Proper 23(28) C
He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. (Luke 16.16)
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18.11)
By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Gratitude is a hot topic these days. Along with “mindfulness,” “self-care,” and other practices frequently promoted in books, apps and videos, gratitude has been “discovered” by people longing for relief from the anxieties and confusions of corporate capitalist culture and its desecration of life. But this week’s Gospel calls us to consider: for what, exactly, are we grateful?
A simple answer might be “everything!” There is some truth in this, but like “all lives matter” in the face of the “black lives matter” movement, its supposed universal claim can easily mask something more insidious. Yes, of course “all lives matter.” But as we know, such an assertion seeks to diminish the cries for justice from our African-American siblings. Similarly, this week’s gospel is interwoven with other strands of Luke’s fabric of Good News to invite us to reflect deeply on two very different images and contexts of thanksgiving.
Our passage, Luke 17.11-18, presents ten lepers approaching Jesus as he travels in the borderlands of Galilee and Samaria. Let’s step back for a moment to consider the narrative context of this passage. In Luke 16, as Ched Myers has shown so powerfully in previous weeks, Jesus challenges both his disciples and his opponents, the Pharisees, about the radical disjunction between God’s jubilee economy and the empire’s exploitative economy. Taking an even wider view of our story, we see that Luke 14-16 forms a “sandwich” much like 1 Corinthians 8-10 and 12-14. In all three sections, ethical admonitions to reject the way of empire and embrace instead Jesus’ Way frame a center which offers a core principle or image with which to read the surrounding sections. For example, in 1 Cor 8-10, Paul’s advice about whether Jesus’ followers can partake in feasts at temples to local gods is centered in his message about the freedom of the gospel. Again, in 1 Cor 12-14, Paul’s words about the distribution of ministries and gifts in the ekklēsia are centered around his famous poem on love. Similarly, in Luke 14-16, Jesus’ demanding call to renounce family and possessions while taking up the cross—thereby subverting the imperial economy—frames three parables in chapter 15 about the nature of God. In those parables, we hear two key points that help us to understand our current passage more deeply. First, on repentance:
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15.7)
“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke15.10)
Second, on God’s infinite mercy:
But the father said to his slaves, ”Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15.22-24)
In other words, we can only find the courage and will to obey Jesus’ commands to turn away from the imperial economy and to embrace God’s economy if we trust that we are in the embrace of a loving and merciful God who celebrates and rejoices at the mere presence of those who were lost but now are found.
One final point about the wider context can help us get to the heart of our passage. In this section, Jesus alternates between addressing the Pharisees and others, i.e., the disciples and the crowds, as we can see below:
And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” (Luke 14.3)
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them… (Luke 14.25)
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable… (Luke 15.2-3)
Then Jesus said to the disciples… (Luke 16.1)
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them… (Luke 16.14-15)
Jesus said to his disciples… (Luke 17.1)
Thus, throughout this part of the wider Travel Narrative, Luke shows us a steady contrast between Jesus’ own word and practice and that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees can be seen as symbolic of Luke’s audience of wealthy Romans, i.e., those who build castles, hold banquets, and so forth. That audience would not have much concern over real Pharisees and internal Jewish disputes.
Now, back to 17.11-19. Two key words draw connections to the surrounding text that illuminate the question of gratitude: “thanks” (Gk, eucharistō) and “mercy” (Gk eleeō and its synonym, hilaskomai). Also closely connected is the question of distance.
As Jesus enters the village, the ten lepers are expected to remain apart from others. But Jesus and the lepers perform a delicate dance of undistancing. We hear that they “approached” Jesus, while “keeping their distance” (v. 12). After calling for Jesus to have mercy on them and being told to go show themselves to the priests, they “went,” but one “turned back” and “fell at Jesus’ feet” (v. 16). In Jesus’ series of rhetorical questions that follow (to whomever is listening; the audience in this one section of the wider unit is not named), he notes that the one leper “was…found to return” (v. 18).
After this scene, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about the timing of the reign of God, and Jesus goes apocalyptic on them, offering images of the “days of the Human One,” and recalling the Genesis Flood as a warning to those who do not abandon empire and take up Jesus’ Way. Immediately after this, he tells another parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” using a Pharisee as an example (Luke 18.9-14). Now all the pieces come together:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
The tax collector, like the lepers, stands far off, complying with the social norm which makes them all “unclean.” The Pharisee, agreeing with this norm, keeps himself apart from the one he thanks God for making him better than. Like the rich man in Luke 16.19-31 who puts a gate between himself and poor Lazarus, the Pharisee’s “gratitude” isolates him from the tax collector, whose repentance and cry for divine mercy brings great joy to God. The Pharisee thus matches the elder son in the parable at 15.11-32 just as the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, matches the tax collector here, 19.1-10.
In other words, Jesus praises and even seems to expect thanks in response to God’s gracious and merciful gifts, while condemning “thanks” that, although directed to God, is really self-congratulations with a godly cover story. We are called to be grateful to God for the opportunity to respond to God’s merciful grace calling us toward God and the marginalized, rather than for our acts which create chasms between us and others. In the words of our dear brother Eduard Loring and sister Murphy Davis of the Open Door Community, Jesus calls us to “reduce the distance” that empire would have us establish between the privileged “us” and the outcast “them.” Whenever and wherever that happens is indeed a call for holy thanks and celebration.
This week’s Psalm 66 reinforces and widens this call to celebrate the God of mercy. We thus end with the beautiful imagery that opens the poem, which calls us to join all the earth in praise of our gracious God:
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
Sing the glory of his name; give to God glorious praise.
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.”
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.