Last week it was Jesus’ own disciples who wanted faith (and recall Jesus’ response to them: You already have enough if only you’d recognize and use it!).
Now it’s ten people with leprosy who just ask for a little mercy. Note that they don’t ask to be cured; just a little kindness is all they’re hoping for. Perhaps some comforting words or maybe a few spare coins. Considering that they were society’s outcasts, any interaction at all would have been quite extraordinary.
But what does Jesus do: he changes their lives in ways they’d perhaps never dreamed. He instructs them to rise and go to the priests at the temple in Jerusalem, because on the way they will be cured of their dread disease and, even more importantly, healed.
And so the ten set off for Jerusalem, no doubt in a pretty joyful mood. But one of them turns and comes back to Jesus to say thanks. Curiously (and, I’m pretty sure, importantly), this one is a Samaritan. Keep in mind that the Jerusalem Temple priests wouldn’t have had anything to do with him anyway. So perhaps his turning around had as much to do with heading in the other direction (to priests at Samaritan shrines) as anything else and Jesus just happened to be there. That’s plausible, but I think there’s more to it than that.
Luke doesn’t tell us what eventually happened to the other nine (and he is the only Gospel writer who includes this story). Who knows? Maybe they ultimately made their way back to Jesus, who not incidentally was on his way to Jerusalem, as well.
He would make an appearance at the temple, but in his case it was all about cleansing the temple (his father’s house) of the moneychangers who had made a mockery of the temple’s true intent.
Or maybe those nine were so in awe of what had happened (and this was, after all, the ultimate life-changing, saving event that could occur in their situation) they were so preoccupied with their new lives that they forgot all about the one who had made it all possible.
I keep coming back to the point that the one thankful leper was a Samaritan. It was bad enough to be an outcast in that society, and it’s not far-fetched to think someone in that situation spent a good deal of time feeling sorry for him- or herself. At least one of the ten was a Samaritan–someone most definitely on the margins of Jewish society. We assume the others were Jews.
Anyway, even a little mercy shown to them might have been a pretty big deal. Jesus didn’t stop there; he cleansed and healed them, sending them on their way to begin a new life no longer as outcasts. It was hope mixed with action. And yet it was the one who apparently was the most marginalized who recognized the enormity of what had happened, who turned back to express appreciation.
Jeremiah had a not-so-different message for Jewish captives in Babylonian exile. Certainly they, too, had become marginalized people. No doubt many if not most of them were depressed and forlorn, whining about all they’d lost and how hopeless their situation had become. Even their wonderful songs of Zion made no sense as they sat by the Babylonian riverside with the locals stopping by to taunt them.
So what was Jeremiah’s prophetic message of hope and healing to those exiles? Look to the welfare of the city where you live now; build homes, raise families, be responsible members of this new society. Someday your heirs may return to Jerusalem, but in the meantime rejoice and thank the God of your forebears for the life you have now.
We don’t have to look far today to find marginalized people in our own society–modern-day “lepers,” if you will. The growing numbers of people living in poverty, hungry children and adults, homeless “street people,” the mentally and physically ill, all those who are different in some way. Add to this list immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who because of their appearance, religion, customs, language, or legal status are automatically put in the “other” category.
It’s easy to put blinders on so we just don’t see these folks; we pretend all is well when our gaze reaches no farther than our own private experience. But they’re still there. Many would be happy just to receive a little mercy–a hand out or a hand up. Some attention to their needs.
Meanwhile, there are many among us today who say they want to reclaim life the way it used to be (or, perhaps more accurately, the way they remember it). It’s all too easy to dismiss the marginalized with something like “Well, those people are not like us, so we need not have anything to do with them. Besides, they’re probably responsible for getting themselves into that pitiful condition anyway!”
The words of Jeremiah and Jesus blend together and convict us of the healing that needs to take place in the places where we find ourselves–and among the marginalized we’d rather have nothing to do with.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.