~ Luke 17:11-19/Jeremiah 29:4-7 ~
Thus says the God of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:4-7
Exiles, aliens, refugees – this was how the Israelites experiencing the Babylonian captivity felt. Years earlier the Babylonians came through Israel and took many of them back to Babylon. Now, they just want to go home. So, when Jeremiah sends a letter telling them all to settle in, it was a like a punch in the gut. Settle in? Make Babylon our home? To add insult to injury, the prophet tells them to seek the welfare of the city. In other words, live there as if you belong there. Treat our oppressors with respect, even as neighbors. Pray for the welfare of this God-awful city? Too much, just too much!
But, eventually they did go back home. The Babylonian empire is conquered by the Persian empire and King Cyrus say, “you all can go back to where you came from.” So, the Israelites return to Jerusalem, rebuild the walls and, most importantly, rebuild their house of worship. Thus, a new version of Judaism is created. And, in turn, soon forgot what it was like to be “the other” in an alien land. Indeed, they seemed to forget how to welcome “the other” in their own land.
A few hundred years later Jesus, wandering around the countryside, has some encounters with these “others.” Our gospel reading today describes one of those encounters. Reading from Luke 17:11-19, the story of the ten lepers:
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.” Luke 17:11-19
Innumerable sermons on this passage and virtually all of them focus on the obvious spiritual lesson: People should be grateful for all that God has done for them. It’s almost too obvious. Jesus heals ten lepers and only one returns to thank Jesus, for which he is commended. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Ah! And right there is the twist. Presumably, the thinking goes, the other nine were Jews but this one? “He was a Samaritan.”
OK, so what? So he was a Samaritan. What’s the big deal? Well, it turns out to be a fairly big deal. So, some back ground is called for.
Our text says that Jesus was going through the region between Galilee and Samaria. A quick geography lesson: in the time of Jesus, the land of Palestine [draw map] was divided into three political entities: Judea, including Jerusalem, to the south, Galilee to the north, and in between, Samaria. The lands of the Jewish people, those who centered their worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem, were Judea and Galilee. But in Samaria there was a group of Yahweh worshippers, the Samaritans, who did not consider the Jerusalem temple their place of worship. Instead, their temple was on Mt. Gerizim above the city of Shechem, a mere 60 miles from Jerusalem in what today is the West Bank.
Who were these Samaritans? Well, they were fellow Israelites. Centuries before, following the reign of Solomon, the kingdom split – Judea to the south and Israel to the north. Samaritans were the presumed descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. In the 700s BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians and many if its inhabitants were taken into captivity (that was a thing in those days). But many were left behind and they continued to worship Yahweh as did their fellow Israelites to the south in Judea. Thus, two different versions of the worship of Yahweh developed.
There were important distinctions. The Samaritans revered Mt. Gerizim, near Shechem, instead of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. They believed that their line of Levitical priests was more legitimate that the priests functioning at the Jerusalem temple. And, significantly, they only accepted the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) as authoritative, rejecting all the Prophets and Writings of Judaism. The Samaritans believed that they alone practiced authentic worship of Yahweh and not the more “liberal” Jews of Jerusalem. Interestingly, there still exists today a small enclave of Samaritans worshiping as they always have in a village on the slopes of Mt. Gerizim.
Because of all this the Jews of Judea had great contempt for the Samaritans. Whereas they felt they should avoid all contact with Gentiles, they had greater disdain for fellow Israelites whom they felt had departed from their understanding of the law. But it was for the Samaritans that Judeans reserved their profoundest contempt, as people especially abhorred by God.
By the time of Jesus in the 1st century, prejudice against Samaritans was deeply ingrained. It was just part of the culture. In the gospels, there are only a handful of references to Samaritans. Matthew and Mark don’t mention them at all. John, chapter 4, has the most extended treatment in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well. Interestingly, there it says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Well, he didn’t, really. Because, in those days, anyone travelling from Galilee to Judea would cross the Jordan River and walk along the east side of the river and then cross back over at Jericho just so they could avoid the land of the Samaritans. I have come to believe that the integrity of Jesus demanded that he not play the game of prejudice and hate that had plagued the Jewish people for so long. To be who he was Jesus had to go through Samaria.
Luke has a couple of notable references. The most famous reference in Luke is the parable that Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan. Going against all Jewish hatred for the Samaritans, Jesus depicts a Samaritan as the good guy.
