“Your faith has made you whole.” (Luke 17:19)
What would we do if we were among them Jesus healed ten lepers from afar?
This question takes on new meaning as our world emerges from a global pandemic. In a way we are in the position of the newly healed. How do we react?
Is Jesus just petty?
At first glance, this week’s Gospel appears ironic, given that it came shortly after Jesus Instruction to disciples to serve and forgive without expectation of thanks. Now Jesus has just healed ten people of leprosy, and he seems irritated when only one comes back to thank him. Is Jesus petty? Does he show us that even he finds it unsatisfying to work without gratitude?
As comforting as it is to think that even Jesus can be grumpy (which validates that emotion for the rest of us), there’s a lot more going on here. Jesus isn’t upset just because nine out of ten didn’t come back to thank him. He’s frustrated because his love has given ten people the chance to change their lives and change the world. And only the Samaritan jumped at the chance.
When we respond to love with love, we become instruments of love’s peace. Had the other nine healed fully If they understood what had happened to them, they would have seized their opportunity to reorientate a world they had avoided because of their illness. They would have recognized the power within themselves to spread the love they had received and gradually heal a wounded world.
Jesus is not sad about what he not received, but by what means you couldn’t grasp it yet.
Because if they can go back to “normal” then they just don’t get it.
But isn’t that what Jesus asked for?
Don’t the other nine really obey Jesus?
That’s the obvious question, but the answer isn’t so obvious.
Ten people with leprosy keep their distance and follow the rules of their time. Declared “unclean” by the law, they are shunned, destitute, and forbidden to approach those who are “clean.” So stay away while they cry out to Jesus for mercy.
Jesus acknowledges their obedience to laws and societal norms and responds by telling them to present themselves to the priests. “Go to your authority,” says Jesus. “Go to the people you trust to impart God’s power.” So they went.
And on the way they were cleaned.
Priests were not authorized to cure leprosy. At most, they could authorize a sacrificial ritual that would allow one who had already been healed to be reintegrated into society. It therefore made sense for the newly healed to continue on to the priests to undergo the ritual. Some probably thought they were respecting Jesus by keeping their distance from him until they were “officially” declared clean.
But as theologian Michael Hardin points out, the return to Jesus is the Samaritan chooses Jesus as his priest.
And so he chooses the authority of love.
And when we choose the authority of love, everything changes.
No return to normal
While the other nine were eager to undergo the rites of rehabilitation and return to their lives, the Samaritan knew his life would never be the same. There was no going back to normal.
And what was normal?
“Normal” was a world of divisions: between Jew and Samaritanbetween pure and impure, between acceptable and rejected.
“Normal” was a world in which value had to be proven rather than recognized as universal, infinite, and inherent.
“Normal” was a world in which skin diseases like leprosy were seen as the result of moral failure and a punishment for sin.
“Normal” was a sacrificial world under a sacrificial god.
And it must be emphasized that this charge against “normal” is not a charge against Judaism. Jesus followed a merciful interpretation of Judaism. This “victim normality” is the status quo under the forces of sin, rivalry and greed that seep into every human community and cloak violence against the “other” under the cloak of righteousness.
“Normal” had thrown the Samaritan and his afflicted companions into the “no man’s land” between Samaria and Galilee. The only reason he could be with the Jews at all was because they were all unclean and cast out. They have been drawn together in their marginalization and vulnerability. Maybe they even became friends.
But that friendship was about to end because things were getting “normal” again.
Choosing the Authority of Love
Except for the Samaritan who sees that the self-sacrificing normal is unacceptable and chooses to follow a “new normal.” Love directs him to a new life in which the division between Jew and Samaritan, pure and impure, melts away. So he returns to Jesus not only in gratitude but also in obedience. He sees that God is not the demand for sacrifices, but the source of love. So Jesus is the mediator of love, the priest of love.
