Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Grateful Samaritan

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise to your name, O Most High…” Thus the psalmist lays down a basic truth which ought to be manifest in the lives of believers in God. We can see in the Gospel for this Sunday on the Byzantine calendar (Luke 17:12-19) that giving thanks to the Lord is something that Jesus both expects and blesses, and that ingratitude earns only reproach. The healed leper returned to the Lord in gratitude after he realized that he had been healed, and the text of the Gospel states that he loudly gave praise to God. No perfunctory “thank you,” that!

We might wonder why, during Advent, we have a Gospel reading emphasizing thanksgiving when this is a time of waiting for fulfillment, of expectation for something that is coming but not yet given or manifest. Well, it is customary in the Eastern Churches not only to anticipate feasts by beginning to celebrate them ahead of time, but also to give thanks for that which we hope to receive, even if we are not yet in full possession of it. For example, in the priest’s prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy,” he says: “You raised us up again when we had fallen, and left nothing undone until You brought us to heaven and bestowed upon us your future kingdom. For all this we give thanks to You…” Our whole life is a kind of Advent, a waiting and expectation for the definitive coming and manifestation of the Kingdom of God, but here we are already thanking the Lord for bringing us to Heaven, to his “future Kingdom”!

But let us return to the Gospel and see if we can understand its message more fully. Jesus entered a village somewhere between Samaria and Galilee and there He encountered ten lepers. They had to shout to get his attention, because they “stood at a distance.” Why? Well, they had to, both because they had a contagious disease and because they were ritually unclean as a result of it. The latter seemed the more serious issue in the eyes of the people. We almost never hear in the accounts of such healings (if we are using an accurate translation) that a leper was healed or cured. They are “cleansed” or “made clean.” The removal of the physical disease is more or less a happy by-product of the removal of the ritual impurity.

What did the lepers shout to Jesus? “Master, have mercy on us!” They had evidently recognized that He was a wonder-worker and could deliver them, and perhaps they had also heard that He said He was Lord of the Sabbath, meaning He also had power to make clean what was legally considered unclean. But there’s something else in their plea that seems to go deeper than their need for healing and cleansing. They didn’t say, “heal us” or “make us clean,” but rather “have mercy on us.” Thus they situate themselves, at least in the eyes of the evangelist, and in ours as well, in a place of more fundamental need. What they need most of all is mercy and compassion, and if it takes the form of healing and cleansing, all the better. But here they stand for the whole of humanity, exiles from paradise (as lepers are exiles from the community of the chosen, the clean), standing in their helpless need, calling out to the only One who can restore them to the life of the elect, who can re-integrate them into God’s chosen and beloved people. Before all our other physical, emotional, or other needs, we essentially stand before the Master in our profound need for mercy. Having received that, we are confident that all else will be given. Our uncleanness is that of sin, and through repentance and absolution—which is the mercy of Jesus—we are restored to the community of communicants.

One of the lepers was a Samaritan. Jews usually have nothing to do with Samaritans, considering them half-breeds and heretics. But it is interesting to note that a shared affliction brought them together and broke down enmities that the healthy and self-righteous could afford to maintain. They lived together as their own community of outcasts, bonded by a common suffering.

Jesus simply said to the lepers: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” To us that may seem an incomprehensible command, but since they knew the law, they knew that, having been defiled by leprosy, they would not be considered ritually clean unless the priests formally declared them so. So this command must have filled them with hope and expectation. And indeed, on their way to the priests their leprosy disappeared. Nine of the ten kept going, eager to receive their long-desired ritual purity. But one of them, realizing what Jesus had done for him, decided that his Savior was more important than the priests, that the fact of his cleansing (instant and miraculous) was much more worthy of acknowledgement than the priests’ legal declaration of it. It may have been that the Jewish priests would have had nothing to do with the Samaritan anyway. So he returned, loudly praising God and giving thanks to Jesus.

Again, Jesus’ response is perhaps not what we would expect. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus had said several times during his ministry that his mission was only to the house of Israel, but Luke delights in emphasizing all the cases in which Samaritans, gentiles, or other despised people receive special attention and compassion from Jesus—for in fact his mission (as carried out by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles) was to all nations, and especially to those most in need of his mercy.

We might wonder if the other nine, having discovered they were cleansed and could now take their place among the “righteous,” the “pure,” were suddenly rather glad to be rid of the Samaritan from their company—their newfound health and religious status breaking the bond of their former brotherly relation with one whom they identified with on the level of suffering. Perhaps it is the same for many people today: when we’re down and out, we’ll accept help and companionship from anyone, but as soon as all things are going well for us, we become quite self-righteously discriminating and no longer appreciate the company of those who were willing to share our afflictions, especially if they are of no further use to us or even a social embarrassment, and we’re happy to see them move on.

Finally, let us look at Jesus’ final word to the clean Samaritan, which can be interpreted two ways: “Your faith has healed you,” or “Your faith has saved you.” (The Greek word for “heal” and “save” is the same.) I would venture to say that both meanings apply to the Samaritan, but perhaps only the first to the other nine. They may have had faith to be healed, since they called on the name of the Lord and were in fact healed. But was their faith unto salvation? Jesus reproached them for their ingratitude, making it clear that He expected them, for their own good, to return and give thanks. The Samaritan, on the other hand, recognized that he was not only in the presence of a wonder-worker, and he made it clear that healing was not his sole interest. He discovered in Christ the presence of the living God and so was not content merely to be healed, but needed to go back to Him, to prostrate before Him in gratitude, and thus enter into a relationship unto salvation. So, the faith of the nine made them well, but the faith of the grateful Samaritan both healed and saved him.

Let us likewise come to Jesus—not just to meet our pressing needs, but to discover his compassion and love, and to respond with adoration and thanksgiving. We are on our way to Bethlehem—for what? To pick up a few gifts at the manger? Or is it rather to fall down and worship Him who has come to deliver us, to purify us, to restore us to life in the communion of saints? Let us go to Him, first in our fundamental need for mercy, and then let us follow Him, giving thanks, for He will provide all else besides. It is not only good to give thanks to the Lord—it’s quite necessary for our salvation!