And then, our gospel story today. What is the cost of being the lone representative of your race or religious group? What does it mean to bear the label “Samaritan?” Jesus enters a village. Ten lepers approach him. As was expected of people who were thought to have an infectious disease, they kept their distance. In what seems like an unusual method of healing, Jesus tells all of them to go show themselves to the priests. And, obediently, they all go and, on their way, they are all made clean. Evidently, they had faith they would be healed. Bible scholars note that it was only the priests who could declare a person clean from an infectious disease, and thus restore a person to full participation in the community.
Yet, finding themselves healed, only one deigns to return to Jesus to thank him. And Jesus lauds him for it. And, thus, for centuries preachers have extolled the rightfully important practice of being thankful to God. But being grateful, I believe, is not the takeaway from this story. The real takeaway is that the person who returned was a Samaritan. Defying the label, going against the stereotype, upsetting all prejudices, undercutting discriminatory practice, a despised and “ungodly” Samaritan is lifted up as the model for faithfulness to God. Thus, in one brief individual encounter, Jesus destroys centuries of animosity between Jews and Samaritans.
Is it fair to place the label “Samaritan” with all its baggage, good or bad, on this one guy? Did all Samaritans share this noble characteristic of being notably grateful to God? Or, was he merely a prop in a story meant to shame Jesus’ fellow Jews, presumably the other nine who were not grateful? Or, in lifting up this one man did Jesus undo the centuries of extreme prejudice and discrimination practiced against Samaritans? What can this one Samaritan teach us?
We all use labels; we cannot avoid them. In a sense, labeling is how we make sense of the world. In the same manner, we all stereotype. Stereotyping other people is not, necessarily, a bad thing. It is how our brains naturally organize the world. Otherwise our mental state would be in constant chaos trying to make sense of things. Growing up in any particular social group, we will apply labels and stereotype people; it is just part of being human.
Furthermore, we learn those labels and stereotypes about people and groups from the society around us. This information helps us make sense of groups from our cultural framework. The socialization process is so deep and thorough that we are not even aware we of it.
Part and partial of labeling and stereotyping is prejudice. Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on the group to which they belong. Prejudice consists of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and other generalizations based on little or no experience with that person and then applied to the whole group. Again, all humans have prejudice. And we share those prejudices because we all swim in the same cultural waters and absorb the same messages. We are all prejudiced people. It’s what we do with or how we act upon those prejudices that is important.
Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions can include ignoring, excluding, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence. Sometimes, discrimination is quite obvious, especially when overt violence is evident. But often discrimination is subtler, such as feeling uncomfortable or just merely avoiding certain people. When I am less relaxed around a person or avoid interacting with a person I am “acting” out my prejudice. In that regard, prejudice always demonstrates itself in action because it comes out of how I see the world. And how I see the world drives my actions in the world. Thus, everyone has prejudice and everyone discriminates.
We don’t like to hear that. We would like to think we are not prejudice people. This is especially true in regards to racial prejudice. Unfortunately, we have learned to believe that only bad people, obvious racists who hate people of color, people who act out their racial hatred – those are obviously racially prejudice people. Certainly that is not us. But the fact is, in a world that is totally dominated by white culture, a world that has the power of legal and institutional control, we who are white cannot help but be racially prejudice. We just aren’t very aware of that fact. Or, when confronted or challenged with that fact, we get defensive and maybe angry. We would like to think that we all treat people of color fairly, but, in reality, we don’t. We cannot help but relate to people based on the dominate white culture in which we live. People of color know that all too well; we who are white probably don’t.
In the person of Jesus we have a model for how we can deal with our prejudices. However people think of Jesus, then and now – whether regarded as a good teacher, a rabbi or a healer or a spiritually-infused mystic or the Son of God – he dealt with the various people he encountered in surprising ways. He did not treat people out of or from within the cultural waters in which he grew up and lived. Throughout the gospels, in his encounters with women, with gentiles, with Roman soldiers, with lepers, with the poor, with this one particular Samaritan, he dealt with them as whole people apart from whatever labels or stereotypes or prejudices were at work in his world. Jesus seemed to be quite aware of the cultural, racial, religious biases at play and he managed to set them aside so he could deal with the person in front of him as a human being.
A bit later in the service we are going to talk about how we might do the same. It seems that at the least, we can learn to be aware of our cultural biases rather than just pretend they don’t exist. Then we can learn to question those biases, learn to listen better, learn to not assume we already know. Maybe learn to be humbler with each other and with those “others” we encounter in our world. Thus, maybe we will then truly be said to follow Jeremiah’s advice to seek the welfare of the city. Amen.