A Witness from the Margins
First Lesson: Psalm 111
Second Lesson: Luke 17:11-17
It’s often the case in the gospels that we get clues on how we’re to understand or interpret what’s about to take place in the story by where Jesus is—his geographical location. For instance, there are a handful of scenes in which we’re told Jesus and the disciples are “crossing over” from one place to another—a region, or a body of water—and each time there’s a challenge or test of their faith waiting for them on the other side. It’s as if their spiritual journey is following this literal journey they’re on.
Other times, like in these verses from Luke, we’re told that Jesus ventures outside of his familiar territory of Galilee and finds himself out along the borderlands of other regions that were not so decidedly Jewish. Borders are always about more than geography and some imaginary line in the sand. All borders are symbolic before they’re physical, something that’s been made painfully obvious in recent years. And so it’s out in these borderlands and in his interactions with the people he finds there, that Jesus often touches on uncomfortable truths about what it means to be inside and out.
On the surface level, this story is about gratitude—and we shouldn’t rush past that. All ten of the lepers cried out to Jesus to show mercy and all then were healed, but only one came back to give thanks, and Jesus singles him out for doing so. Now, it’s worth pointing out that the other nine were just doing what Jesus told them to do, which was to go and present themselves to the priest so they could be allowed back into their communities. We tend to rag on them for being ungrateful, but that may be a bit harsh. It may be that the others weren’t doing anything wrong as much as that what this one did was special. He returned to give thanks, and not only give thanks, but to praise God with a loud voice—to prostate himself before Jesus and thank him.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has put it, the other nine were acting like good, faithful people. But this tenth leper was acting like someone in love.
Someone who just couldn’t control themselves. Someone who at least in that moment wasn’t hampered by social graces but was simply overcome. And there’s always something disarming about those times when people find themselves overcome in this way. One of my favorite memories of my father is of him sitting on the couch at my aunt’s house and absolutely losing himself in laughter watching the movie Wayne’s World. I was a teenager and I’d never seen my dad laugh like that. It’s not an exaggeration to say it totally changed who I knew him to be—that he was capable of that kind of joyful abandon.
But there are other times, too. I don’t think we ever know exactly how we’ll react to the best news we’ll ever receive. When the tests come back clear. When the baby is born and mom is healthy, too. When the doctors got all of it. Who can say what we’ll do when we find out that we’re someone in love, too? Who can say how it will change us?
And we might prefer if is Luke were to leave it at that: ten lepers were made clean but only one returned to give thanks: be the tenth leper. But we’re out here in the region between Galilee and Samaria—the borderlands—and things are more complicated along the border.
We’re told this leper who returns to give thanks is a Samaritan. We’ve heard of the Samaritans before. Luke is especially fond of including them in the story of Jesus, along with so many other groups of people who find themselves somehow outside the seats of power and inclusion: the poor and disenfranchised, women.
In a sense you could say the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews in those days, but it’s more complicated than that because they were also understood to be distant relatives—which always seems to amplify the conflict. They were thought to be the descendants of the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to the Assyrians some 700 years before the time of Jesus. They, too, claimed to worship the God of Israel, though not at the temple in Jerusalem. They had their own holy sites and practices and even their own version of the scriptures that were similar to that of the Jews but instead spoke of God’s special favor for them, all but writing out any mention of Jerusalem and their Southern cousins, the Jews. From the perspective of the Jews, not only were the Samaritans blasphemous heretics, they were also understood to be racial inferior, the product of intermarriage between the ancient Israelites of the Northern Kingdom and the surrounding Canaanite tribes. By Jesus time, there was also a class conflict wrapped up in this too. Of course, both the Jews and Samaritans were under Roman rule, but the Samaritans were smaller in number and poorer than their Jewish rivals. All of which made for a volatile relationship between the two groups, leading to regular acts of violence on both sides, so it was understood on both sides that it’s best simply to avoid the other and not make trouble.
But it’s interesting that here we have a colony of ten lepers, nine who are presumably Jewish and one who is a Samaritan, yet in their shared condition they’re able to live and be in community together out on the margins. Both Jews and Samaritans would have considered leprosy unclean and grounds for removal from the wider community. Scripture was very clear that those with leprosy were to be ostracized, and kept apart. When you had leprosy, no one seemed to care if you were a Jew or a Samaritan, and so I imagine that after a while, you stopped caring too. It’s interesting, we’re not told that this one was a Samaritan until after he was made clean. It’s almost as if to that point, it didn’t matter. It’s not until they're all made clean that they divide themselves back out, the nine Jews and the one Samaritan, taking on the divisions their wounds had made disappear..
