Sometimes, as you read Luke’s gospel, Jesus sounds like the kind of project manager you want on the job; the one who’s clearly focused on the objective, who knows the costs and who’ll bring everything in on schedule. Like in Luke 14 where Jesus outlines the cost of discipleship. “For which of you,” he says, “Intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him…”
At other times however – you almost feel some sympathy for the Pharisees in today’s reading – Jesus speaks in much more abstract terms. “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…” That’s not so helpful, is it? “Nor will [people be able to] say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Among you? What does he mean by that? Besides which none of that answers the Pharisees’ question about the timeline for God’s coming kingdom!
In this passage, throughout this chapter, Jesus is challenging the way we look at the world; the way we measure progress or recognise success or assess potential. After all, it was just last week that Jesus said that faith might be as small as a mustard seed or as ordinary as serving up dinner. And here, too, we have the familiar story of the ten lepers, a story that continues to challenge our understanding of faith – revealing that God is active, that the kingdom of God is found, in the most unlikely places and situations and people.
Because it would be pretty hard to find a less likely place for the activity of God than where Jesus and his disciples are, “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee”. Now, if you were a good Jew, Galilee was bad enough. You might remember the crowds in John’s gospel saying, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee?” But Samaria was worse. Samaritans, in Judean eyes, were ethnically compromised – the descendants of the northern tribes of Israel and other Mesopotamian peoples transported to the region by the conquering Assyrian empire – and their religious traditions, despite not differing greatly, were equally suspect.
And it is on the border, ‘the region between Samaria and Galilee’, where this tension was rife. In 128 BCE the Judeans had attacked the Samaritan sanctuary on Mt Gerizim and in Jesus’ day, hostilities were still strong enough that Galileans heading to Jerusalem often bypassed Samaria altogether though this added considerable time to their journey. Go back to Luke 9, to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and you find a Samaritan village which refuses to receive him because of where he’s headed, and James and John ask if divine power could firebomb the village then and there.
But the writer of Luke is telling us to take another look at this place. To recognise that this is a place where God is active.
We’re also being told to take another look at this situation. As Jesus entered the village, verse 12, ten lepers approached him. They may not have had Hansen’s disease, as we know leprosy today, but would have suffered from a range of skin diseases assumed to be contagious. This meant they were isolated from their community and forced to fend for themselves, and as outcasts and beggars and scavengers, they were not highly regarded.
But these lepers know the rules. They keep their distance and they call out to Jesus for mercy. And Jesus responds. Interestingly, Jesus also obeys the rules. He doesn’t come near them or touch them, but he says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” (the ones who can declare them clean and healed) and the lepers go, and as they go, they are healed.
The kingdom at God is clearly present in this situation. Ten lepers are healed! But something in the narrative tells us that this is more than a healing account; that what happens after the healing is possibly even more significant.
Because, in verse 15, “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,” the text says, “He was a Samaritan.” And just in case we missed it, Jesus mentions it again. “Were not ten made clean? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
And to rub the salt in, as commentator William Loader says, “Luke has Jesus announce that this tenth leper, [this Samaritan, this foreigner] has been made whole, an image of full salvation.” “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” It is a Samaritan who demonstrates true faith; who turns back, who gives God the glory, who gives thanks. It is a Samaritan – an unlikely person – in an unlikely situation – in an unlikely place – who recognises where God is active, who realises the kingdom of God in their midst.
The story is deliberately subversive. A despised Samaritan, a despairing leper, “becomes,” in Loader’s words, “our high priest, as it were, our model of salvation. And those who belong get it wrong. A simple but disturbing story that lives itself out in every generation”
This simple story challenges us to see where God is active in the unlikely places in our communities, in our world, where the kingdom of God is found in our unlikely situations and among the most unlikely people.
As I was thinking about this this week, I was reminded of an old episode of Grand Designs Abroad. Do you remember that spin-off? It followed the adventures of English couples, mostly, who’d decided that building impossible builds, on schedule and under budget in a place they spoke the language was too easy – so they’d do it overseas! Anyway, this episode featured a couple who’d bought a ruin of a 1,000-year-old hill-top castle in Tuscany, which had been bombed by the Germans and almost totally destroyed by subsequent earthquakes, but which they – despite the best efforts of Italian bureaucracy – managed to restore.
But what struck me most was the insanely passionate determination of the husband, who excavated metres and metres of stones by hand, to put back stones where they originally stood; the keystones and springers in the archways, the stone lintels, the loggia edgings. And how, as he was doing this, the residents of the village, initially unhappy about English people buying their castle, began to delight in the restoration and began to return stones they or their parents or grandparents had ‘liberated’ over the decades.
