Loving Lepers, Foreigners and Israel: Twelfth Sunday of Luke and St. Anthony the Great

Hebrews 13:17-21; Luke 17:12-19; 2 Kings (4 Kingdoms) 5; selections from Isaiah

This Sunday, as we remember our great Father Anthony who deliberately went into the desert in order to become closer to God, we also hear the story of one who made an outcast by his condition, and how he was healed by our Lord:

As Jesus entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, “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 cleansed.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.
Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
(Luke 17:12-19 RSV)

Not only was the unnamed man who gave thanks to God a leper, consigned by the Torah to the desert places outside of society; he was also a Samaritan, a group known for being of mixed race, as well as heretical. Religiously, he was the equivalent of a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon, belonging to a people that honored a place of worship other than the Temple, and that read their own adulterated version of the Torah; culturally, he was the offspring of accommodating Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles many centuries earlier. It is helpful to remember that the idea of a “good Samaritan,” so common to us today, was an oxymoron in Jesus’ day—that parable was a scandal, as was Jesus’ contact with the Samaritan woman at the well! Indeed, the very label, “Samaritan!” was a slur in Jesus’ day, and some of those who hated Jesus insinuated that he was a Samaritan, though his lineage was from David (John 8:48). Samaritans, as half-breeds and heretics, were hated, and any thought of them being good was ludicrous. So, too, with this story. Jesus acknowledges the way that the man would be perceived by God’s people—he was a foreigner (the Greek says literally, one “born from away”) and not part of the flock of Israel. But Jesus healed him, along with the other nine.

As a Samaritan, the man would not probably have WANTED to enter the Jerusalem temple. But as a leper, he was not ABLE to, for the Torah forbade any in the condition of ritual uncleanness, which included leprosy, to enter society, much less the holy Temple precincts. It seems that this unusual heretic was obedient to his divine healer, and went with the others to submit himself to a priestly examination, though these would have been Jewish and not Samaritan priests. On the way, he is astonished to find himself whole again, and wheels in his steps to give thanks: alone. Jesus is amazed at the lack of gratitude evidenced by the other nine, and asks a poignant question that no doubt made his listeners think hard about who is acceptable to God, and the importance of thanksgiving. Despite his unpromising context, this man was not far from the kingdom!

On strangers, the Old Testament has some conflicting things to say. Generally speaking, God’s people are to keep separate from those born in nations that worship idols. Intermarriage is not permitted, and foreigners were not permitted to go beyond the outer part of the Temple.

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us, for example, about the holiness of the Temple: “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary” (Eze 44:9 RSV). But Isaiah, in his vision of the future, speaks about the Gentile’s hope of joining God’s people: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’” (Isa 56:3 RSV).

Our Lord, during his ministry, was well aware that God had sent him primarily to the “lost sheep of Israel,” and says this during his ministry, to the chagrin of those who might wish that during his earthly ministry he had been more obviously inclusive. To use St. Paul’s phrase, God’s salvation came to the Jew first and then to the Gentile—there was a taxis, an order to salvation. Yet, from the get-go, God’s call to Israel had not been for the sake of that nation alone, but for the health of all mankind. His promise to Abraham had included the detail that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to the nations (Gen 22:18)—and so Jesus was! Further, the prophets made it clear that Israel’s calling, fulfilled in Jesus, was for the purpose of enlightening the Gentiles: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6 RSV).

Though the Old Testament people did not engage in vigorous proselytism, throughout the OT there are examples of converts to Judaism from among the heathen nations—some of them, as we have seen, among Jesus’ own ancestors. It was not simply Ruth who called out, “my people shall be your people and my God shall be your God.” And there were those who fell just short of joining themselves to Israel who nonetheless glorified Israel’s Lord. Indeed, one of these was a leper and not simply a foreigner, a commander from Syria, even more removed than Samaria from Jerusalem. Naaman, a great commander of the Syrian army, heard the good news of the mighty prophet Elisha from his wife, who in turn had heard it from a little girl who had been taken as a slave from the northern kingdom. Unlike our unnamed hero in the gospel, he did not gladly do what Elisha told him—he scorned the Jordan where he was sent to wash—but, at the urging of his servants (“What have you got to lose?”), he dipped in the river as instructed, and was miraculously healed. Returning to Elisha, he confessed, “”Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel;” (2Kings/4 Kingdom 5:15), and then he asked forgiveness for his routine role in accompanying his pagan king into a pagan temple to worship an idol. Elisha understood human frailty in an imperfect world, and speaks words of peace to this man, knowing his heart. The prophet’s words are similar to those spoken by Jesus to the leper: “Go your way in peace.” For the time of the Gentile had not yet come.

But the time WAS coming when not only Jews but Samaritans, and Gentiles, too, would be called to worship in Spirit and in truth, as Jesus explained to the woman of Samaria. These stories of pagan and Samaritan softening towards the true Lord of glory anticipate what happened after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension: the incoming of the Gentiles! As Jesus told his disciples, preparing them, “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16 RSV).”