Those around Jesus would have been uncomfortable with him lifting up this Samaritan as the model of faith, but they shouldn’t have been surprised. Even as Scripture is clear in the ways in which it encourages Jews to stay clear of other people groups and uphold the lines between who is in and who is out, there is a long counter-testimony in the Bible where outsiders are lifted up as models of faith. Think Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter, Jonah and the Ninevites who repent after hearing one powerful sermon. Rehab and Ruth. Jesus of course inherits this tradition, too, in different places. His parable of the Good Samaritan, the Canaanite woman who is relentless in asking for her daughter to be healed. Even at the story of his birth, the wise men from the East are the ones to perceive what God is doing.
So, here it is a Samaritan, doubly an outsider as a leper and, as Jesus puts it, “a foreigner,” who turns back to give thanks, suggesting it’s those who are on the outside who are most able to show gratitude to the God who calls everyone in. So often in scripture, it is a witness from the margins who is able to speak of matters of faith with a clarity and a precision that those of us who find ourselves closer to the comfortable middle find so difficult to achieve.
Our view from the inside is often obscured. At times we’re unable to see just how good we have it and the blessings we enjoy. And so it’s not until we hear a witness from someone without that all the stuff we’ve taken for granted is put in relief. Other times, the opposite is true. Like the way you can become nose-blind to the smells in your own house, sometimes we need someone from the outside to point out what stinks here on the inside. Scripture attests to what we know to be true in our own lives, which is that our world is enlarged and our lives are enriched by those who are different from us or come from the outside, in whatever way that might be defined. And if Scripture is to be believed, we have even more to learn from those whom we would keep out.
It’s hard not to hold this witness up against the current rhetoric around foreigners, especially those in need—refugees in particular. Even in more charitable circles the best we seem to muster in speaking of these thousands of people fleeing violence and danger and natural disaster in their home countries is that they’re burdens we should take on because it’s the right thing to do. And it is the right thing to do. I believe we have an obligation to offer relief and sanctuary to those who have come to our gates, many due to conflicts we have a role in creating.
But very rarely do we speak of refugees as the blessings that they are. Not simply as people, who are inherently filled with gifts and abilities, but people gifted enough to make such an incredible journey to get to our borders. What kind of determination and drive and creativity must that take? But even beyond this, these people who come to us from the very outside have a witness to bring to challenge the assumptions of those of us on the inside. On the one hand they remind us that despite our flaws as a county, we are still a place where the oppressed and disenfranchised run to for aid and compassion and opportunity. It may be true that refugees to our country believe in the American Dream more than we do at times. And on the other hand they remind us that while we’re a place and a people worth turning to, we are far from perfect. Even how we’ve come to speak of the “problem” of refugees has exposed our own internal divisions and conflict.
On both accounts, it’s the presence of those coming from the outside that pushes us and challenges us to expand our thinking. They make our world, and if we let them, our hearts bigger.
But as important as it is for us to see these characters and people and places in scripture as characters and people and places in the world today—there’s also a risk that in doing so we narrow our understanding of these stories. We need to understand who the Samaritan is among us today and ask ourselves what witness they might have for us. But I also believe we don’t need to look outside of ourselves to find these voices. Each of us has an inner Samaritan—even if it’s just one part out of ten.
There’s a part of us that knows what it is to be on the outside. A part that has felt the sting of exclusion and of judgment. Each of us carries something of that wound, and so many other wounds, and hurts, embarrassments, failures, losses. And so we also have the capacity to bear our own witness to these things. It’s in connecting with our own wounds that we find compassion and empathy for the wounds of others. And in the same way that the common wound of leprosy allowed for the bonds of community to form among those ten, our wounds, too, if we allow them, can connect to each other.
The poet Ross Gay, in his book on delight I’ve probably talked about too much lately, writes this on these strange bonds that form across wounds, or as he puts it, wilderness.
Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classroom to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might be somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.
And what if the wilderness—perhaps the densest wilder in there—thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?)—is our sorrow?…It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything…Is this, sorrow…the great wilderness?
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?…
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
What if that is faith?
What if that’s what connects us to each and to God and the whole of creation?
It may be that nine times out of ten, we’re content to keep our nose down and simply do the right thing. And so how important is the witness of that other part of us that’s head over heels in love or grateful for the gift of life and doesn’t care who knows?
It may be that nine out of ten times we find ourselves living behind those same borders, separated by those same divisions of inside and out. And so how important is the witness of that part of us that knows it’s all an illusion?
It may be that nine out of ten people we meet are not so different from us, and so how important is the witness of that one who opens our eyes to something different, something new, something beloved, something holy, and reveals to us that this “something” is already deep inside us.
 Justo González, Luke, from the Belief series, 204-206
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Tenth Leper,” from The Preaching Life
 Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sakks speaks of this beautifully in his interview with Krista Tippett in On Being, https://onbeing.org/programs/jonathan-sacks-the-dignity-of-difference/
 Ross Gay, “Joy Is Such a Human Madness,” from The Book of Delights, 49-50