Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He will be betrayed, tortured, abandoned and murdered. He’s going willingly, in the full knowledge of what will happen to him. Yet, instead of being paralysed by fear, despair or anger at the unfairness of it all, he continues to live out the way of service. Jesus keeps moving outside of the expectations of a Jewish man, which, of course, is one of the things that got him into such trouble with the Jewish authorities.
This simple sounding story follows on from Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness (Luke 17:1-4), faith (Luke 17:5-6) and right service (Luke 17:7-10). On first glance, it seems a little odd. Why put a miracle here? The section of Luke we’re in mostly concentrates on Jesus’ words and teaching, rather than Jesus deeds. The teachings here have been directed at Jesus’ disciples, but also at the Pharisees, with whom he’s depicted as being in conflict. Jesus is teaching something revolutionary and world-changing, and they don’t want to hear it or allow it to be heard. We need to remember, too, the lens through which we’re viewing Luke’s gospel – “how do we mature in service?”
This story puts, front and centre, the way of service that Jesus sets before his disciples, and so, before us. We’re to serve no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, regardless of our personal pain and anxieties, and whatever the cost. That is the way of service in Jesus’ kingdom. Serving all who need, whenever we come across the need. No wonder the religious leaders found his teachings uncomfortable and revolutionary!
The nature of this service is important, too. We don’t serve simply because we must. We do it with a heart full of love, gratitude and with open hands, ready to receive what God offers us. That is the way of the mature disciple – serving because the disciple understands and rejoices in the relationship she has with her master, Jesus (Lk 17:7-10).
Luke sets his story in the space between Galilee and Samaria, and includes a Samaritan leper among the number Jesus healed. Pain, disease, distress, and being an outsider doesn’t discriminate. These lepers were bound together by being outsiders, unclean and excluded by their communities. They had a skin disease which rendered them ritually unclean, unable to participate in society. Their only hope for reconciliation with their communities was to be cleansed, healed, and made whole. They would be readmitted by proving to the religious leaders that they were ritually clean.
The lepers beg Jesus to heal them, while respecting his integrity – they don’t want to contaminate him by coming into contact with him (touching a leper would render Jesus ritually impure, too). Jesus sends them to be reconciled with their community – their trust in Jesus, that his word was true and would be effective, allowed them to receive healing from God. They’re all sent to the priests to be readmitted to the community, but one, the Samaritan, falls down before Jesus and demonstrates his faith and love.
Luke is using this story to teach on a number of topics.
Luke also points out that faith sometimes comes in packages we don’t expect. In this case, Luke describes that, alone of the 10 lepers, only the Samaritan – an outsider – responded with love, thanks, gratitude, and by putting his faith and trust in Jesus. To Jesus no-one is an outsider, no one outside his kingdom and his offer of love and healing. And it has to be the same for us. The very notion that there are outsiders needs to be alien to us. Even those who seem like outsiders may hold the precious gift of love, faith and gratitude, and may hold the gift of life for us.
For those of us who are outsiders, Jesus’ action of healing, and including us is a powerful one. Even when we feel as though we’re excluded and locked outside, Jesus stands with us.