homes, being able to qualify for a big loan to move into the top neighborhood in the city. They each rushed home to tell their families the wonderful news before going out on the town to exercise their newly boosted consumer confidence.
But one man from that group was quiet and lingered in the parking lot. He realized that he actually didn’t have anyone to go back to to tell the news. He had been unemployed for two years and it had cost him his young marriage. He had lost just about everything he had in the process and had been renting a small apartment in a rougher part of town, all that he could afford. With the extra time he now had he’d begun daily volunteering at a community center tutoring kids and helping adults get their GED. Not quite knowing what he was doing he turned and walked back into the building and caught the CEO just as she was heading out for the day. The man thanked her for giving him the job, expressing his gratitude. But, he noted, this check he had been given was probably too big. He told her his story of how much his life had changed in the last couple of years. He wanted and needed the job, but was wondering if it was possible that he work only part time, to enable him to have time to continue volunteering at the community center. The CEO looked at him with admiration and said, “Everyone who came in today left with large sums of money in their hands, but you are on your way to finding true wealth.”
HWB 389 Take my life and let it be V.1
Once there were ten students looking to get into a good university. They applied to schools across the country and visited different campuses, developing for themselves their list of schools they most wanted to attend. Then, they waited. Over the following months letters began to return to them from the universities. Each student was overjoyed to learn that not only had they gotten into the school that was their top choice, but they also received a large scholarship. They celebrated with their families and shared the good news with their classmates.
As summer ended and fall came around, each of the ten young people began life as a university student. They moved into the dorms, made friends, enjoyed social events, and did what they needed to do to complete their class requirements. Over the next four years each student chose a course of study, a major, a minor. At the end of their four years the day came for graduation. Each student had done well in their studies and would be receiving their degree. Families came for the ceremony and watched with pride as their son, their granddaughter, their sister, their nephew, walked across the stage and received their degree.
After the ceremony families clustered together, taking pictures with their graduate, with plenty of smiles, back slaps, and hugs. One student approached her favorite professor and gave him a hug. And she was the child of an undocumented immigrant, herself undocumented, technically “illegal.” She thanked him for his inspiring, informative lectures, and they began talking about her future. She expressed her anxiety for herself and her family, living with the constant awareness that they could be deported at any time if something went wrong for them. She expressed sadness that her family wasn’t able to afford or risk the trip to come to the graduation. But most of all she expressed how much this degree meant to her and how much it filled her with a sense of gratitude and empowerment and mission to use her education to bring about a more just world. The professor marveled at the passion in her voice and her courage. He said to her: “Today everyone received a degree written on paper, but you have received a mission written on your heart.”
HWB 389 Take my life and let it be V. 2
“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Leviticus 13:45-46
The New Testament uses a number of words to speak about healing, restoring to wholeness, well-being. One of these Greek words is i’a’omai. It is best translated as a cure, a physical healing of an ailment. This word shows up in the Gospel story when it says, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, cured, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He was physically cured. No more leprosy.
Another of these New Testament words for healing is katharidzo,which means to make clean, to purify, to cleanse. This is the word used in the Gospel story after the ten are told to go show themselves to the priests; “and as they went, they were made clean.” When Jesus told them to go to the priest he was acknowledging the requirements of the law from Leviticus, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to (the priest)….the priest shall examine him…and if the disease has abated and the disease has not spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean…and he shall wash his clothes and be clean.” (Leviticus 13:2,6) This was a ritual kind of acknowledgement of healing, a social restoration of the person. Up to that point the leprous person had to live in isolation from others, outside the camp or the village, the reason that these lepers keep their distance from Jesus when they originally call our for mercy. The priest not only confirmed that their skin was clear, leprosy cured, but that the individual was cleared for social interaction. Back into the community, freed from being ostracized and stigmatized – a social/religious healing.
Another word that shows up at the very end of the story, the most all-encompassing word for healing, is sodzo, what the NRSV translates as “made you well,” and the NIV translates as “saved.” Your faith has made you well, has saved you, has brought about a healing that gets to the very heart of what it means to be a complete human being. Restoration, salvation. This is connected to giving praise to God, to expressing gratitude, and to being close to Jesus.
Jesus shows concern for all three kinds of healing: physical healing, cure, which restores one to bodily wellbeing, ritual acknowledgement which restores one to social wellbeing, and spiritual healing which restores one to overall well-being.
The story of these ten lepers has many different facets to it, and not nearly all of the features in those first two parables correspond piece for piece, but as I pondered what kind of contemporary stories might look similar to the gospel, I picked out two features.
One is these is the different levels of healing. All of the lepers experience physical healing, but only one hears the pronouncement, “your faith has made you well,” has restored you body and soul. All ten get much-needed employment, but only one employs his wealth as a means for better enabling one to serve and love, rather than a means to merely buy and have. All ten get a scholarship and a diploma, but one shows that her education has formed her not only intellectually, but also spiritually in her commitment to a life of seeking justice.
The gospel story doesn’t require that the other nine be bad or corrupt people. They were the ones who were obedient to the instructions. They kept going to the priest as Jesus told them and as the law asked of them, receiving ritual and physical healing. Nothing wrong with doing what Jesus asks of you. But it does suggest that there is more to healing than just this. Without the presence of gratitude, of rejoicing, of acknowledging that what one has received is pure gift from God, one can not receive the pronouncement, “your faith has made you well.”
Richard Rohr has a nice way of talking about this kind of faith. He compares it to falling in love. We fall into faith. We don’t achieve it or earn it or gain it through something we do, we simply fall into it. We let go. We let gratitude fill us and we find that our lives become expressions of praise. Without that kind of falling, if we’re still grasping on to our own attempts to be healed or made whole, we are missing out on that life-giving offer of God’s making-well for us.
The other feature of the gospel story that I tried to bring out in those parables, along with the different levels of healing, is the fact that the one who has fallen into faith is the least likely character, the Samaritan, who was really a double outcast in the story. Leprosy was one thing, but even after he was cured he was still a Samaritan, considered an outsider. So, it’s the one who has lost the most – his marriage, living on the wrong side of town – it’s the undocumented student, who falls into faith.
When the Samaritan was told to go show himself to the priest, chances are he couldn’t have followed the others anyways. Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerazim and Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. He can’t go along with the others, can’t be officially pronounced clean and welcome by the priests, so he confides in Jesus, he gives the best offering he’s got, that of gratitude, and Jesus pronounces him saved, restored, made well indeed.
Let’s hear one more time that original story:
NRSV Luke 17:11-19 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.”