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Monday, November 19, 2018

Luke 17:11-19

This text is often used for Thanksgiving worship services, focusing on the one man (a Samaritan) who returns to give thanks to Jesus for his healing. A couple reflections on this fairly straightforward story:

First, it is interesting that a debilitating disease breaks down the social mores that keep Jews from associating with Samaritans. The nine Jews were apparently content having this Samaritan with them, and vice versa. Yet we know (see John 4, for example) that Jews and Samaritans didn't associate. We see this in daily life, that terrible tragedies can bring people together and create bonds of commonality and understanding that would be impossible without a crisis.

Second, our status as "insiders" may well keep us from Jesus. Though these nine Jews are lepers and therefore outcasts, they still in some measure live in bondage to the expectations of their tradition. So when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests, that hierarchy and authority structure takes immediate priority in their lives. The Samaritan, on the other hand, is far enough from the temple structures and systems that he recognizes that it is important for him to return to thank Jesus. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own priesthood, their own laws that required the same kind of obedience, but this man is already living as an outsider to his own cultural systems by associating with these Jews. Perhaps that gave him enough perspective to recognize Jesus more fully.

Third, the nine are simply being obedient to Jesus' words, but they fail to recognize the priority of a grateful relationship with Jesus. Once they were healed, it would have been entirely appropriate for them -- as it was for the Samaritan -- to return and thank Jesus before then proceeding to fulfill the law by showing themselves to the priests. It's about love and gratitude. A case study in similar contrasts happens in John's gospel, where John carefully lays out a subtle comparison between the cripple who is healed in John 5, who ungratefully goes on to rat out Jesus to the authorities, and the blind man who is healed in John 9 and then stands up to the authorities as a witness to the authority and goodness of Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus seems to affirm the Samaritan in his disobedience. But a theme throughout the New Testament (and indeed, reading carefully, through the Old Testament as well) is that Jesus becomes the new temple and the new priesthood. He is both the locus where we meet God and the intermediary for that meeting. This is the theme of Stephen's sermon in Acts 7 that ends with him being stoned by the Jewish authorities who desperately wanted to protect the temple and their hierarchy. So when the Samaritan returns to Jesus and recognizes in him the goodness and presence of God, Jesus releases him from the need to go to the temple and to the priests. This is the essence of Jesus statement that "your faith" -- in other words, your relationship of trust with God through Jesus -- "has made you well."

So what about us? Do we remain encumbered in the structures and assumptions of old power systems and miss what God is doing in and around us? Do we use Jesus for our own ends, but remain in bondage to our old wineskins? Often we fear the newness that truly surrendering to Jesus might mean. We fear the breakage of those old wineskins. And if, as seems to be happening in many traditionally oriented churches today, God begins to simply allow them the consequences of their own bondage to traditional assumptions and structures and they begin to wane, those who maintain those loyalties are gripped by resentment, fear and bitterness. It's true in our personal lives as well. We cling to our old habits when they are clearly not working for us anymore, because we are afraid of anything new -- and the pain of change is greater than the pain of dysfunctional habits.

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