Jesus becomes the illumination of God through the Samaritan and reveals God’s nature in a whole new light. The Samaritan may not have been one of the original Twelve, but he is now a disciple of Jesus, under the authority of love.
Choosing the authority of love means seeing through all the power structures that divide, fight and make people suffer. It means not being guided by a status quo that assumes the rich and powerful deserve more than the weak and destitute.
Choosing the authority of love means recognizing our connectedness and mutual vulnerability. It means acknowledging that the ills that plague the body are kindled and aggravated by the social ills of isolation, scapegoating, and judgmentalism. It means understanding that compassion, not discipline, is the healing balm that brings health not only to the individual but also to the community.
And it’s faith to listen to and act upon the love that is already within us, that makes it possible to choose the authority of love. For the authority of love does not compel us from without, but guides us within, speaking to our deepest essence. Therefore, Jesus’ instruction is subtle, allowing the people he heals to interpret what he means by “priest.”
Faith illuminating the authority of love healed the Samaritan, Jesus’ newest disciple. His healing is more than superficial.
The disease has been alleviated, but are we alright?
Now the world is recovering from the grips of a deadly pandemic. Although the illness is still ongoing, it has been alleviated enough for life to resume its course. What do we do now?
Will we return to normal?
Or will we choose the authority of love?
I count myself among the many who, like the Nine, have been eager to get back to my routines. I was thrilled when my children could go back to school, for their sake and me. I was happy to once again dine at restaurants, return to church in person, and see the unmasked faces of friends and family (although I still mask in tight indoor spaces!)
But if we settle for “returning to normal,” we’re missing out on all the ways that “normal” has brought us to the brink of collapse.
“Normal” is common Poverty and homelessness which prevented many sufferers from recovering and aided the spread of the disease.
That’s “normal”. Lack of universal health care this led to some people suffering from chronic diseases dying more frequently.
“Normal” is generations of systemic racism created great racial disparities in wealthcontributing to the disproportionate deaths from Covid among racial minorities.
That’s “normal”. Spirit of the scapegoat who found a special target in Asian Americans.
That’s “normal”. breakdown of social ties that isolated us long before quarantine.
“Normal” is the prejudice attitude that makes poverty a moral failure rather than a systemic injustice fueled by greed, racism, and the militarism that prioritizes US hegemony over caring for citizens.
“Normal” has killed so many and makes the rest of us sick.
How did we say thank you?
Furthermore, as we return to “normal,” we risk forgetting that we owe our survival to so many who made life possible, who still make life possible, though they often leave unnoticed, underpaid and underserved itself.
The pandemic exposed in stark, glaring reality how much we owed each other “essential workers”: not only the scientists who worked on the vaccine and the treating doctors, but also:
Nurses, shop assistants, employees at fast food restaurants and sidewalk restaurants, janitors, plumbing workers, teachers balancing real and virtual classes, caregivers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers fulfilling online orders… and so, so, so many more.
Jesus came to show us that our life does not depend on the principalities and powers that rule over us, but on the servants to take care of us. The essential workers who pulled us through this pandemic were Jesus – embodiments of love– In our midst.
How did we thank them?
How have we reoriented ourselves around the revelation that love sustains our lives, not wealth or status or power?
It is not too late
In many ways, the world seems to have slipped back into sacrificial normalcy.
But it’s not too late to turn back.
To repent, to repent, to change our minds means we realize we don’t have to be under the self-sacrificing authority of greed and exploitation, rivalry and division.
We can let out the authority of love that sustains us and begin to heal our deeply ill society.
We can work towards that general health insurance and Housing and a subsistence level for all.
We can strive to understand and resolve ingrained systemic injustices.
We can serve one another with mutual help and compassion.
We can see our interconnectedness and interdependence as living reflections of love. Ultimately, recognizing the authority of love is simply living into what we already are.
And that’s good for us.
Picture: Woodcut: Christ healing a leper, 16th century. Featuring: Jost Amman. Work ID: dp8wd5zm. Available under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.