Yes, God’s intent was that there would be one flock with one Shepherd, Jesus, our LORD, and that the longstanding division between Jew and Samaritan, and the longer standing divisions between Jew and Gentile, would be healed. Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews speaks about God’s will in this matter: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Heb 13:17-21 RSV)

What is it that is pleasing in his will? It seems that here we may take a sheet from the note-book of our unnamed hero: it is to return and give thanks, or glory, to God! For this, indeed, we are created. As Father Alexander Schmemann puts it, we are not simply homo sapiens by nature, but homo adorans, human beings created to worship: and to worship the true God. In his For the Life of the World, Fr. Schmemann reminds us that the ancestral sin of our parents was fundamentally and tragically marked by a refusal to give thanks for the reality that God had created. Adam and Eve wanted it other, or in a different fashion, than that presented to them by God. Similarly, St. Paul in Romans 1 speaks of the human temptation to not give glory to God or to give thanks: “for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Rom 1:21-23 RSV).

The story of the leprous Samaritan follows a different pattern, however. He begins calling out from a distance, and in a situation of darkness, as part of a people who worshipped a confused version of the deity. But he calls out to the Light, and as a result, is healed, and brought to a place where he can worship and give glory to the true God. Out of unpromising beginnings, Christ our God brings good things. Rather than being contaminated by leprosy, our Lord eradicates it from this man: in assuming all that is human (including our frailty and our nature, even our death), the Lord swallows it up by life and heals it. This is true for all who come from Adam, if they will not resist. The story of how God opened up his good news to all of humanity, beginning in Jerusalem, then into Judea, then into Samaria, then to the ends of the earth, is told in the book of Acts. God took the historical particularities of the Jewish people, and wove them, through Jesus, the true and faithful Jew, into the salvation of the world.

By referring to the “foreigner”—a word perhaps even used ironically by Jesus, Luke’s gospel passage reminds us of the short-sightedness of many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. Throughout the gospels and Acts, we see the blinkers on the eyes of even many scrupulous Jews in the first century, typified, I suppose, by Saul, the Pharisee who considered the community of Jesus to be dangerous and worthy of persecution. Many who read the Torah did not see that the whole purpose of calling Israel was to enlighten all of humanity. Everything was to narrow down to the one God-Man, Jesus, the true King and Shepherd of Israel, who had come to call and heal his own people, and to create a single flock. Yet some DID hear, including his apostles, and many of the priests who “became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7), and the Church is indebted to them. Our Old Testament, our worship, our ethical way of living come out of direct continuity with that Jewish community that responded to the Lord. Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s calling.

Today, we may tend to forget that. The situation is reversed. Some may naturally put the Jewish person where the Samaritan was placed in our gospel story: uninformed about the true God, not to be trusted. Some Christians may even feel that the gospel is not for the Jewish people anymore, that they missed their chance, and that we are the replacement. About this attitude, we need to seriously read Romans 11, especially verses 1 and 20. It is true that some in the Orthodox community have suffered indignities and, in some cases, much worse, at the hand of modern Israelis; it is easy to slip from political distrust into anti-Judaism in general. But Father Patrick Reardon gives us a strong warning in Reclaiming the Atonement: an Orthodox Theology of Redemption. (Volume I: Incarnation) Towards the end of volume one, on the incarnation, he speaks about the implications of Matthew 27:25, the cry from the Jewish people, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”. He explains:

…[T]he chilling imprecation of the crowd ironically takes on…the quality of a prayer. The blood summoned onto the heads of the Jews is, after all, what every Christian knows it to be: redemptive blood, the blood of the atonement, the blood…”poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”… It is NEVER the mark or token of a curse…The Jews, like the rest of us, are the beneficiaries of [Jesus’ prayer on the cross] and of [his] bloodshed. The Jews—until the end of time—are our brothers by the price of that blood. The Jews are not an accursed people. To regard them as such is to repeat the sin of Pilate; it is to betray the innocent Christ. Even if we are separated from them at the present time, we are certain that God has not rejected the Jews.

He then takes us carefully through Romans 9-11, St. Paul’s discussion about Israel and salvation, and shows that we should turn away both from automatic universal salvation AND theological Zionism (the simplistic idea that Zion belongs by absolute right to the Jewish people in a political sense, because of God’s promises.) But St. Paul does not allow us either to vilify or dismiss the Jewish people, even considering the rejection of Jesus by many of them. And so Fr. Reardon concludes:

Christ is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s deepest longings….What should this mean in practice? At the very least it should mean that Christians keep a special place in their heart for the Jews, because the Jews have a special place in the heart of God. Christians will recognize in the Jews the blood-relatives of the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the mother of God, and Christ our Lord. Antisemitism is more than a heresy. Viewed from a Christian moral perspective, it may rank just below blasphemy.

This weekend, as we hear the gospel and the epistle, let us remember that we are called, Jew and Gentile, into one flock, and that as Christians our role is to bless, not to dismiss or belittle. Who are we tempted to put in the place of the Samaritan, as they show ignorance of the true God, and even mistreatment, subtle or violent, of members of our Christian family? This may be the very one whom Christ has come to heal (remember St. Paul!), and whom He may may well enlighten, whether Jew or Gentile. The one who is least promising can indeed be transformed into homo adorans, a person who gives thanks and praise to the true King of the Universe!

2 comments:

  1. It is well said that there is no place in the hearts of Christians for antisemitism. The holy Orthodox Church followers know that we’ll. They pray daily that children of Israel will recognize their Savior as we do, and this is Jesus only. The Zionism is not very different from Nazism or Marxism. It is another devi’s trick tho trip human kind by a sort of “ism”.

    1. I agree with you entirely that Orthodox are called to pray for Jews as well as all others. But I have heard some who name Christ and claim to be Orthodox who do not seem to know this. For these, also, we must pray, that God softens their hearts and stops their tongues.

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