“The Foreigner As a Vital Presence”

October 9, 2022

Luke 17:11–19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 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 was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Leprosy in the first century was a serious thing. It was considered “living death.”

The disease was very unpleasant. “Scales” appeared on the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. As it progressed, the inflicted person lost the ability to feel pain, which often resulted in injuries, unnoticed wounds.

People with leprosy had to leave their families and live with other lepers on the outskirts of town. They would have to scavenge for food. They were forbidden to have any contact with people who did not have the disease and they had to ring a bell and shout “unclean” if anyone approached them.

The priestly tradition of this time added insult to injury. In Israel, “leprosy” was considered to be a state of uncleanness, and the priest who diagnosed it ordered the isolation of the sick person. A ritual resembling a funeral service marked the departure of the person suffering from “leprosy” from the community of those who were well.[i] Society considered the lepers to be dead.

As the story goes, Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem and walking in a region between Samaria and Galilee when 10 lepers called out to him from a distance. They hoped Jesus would have mercy on them.

In what may seem to be a surprising response, Jesus tells them to go and see the priests, the very priests who had condemned them to the edge of society. A healed leper had to show himself to the priest and bring the appropriate sacrifice, so that he could be accepted into the society again. These 10 lepers obeyed and while Jesus does nothing physical for them, something surprising happens–they were healed before encountering the priests.

In the end, one of the lepers returns to thank Jesus for this act of mercy. And, to everyone’s surprise, it was the foreigner who returned. The Samaritan. An “other.” Not only is this man a leper, but he is outside of the circle of acceptability, because of who he was born to be. He was ineligible to be at the same table with the rest of society.

His religious practice is different.

His race sets him apart.

He is a foreigner — an immigrant in this country.

His orientation is that of someone who was born with different characteristics that make him impure even if he did not have leprosy.

He is the one least expected to do the right thing.

Luke, in telling us this story of Jesus, ups the ante on the definition of faithfulness by shining a light on a marginal person who was both a leper and a foreigner.

This foreigner coming back to thank Jesus must have shocked everyone. Yet there is another shock in this story. Jesus wonders, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Except this foreigner?

Jesus makes a point of the Samaritan. He alone is the one who has acted faithfully. This makes me wonder. In our continual season of controversy over immigration in America, what if we began to anticipate that people of different ethnicities and races would be the ones to show us a path to faithfulness?

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It would be easy to miss that Jesus seems to overlook the act of thanksgiving. He seems surprised that an outsider would comprehend the enormity of this healing but nine insiders would misunderstand. Perhaps he expected better from those who were of the religious tradition.

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” To be a foreigner has to be uncomfortable. Even with the greatest of hospitality in a new land, for the foreigner a new home is never quite home. I think of the hundreds of thousands Ukrainian refugees spread across Europe and America. Imagine the dreams they hold of returning to the land of their birth, to a place that no longer really exists. For most, returning home is a dream; it is pure nostalgia.

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” For a nation of so many immigrants, the term “foreigner” has been used as an epithet too often. Yet, we neglect to remember our own exilic ancestry. The stories of millions of Americans involve the experience of exile, whether as immigrants seeking religious freedom, economic prosperity or fleeing persecution; natives displaced from their lands, or people enslaved in early America. Dismissing foreigners among us when it comes to understanding God’s mercy is short-sighted.

The foreigner understands the longing for a sense of home and the acceptance of others. The foreigner can grasp the stories of exile much like those which shaped the people of Israel over generations. Their stories and views can offer to us insights into faith as they experience firsthand God interceding in this world.

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” As I listen to campaign ads and the strategists, pundits and politicians themselves on the subject of immigration, what strikes me is that they miss the reality that the so-called “foreigner” are our friends, colleagues, neighbors. From a personal viewpoint, the medical team for which I am deeply grateful and for whom I owe the quantity and quality of life I enjoy is comprised of brilliant professionals from lands far from America’s borders.

Yet perhaps you feel like a “foreigner” left behind by a rapidly changing world, left afloat in a wave of national, technological, or religious and sociological disruption. Any number of people might relate to this Samaritan, this person outside the lines. In America these days, the shunned Samaritan shows up over and over again.

But as the lone returning and thankful leper, we learn that in Christ there is no foreigner really. In Christ, all of us are kin. And yet we know too well our human tendency and our sinful ways to isolate one group, to exclude “those” people, to make an “other” of our sisters and brothers. Human societies have had a poor track record of showing kindness to those on the margins. It was true in Jesus’ time and it is certainly true of us.

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The foreigner is a vital presence among us. The foreigner is a reminder of the disruption and despair billions of people have felt across the ages. The foreigner is a reminder that God’s promises know no boundaries or borders, that God’s grace will not abide by the arbitrary lines we draw or the walls we try to build between one another, that God consistently finds the most unlikely proclaimers of the good news to be the best choice of all to announce God’s ways.

[i] François Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27, Hermeneia — A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013].

Images:

The Ten Lepers painting by Michelle Winter blog, Creator Spiritus.

Fine Art America.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.