By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
*NOTE: this piece was originally posted to Radical Discipleship in October 2016.
The final leg of the journey to Jerusalem begins with this week’s gospel (Lk 17.11-19). Alert readers, though, will note that Jesus and the disciples have not gotten very far. At the very beginning, Luke tells us that “they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him” (9.52). Now, eight chapters later, Luke says, “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the midst (Gk, dia meson, misleadingly translated by NRSV as “between”) of Samaria and Galilee.” Like the Israelites in the wilderness, they seem to be going in circles in the land north of Judea. Perhaps this is a sly reference to the disciples, like their Israelite ancestors, lacking the faith that the journey they are on will lead to the place of God’s abundant provision. Indeed, as we heard last week, the disciples had just demanded of Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (17.5).
Luke’s emphasis in our passage this week, though, is not on the disciples, but on a group of ten lepers who demand something from Jesus: “Master, have mercy on us!” (17.13). The scene is part of Luke’s jubilee agenda to “level the playing field” through inclusive acts that embody the wideness of God’s mercy. We immediately are invited to recall the leprous foreign army commander, Naaman the Syrian, whose story is told in the companion passage from 2 Kings 5. Jesus explicitly called upon this story in upbraiding his Nazarene neighbors for expecting their favorite son to raise up his hometown in glory and honor (Lk 4.23-29). The lepers in Luke 17, though, are no army commanders. They are village outcasts, “keeping their distance” from Jesus according to the torah (Lev 13.46). Luke passes over the cleansing/healing quickly, to get to the heart of the matter in this scene: the question of a faith that gives thanks and praise to God (17.18-19).
Luke calls the thankful one a “Samaritan,” which presents the man as doubly outcast from the perspective of a Judean. Jesus, however, generalizes his identity to “foreigner” (17.18, Gk, allogenes, only here in the New Testament). This unusual word choice, however, recalls its use in the Septuagint, especially this key passage from Third Isaiah:
Do not let the foreigner (Gk, allogenes) joined to YHWH say, “YHWH will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says YHWH: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to YHWH, to minister to him, to love the name of YHWH, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isa 56.3-7)
We know, of course, that Luke earlier had Jesus use a “good Samaritan” as an object lesson to a lawyer who sought to justify himself (Lk 10.25-37). There, Jesus asks the lawyer, Who “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy,” precisely the demand made by the group of lepers in our current passage (see also Lk 18.38-39; Isa 55.7). The Samaritans may well be the “foreigners” referenced in the Third Isaiah passage above as well, given their exclusion by the elite who worked with the Persian monarchy in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple (see Ezra 4; Neh 4).
But we must pay attention to how Jesus expands the reference to foreigners in general, not limited to Samaritans. Naaman, after all, was a Syrian, a complete outsider to Israel. This leads us to connect another Luke passage: the healing of the centurion’s slave (Lk 7.1-10). The centurion, like Naaman, is not only a foreigner, but also a leader of an army of Israel’s enemies. Jesus’ response to the centurion is “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (7.9). Thus, both the centurion and leper stories are connected by Jesus’ praise of the faith of a foreigner while he laments the lack of faith among the Israelites.
Meanwhile, where are Jesus’ disciples? They were present in the previous part of Luke 17, and appear again at 17.22. Their absence in our scene leads us to ask about evidence of their own attitude toward Samaritans. This takes us back to the beginning of the Travel Narrative. At the very start of the long journey to Jerusalem, Jesus and his entourage are denied hospitality in a Samaritan village because “his face was set toward Jerusalem” (9.52-53). James and John evoke Elijah (2 Kg 1.10-14) asking Jesus, “”Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus turns and rebukes them. While Luke evokes the memory of both Elijah and Elisha for their acts of healing and resurrection (Lk 4.25-27; cf. 7.12-17), he has Jesus reject the vengeful aspect of their ministry, just as he omitted the closing phrase of Third Isaiah’s proclamation of the “year of the Lord’s favor”: “the day of vengeance of our God” in his inaugural sermon (Lk 4.19). The disciples like their Israelite forebears, have been wandering in circles ever since, having not truly heard the Word about Jesus’ nonviolent messiahship.
Exegetically, then, this week’s passage is relatively straightforward, revealing the “scandalous” scope of God’s mercy. The bigger challenge is what it implies for our own discipleship: how are we to learn what faith looks like in practice from “outsiders” and “foreigners”?
The great peace activist and theologian, Jim Douglass, once wrote a powerful piece in the Ground Zero newspaper called, “the Parable of the Good Communist.” The Cold War, of course, has morphed into the “War on Terror,” which translates so often into the “War on Muslims.” How is God calling we who claim Jesus to learn from our Islamic sisters and brothers?
We might start with the classic wisdom of the Sufi mystics. For example, listen to this poetic parable from Rumi:
There is a fountain inside you.
Don’t walk around with an empty bucket.
You have a channel into the ocean,
yet you ask for water from a little pool.
Beg for the love expansion. Meditate only
on THAT. The Qur’an says,
And he is with you. (57:4)
We could also learn from the work done by our Australian brother, Dave Andrews, who has done amazing bridge-building work listening to his own Islamic neighbors in and around Brisbane (e.g., http://www.jihadofjesus.com/previews/2015/10/12/lunch-with-dave-andrews-jihad-for-jesus-matt-wade-senior-writer-sydney-morning-herald).
But ultimately, our Gospel calls us to seek to be inspired by the faith of Muslims right where we are, just as Jesus and the disciples encountered the Samaritans within the space of greater Israel. Do we know the Muslims in our own neighborhoods? Where is the closest mosque? Have we ever visited?
As Dave has witnessed in his own work, daring to engage the faith of “outsiders” can generate great hostility and anger among those who insist that “Christianity” is the only “way” of salvation or who continue to stereotype Muslims as terrorists. Ironically, this resistance is often evidence of our own lack of trust that the Creator God can be experienced “outside” the church. Our resistance may be active, but for many of us, resistance may take the form of the absence of acts of mercy, benevolence and peacemaking with our Muslim neighbors. May we seek to embrace the faith of the “outsider,” crying out, like the lepers, “Master, have mercy on us!”
We conclude with the hope that our lives might sing forth this proclamation from Iona songwriter, John Bell (listen here):
First-born of Mary,
Jesus inspires and
disarms and confuses
whoever he chooses
to hear his voice.
© 1998, WGRG, Iona Community, Scotland.