One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him -and he was a Samaritan.” Luke 17:11-19
Luke 17:11-19 is a common narrative engaged by preachers at Thanksgiving time in North America pleading for “attitudes of gratitude.” A narrative whose essence can be seen in the triviality of the closing scene of this children’s version of the story where the last frame exclaims, “Don’t Forget to Thank Jesus.”
In such simplified, moralistic versions of the story the other nine lepers who don’t return to Jesus are vilified as ungrateful. However, we shouldn’t rush to cast judgment on them. Were not all ten collectively calling out to Jesus for mercy, keeping their appropriate distance while doing so? Did not all ten immediately set out in obedience after receiving the exhortation to go show themselves to the priests…even before they saw evidence of healing? Moreover, Jesus never creates an expectation that they return to him with thank-you notes. One assumes they were ecstatic to return to their families, friends, and jobs, to which the healing restored them. Wouldn’t you do the same?
Jesus had encountered all ten marginalized lepers in a marginalized place-the border between Samaria and Galilee. This is a no man’s land-a liminal space. Importantly, it is here where the long-distance relationship begins and ends with 9 out of the 10 who call out for mercy. Jesus tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests. All ten go. Only one returns. Luke makes sure to mention that one is a Samaritan.
The despised Samaritan was “unclean” from both sickness and ethnicity. When he is made whole, lying prostrate in gratitude before Jesus, it is not just leprosy alone from which he is healed. The business about “going and showing oneself to the priests” was an act of conformity to a system that had ostracized and declared all ten unclean in the first place. The Samaritan is healed from conformity to such a religious system of violence that divides and separates between clean and unclean, Gentile and Jew. The Samaritan, unshackled from such allegiance, freely comes to Jesus, understanding him as both a source of physical healing and a giver of social restoration.
The verbs Jesus uses in this story reveal the progression. The ten were all initially “cleansed” (tharizo- “to be made clean or healed of a disease”). But the Samaritan, upon returning to Jesus, was “made well,” (sozo- “to be healed of spiritual disease and death”).
The other nine return to have their physical healing certified by a priest. They return to participate in the same system that had excluded them-it was the source of their religious identity prior to being cast out, and now they returned to its exclusive boundaries. It was the Samaritan (previously excluded from that system to begin with) who sees that Jesus, by healing him at the same time as the other nine, also offered liberation from the oppressive order that created the marginalization in the first case.
In pondering the intimate moment of the story when Jesus and the healed Samaritan are together, I am reminded of poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of “the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” Their encounter becomes recognition of two outcasts hungry for authentic community that is scapegoat free.
It is not just a distant plea for mercy from the group, the dutiful obedience to go show oneself to the priests, or even an expression of heartfelt gratitude that captures the heart at the salute of God’s scandalous grace. The salute happens in the intimacy of two outcasts seeking and longing for a new kind of community-a place where foreigner becomes friend. The appropriate response to such a salute, displayed by the foreigner, is the complete vulnerability illustrated by throwing oneself at the feet of Jesus. The salute of grace is given and love heals all wounds.
This article was previously published on Street Psalms. Republished with permission.
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