Like a Leper, Finding God at the Margins

Cape Cod, MA. Readers of my essays here over the years know that while I take various approaches to interreligious matters — my “portfolio” for In All Things — ranging from occasional current events to papal pronouncements, I am also concerned about our basic Christian attitudes, how these need to be deepened and transformed in that interreligious encounter and learning be radically open and still deeply Christian at the same time. In turn, basic to this “interreligious Christian conversion” is thinking again and more deeply about model of Christ and our relationship to him. So it was not surprising that I sat up and took notice of the Gospel for this Sunday (October 13), the story in Luke 17:11-19 about the ten lepers and the one who returned to thank Jesus:

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. (NRSV)


While on sabbatical, I’ve had occasion to link up with a lively and welcoming parish on the Cape, and so I had the privilege of preaching on the story at Sunday Mass. The interreligious angle, which I hinted at but did not stress in church, goes as follows.

First of all, this is a story on the margins, the boundaries between known religious worlds; it is not an ordinary religious situation. Jesus himself is as it were walking along the border between the related but unfriendly traditions of the Jews and the Samaritans: he is neither here nor there. In turn, the lepers are an improbable mix, nine Jews and one Samaritan. Ordinarily, they would not have traveled together, eaten and slept together, but as lepers, outcast by their communities, they have nothing but one another; their identities are stripped away, and they are “nothing but lepers.” Only when they are healed, do they immediately part company.

This liminal encounter, on the border between lands and traditions, plays out slowly. They approach, but keep their distance; by an indirect word, Jesus responds to their cry for mercy: “Go (away), show yourselves to the priests,” as Leviticus 13 requires. It is not out of ingratitude that they walk away; they are still lepers, after all, and even as they are cured, their assumption is that they cannot be welcomed back without the priest’s approval. As they are healed and cease to be “nothing but lepers,” their own religious identities return, and the nine Jews want, it seems, to fulfill tradition (and the instruction of Jesus) by finding the priests. Similarly, the Samaritan, now left to himself, separates himself from the other nine; for he, a Samaritan, need not, does not want, to go to their priests. He finds himself stripped of old identities, for at the moment, as even while walking he sees that he is cured, he realizes that he is neither a leper nor a Jew nor, it seems, subject to any urgent Samaritan rules. He abruptly stops and turns around.

And so to the story’s point: he is free, and ready to praise God, but for that he realizes – and this is his saving grace, faith’s compass – that he needs to return to Jesus, who spoke that implicit word of cure. It is only there at the feet of Jesus, close up and no longer “at a distance,” that he finds the right moment and place to praise and thank God. To the time and place where you felt God’s power before, hurry, go there now.

This is, I suggest, the radical point: touched and transformed by Jesus, the Samaritan turns out to be the exemplary person of faith, a faith that praises God in the ordinary time and place of liberation, because it was there that he was unfettered, for a moment at least, by social and religious identity (perhaps he is “spiritual but not religious”). In that borderland between the Galilee and Samaria, he is the one who is free to find Jesus where Jesus is – as John 4 will put it, “neither on this mountain [in Samaria] nor in Jerusalem.”

And to put it more bluntly with respect to ourselves: the healing encounter with Jesus frees us from whatever good and bad may have bound, named, and labeled us in the past. As always, the Gospel is about us, and it is ourselves who need to be choosing between following the laws and customs of our Church or, in that rare moment of encounter, the urgencies of direct encounter with Jesus in the odd and ordinary marginal spaces “between Samaria and Galilee, our faith and theirs.”

It is in this spirit that Jesus commends the man at the Gospel’s end, and let him go his way, wherever he wishes: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” He can stay with Jesus, or not; return home as a pious Samaritan, or not; catch up with the other nine and head to Jerusalem (where Jesus himself is heading), or not. For us, the message of the moment, in this Gospel, is the same: the encounter with Jesus strips away our labels – name, country, physical condition, affiliation – like the sores of a leper, and sets us free to go our own way.

There is no reason, I propose, why this could not be an ordinary way of thinking of how Christ might matter not just in the Church. This can a way of faith in the wider world, among the “spiritual and not religious” who, like the Samaritan, just want to be well, but also even among people of other faiths, who can meet Jesus, be made well by him, and freed to go as they wish, back home to their own faith, or on a new path, or, more rarely, to walk with Jesus.

This is just one dimension of just one Gospel passage and not the whole story, not even of the passage itself. Other things can be said. But as I suggested at the start, the larger task of learning to be Christian in a new way requires daily reflection and cultivation, seizing every opportunity to learn, like the Gospel of any given Sunday. Once we realize the interreligious imperative of our faith, it can take us to the unexpected places where Jesus is found “neither here nor there,” but between traditions, on the edge, where only our essential, healed humanity is able to help us find our way back to God.


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