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Luke 17:11-19

Luke 17:11-19 Have Mercy on Us

One of my seminary professors, Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, taught me that language is linear. We hear (or read) one thing at a time, in order. This obvious trait of language can be utilized to great effect by crafting a story so that information is withheld at first, assumptions are made by the hearer (or reader), then those assumptions are smashed by revealing the new piece of information. Here is an example that I remember Dr. Camery-Hoggatt using in class:

The young man … looked across the

resort lake. Tomorrow was the annual one-

day fishing contest and fishermen would

invade the place. Some of the best bass

guitarists in the country would come to this

spot. The usual routine of the fishing resort

would be interrupted by the festivities.[1]

Did you get tripped up on the word “bass”? Most people do. Their eyes travel back and forth between the word “bass” on one line and “guitar” on the next. The immediate context primed you to think that fishing was the topic. And so the word “bass” is read and pronounced as the fish, a bass. But the word guitar throws you off and you have to look back. Then the realization happens, your expectations are corrected, and you correctly read and pronounce bass, as in bass guitar.

This sort of contextual “priming” – setting up certain expectations that are later shattered - plays a role in a number of literary techniques.[2] Often, the surprise element points to the major unit of meaning in the text. This priming and shattering of expectations comes into play in this pericope.

The story itself is fairly typical. Jesus is traveling, people need healing, Jesus gives instructions, they are healed, God is praised. It gets more interesting when only one notice and turns back. But even here, we are in quite standard healing story territory.

It might be beneficial to think about how this one leper was different. It seems to be important that this one noticed: “Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back.” Maybe the point is that we should notice what God is doing. “Pay attention!” “Listen!” Perhaps this text teaches us to be people who pay attention to what God is doing.

Or perhaps the point is that only one turned back, recognizing Jesus as the source of healing. Realizing that God’s action had occurred through Jesus, this one goes back to the source of God’s intervention in the world. This seems to be important Christology, equating Jesus with the Temple (scholars assume that Jesus’ instruction to “go show yourselves to the priests” included going to the religious center, the Temple).[3] This one leper recognizes where God’s power and presence are located and he returns to Jesus.

So, is the point that we are to see/perceive/notice when God has acted in our lives and in the world? Or is it that we are to recognize Jesus as the center of God’s activity in the world? Or both? Yes, those are both points that this text makes. They are good to hear and be reminded of. This leper is the person in whom correct perception and faith occurred.

However in this text, the real punch line comes in verse 16, “And he was a Samaritan.” BAM!

Joel Green summarizes perfectly why this is such a big deal:

Only now does Luke provide in a narrative aside to his audience the momentous fact that the one leper who correctly discerned Jesus’ identity and responded appropriately was a Samaritan. With this identification, Luke has pulled the rug from under any prejudgments concerning either who might receive divine benefits or who might correctly identify Jesus’ role in the divine plan. A leprous Samaritan might be expected to fail under the onerous weight of wrong ancestry and loyalties, and of the divine curse[4] that has left him at the margins of human interaction in a perpetual state of impurity. Yet this person made his request for mercy to Jesus as one with divine authority, perceived that, through Jesus’ agency, he had been restored, and came back to honor him as his lord.[5]

Jesus further identifies this Samaritan leper as an outsider by calling him a “foreigner.” This person was on the outside of those on the outside. And yet to this most unlikely of persons, God grants mercy, healing, and salvation. This most unlikely of persons has faith. This most unlikely of persons correctly perceives God’s intervention in his life. This most unlikely of persons falls at Jesus’ feet.

If we read this text and only come away thinking that (1) we should be grateful, (2) that we should notice God’s work, or (3) that we should identify Jesus as the center of God’s intervention in the world, then we have missed the point. All of that is true, of course, but we have misread the text if we do not focus on the fact that (4) “he was a Samaritan.”

We in the church too often look to external markers to push people away from participation in the church. We set up barriers to church membership. (This week I received an email warning me that, a “leprous Samaritan,” so to speak, was seeking to join my church.) What are these barriers in your own thinking? What are they in your congregation? What are our standards of exclusion that God might want to challenge?

Perhaps it would be a good exercise to read the story and replace “Samaritan” with whomever we exclude. “And he was a gay man.” Or, “And he did not speak English.” Or, “And he was transgender.” Or, “And he was ___________.”

Only when this text confronts our tendency to exclude will the text truly speak into our lives. Perhaps this is a good time for you and me to cry out for ourselves, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

[1] Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Speaking of God: Reading and Preaching the Word of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005) 105.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) .

[4] It was common for people in Jesus’ world at the time to ascribe illnesses such as leprosy to God’s judgment or curse upon someone. Not only was the leper unclean (and thus unable to fulfill the law), they were also understood to be cursed.

[5] Green, 625