This slightly mad Englishman (a prerequisite for appearing on Grand Designs) was able to look at that pile of rubble and see the value of each stone; to see what would take shape in their midst. And we, too, are challenged to look at the unlikely places and situations and people and see the kingdom of God taking shape amongst us.
But this story in Luke also challenges us about our own response to Jesus. Just like those villagers who, seeing the work going on at the castle, suddenly remembered the wall dad had built along the back of the yard or the large pavers in the courtyard that belonged to the building, we are challenged to bring our own stones, our own lives, to where God is active, to share in building the kingdom of God.
As I was looking at different resources this week, I came across a creative retelling of this passage which tells the story of the other nine lepers, listing some of the likely reasons we are unwilling to share the faith of this unlikely follower, a Samaritan leper. Perhaps some of them might resonate with you and challenge you.
The story of the first leper was that he had gotten kind of used to being sick. His leprosy was like an old friend, like an old pair of shoes that can’t really take you anywhere, but just feel so good you keep them anyway:
First leper: I never really thought about going back to ‘thank’ Jesus, to give God the glory for my healing, because now I couldn’t be ‘just a leper’. Now I had to be responsible for myself, and maybe others, and I was, like, “Thanks. For nothin’!” When you are used to your condition or affliction, your sorrow or sin, whatever, it’s hard to grab hold of life’s goodness, of where God is working, and say, ‘thanks’.
The second leper felt pretty much entitled to the healing she got.
Second leper: I’d spent a lot of time being angry, complaining, asking, “Why me?” It’s hard to say, ‘thank you’ and praise God when what’s on your mind is, “It’s about time! It’s only what I deserve!’
The third leper was a kind of sceptic – scholarly, bright, a little too sophisticated to believe that there really could be a God who cold care enough about us to hear us, heal us, save us.
Third leper: It’s hard to say ‘thank you’ when you’re thinking, “There’s got to be a reasonable explanation for all this. Maybe I never really even had leprosy. What’s God got to do with it?”
The fourth leper, fiercely independent and self-reliant, believed in a God of blessing, but just didn’t want to owe God or anyone any thanks, or anything else.
Fourth leper: “Maybe it’s my new diet,” I thought, “or positive thinking, or bottled water that made me well.” It’s hard to say, “Thank you. You’ve saved me!” when you’re always saying, “I can do it myself.”
The fifth leper was a very busy person. Or he was, till this illness slowed him down! And he meant to be again if he ever got well. So, when his skin began to heal, he headed straight for the office and resumed his busy busyness and was soon way overscheduled, like important people are, and forgot all about Jesus.
Fifth leper: It’s hard to go back and give God glory and kneel at Jesus’ feet when it’s not scheduled into the diary or comes up as reminder on the phone. I mean thanks and praise is polite and all, but it’s not very useful or profitable. Anyway, I’ll get around to it when my schedule clears. Someday.
The sixth leper, when she got well headed straight for the big city and straight for the shops. And soon she sat in a lovely big house surrounded by stuff; massive screen TV, the latest phone, new kitchen appliances, a brand-new car and cupboards full of gorgeous clothes.
Sixth leper: Sometimes I feel a little uneasy because I don’t really own all this stuff. The bank owns it really. Or maybe it owns me. But I just go buy something else and the discomfort passes. I actually once started back to Jesus to say ‘thank you’ but on the way I passed a massive clearance sale and I never quite made it.
The seventh leper just didn’t think he deserved this healing, was completely unworthy of it.
Seventh leper: Even God couldn’t love me. Even God, if God really knew me, couldn’t forgive me, much less shower me with blessings and grace. No one deserves leprosy more than me! It’s hard to say ‘thank you’ for the gift when you haven’t really accepted it.
The eighth leper thought himself reasonable, responsible and thrifty. He was saving up against an uncertain future.
Eighth leper: When there was retirement to consider, my kids’ education and start in life, the cruise I’d promised my wife, how could I justify the time, the expense, to go back to Jesus just to say acknowledge the work of God? It’s a lovely idea, but…completely impractical!
The ninth leper thought that returning to give thanks and praise God was a good thing to do but she assumed someone else would take care of it.
Ninth leper: There were nine of us healed, weren’t there? One of them will do it. Jesus doesn’t need all of us.
(adapted slightly from Susan Bock’s, Liturgy for the Whole Church)
Jesus describes not only the life of faith and the emergence of the kingdom of God in architectural terms, he also describes himself in this way. “The stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone.”
The kingdom of God, too, is made up of stones from unlikely places and situations and people…and it is made up of each one of us.
Can I ask you to take a moment and to think about your response to Jesus, to welcoming where God is active in your life or our world, to being part of God’s kingdom building project and then in a moment I will close in prayer.