Read Luke 17:11-19
Just Being Good Doesn’t Cut It
Ten lepers spotted Jesus from the distance that they were forced by law to keep between themselves and other people. They called out to him, presumably in desperation, for there was little to no hope for lepers, for the unclean, in those days. Jesus also kept his distance and did nothing, EXCEPT that he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. As they rushed off, they were made whole.
At this point one of them, a Samaritan, a foreigner, stopped in his tracks. Instead of going to the priests and giving thanks in the ‘traditional’ way as set down in the rules and regulations, he turned back. He didn’t do what was expected. He didn’t do what Jesus asked him to do. He didn’t follow the others, with whom he had probably lived for years. Instead, he stood alone ‘against the stream’ and followed his heart.
Note Jesus words: “your faith has made you whole”; not my faith has made you whole or God has made you whole! Your faith has made you whole. The healing emanated from within.
But one, a Samaritan (read unclean, heretic, homosexual, muslim, asylum seeker?), rather than a Jew (read clean, holy, christian, one of us?), comes back. And Jesus gently lifts the man to his feet and affirms him. It’s all right. Remember this moment of acting on faith. Note: no brokers are needed, no priests, no representatives of religious authority; not even for those whom others considered outside the scope of God’s love and acceptance.
Jesus had a lot of time for those who dared to risk being themselves; e.g. the prodigal son and the unjust steward, to name just two about which we have read recently. Likewise, many of those whom Jesus singled out for special attention where those whom others considered unacceptable, unclean, beyond consideration, outside the possibility of salvation. Yet they were the ones who risked themselves in more ways than many in the community who meet the commonly- understood notion of ‘good’.
I imagine that all of us here are considered to be ‘good’ people. But our goodness is ‘safe’. We play it safe, because we don’t take too many risks. We always keep the right side of any rules, and don’t step out of line in case that’s a bad thing to do. We are ‘averagely good’ people, and for the most part, remain just that: ‘averagely good’ for the rest of our lives. For this we will be well-regarded by our fellow human beings, and nice things will be honestly said at our funerals.
But being an average good person just doesn’t ‘cut it’ when it comes to participation in the Kingdom of God. Being one of the nine who do what we’re told, we obey all the rules, and this is good, but it is not enough.
Those who follow their heart, and continue to work at being themselves, like the tenth leper, know that sometimes risks must be taken to step outside the commonly-prescribed order of things. Their faithing (I use the verb form to drive home the fact that ‘faith’ is more accurately used as a verb – an action word – rather than a noun) is making them whole. The person who comes back and gives thanks to God by falling at Jesus feet is the one who is not just healed, but is made whole,. The two Greek words are different. Ten were cleansed, only one was made whole or, in the jargon of the church, “saved.”
This Jesus, at whose feet the Samaritan falls, is on the way to Jerusalem. In our present context, he is on the way to Canberra, or Washington, or London – the seat of power. He is going from the place of his popularity to the place where he will be utterly rejected. He is preaching the subversive kingdom of God. His is a kingdom totally at odds with the Establishment and the ‘powers that be.’ This is the Jesus we are to follow and worship, says Luke. This is the Jesus in whom we see the potential to be whole!
The fact that only the Samaritan ‘gets it,’ makes the story blunt, to say the least! Someone I was reading suggested it reflects the fact that by the time Luke is writing, the Jewish community has already largely rejected Jesus. Only the outsiders, the Samaritans and the Gentiles see him for who he is.
We see that immediately after this ‘making whole,’ people want to know, ‘When will this wholeness happen for the rest of us?’ The Pharisees (v. 20) see this exactly. They know what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of wholeness and salvation. If the Samaritan, of all people, is whole and fit for the kingdom, when will it come for us? Surely it will come for us, too!
If one continues past the lectionary text for this week, we are told the Kingdom is not coming with “things that can be observed,” for in fact “the Kingdom of God is among you.” The Kingdom is not a thing coming to be observed here or there; it is already here and is among us.
Recall my recent sermon on another Lucan story, the Good Samaritan, where the question was changed from ‘who is my neighbour?’ to ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?’. Maybe the real question from this story is not ‘where are the other nine?’ but ‘where is the tenth?’ Where is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions? Why ask? Because the answer points us to the Kingdom, to wholeness, the endpoint of faith.
Faith is not about how to live a ‘normal’ good life. Nor is it slavishly doing as Jesus says, down to the last jot and tittle in scripture. Faith is to go on the journey that Jesus charted, and to have faith, not in Jesus, but with Jesus toward a re-imagined world; transcending the boundaries we normally erect around ourselves.