Blurring the Lines
Scripture: Luke 17: 11-19
I LOVE the new show Speechless. It’s a half-hour of awesomeness. It started just a few weeks ago, and if any of you haven’t seen it yet, I cannot encourage you enough to go check it out. Essentially, it follows a the family of a high school student with cerebral palsy. Though he uses a communication board, he enrolls in a new school that offers him the chance to use a full-time aid who translates for him. The show brilliantly illustrates the often unseen problems that a family with disabilities faces, from siblings feeling neglected to schools refusing services, but always in a way that is accessible to people who don’t live it each day.
In the show’s pilot, the family shows up to this new school. JJ is the high school aged son and is played by Micah Fowler, an actor who ACTUALLY has CP, rather than an actor pretending to have a disability, which is FAR more common. And, JJ uses a power wheelchair, so naturally, the mom, played by Minnie Driver, asks the principal where the ramp is. Upon seeing that the ramp that her son must use to get into the school is also the route that the janitors use to take out the garbage, Minnie Driver’s character grows irate and begins mockingly playing a game called, “trash or person.” with the contents of an incoming garbage cart. She lifts different pieces of trash out of the cart and asks “is this trash, or is this a person?” “Empty bag of manure? Trash or person? It’s trash. Empty water bottle? Trash or person? Drunk by a person, but it’s… trash.” Finally, she asks the flabbergasted principal, “what about you? Are you trash, or are you a person?” and the beleaguered Principal stumbles over her words, unsure of how to answer. It’s a brilliant illustration of the lengths parents and self-advocates often have to go through, but it’s also a challenge to the system. If a person is expected to sneak in through the back alongside the garbage, what does it say about the school, and the people who built the school, and the administration, and the rest of the students that have never noticed that wheelchairs are being equated with trash carts?
Today, our Scripture sets before us a narrative that challenges us to really look at people. To really see across aisles and examine our own lives for these same questions. Are we trash, or people? Is the person next to us trash, or a person? What about the homeless man on Guad asking for money? What about the woman suffering from schizophrenia who refuses mental health services? What about the boy with Down Syndrome? Are they trash, or are they people? I believe, thanks in large part to this text today, that Christians ought to have a very strong answer.
First, a quick note. I’m going to talk about the Kingdom of God today, and what it is like. Now, Jesus often did this, but mostly in parables and in frankly ambiguous ways. When I use that term today, I’m basically referring to the same idea that Lord’s Prayer touches on – the Kingdom of God is anywhere that God’s will is done. We assume that God’s will is done perfectly, all the time, in Heaven, and in the Lord’s prayer we ask to be a part of that here on Earth.
Before we can really talk about the Kingdom of Heaven, we need to examine what Luke tells us about the setting. The greek essentially says that Jesus was “passing through the space between Galilee and Samaria,” or in other words, was in the borderland between them. Now, Galilee and Samaria have no space between them. It’d be like saying Jesus was passing through the space between Texas and Oklahoma, or Texas and Mexico. So why would a detail-oriented writer give such an odd description? Perhaps this isn’t a mistake, but an intentional detail meant to draw our focus. Jesus is in between rivals places. Galileans were Jews, and Samaritans and Jews did not associate or get along. In fact, as we’ll see later on, Samaritans are considered completely second-class citizens in Jewish society because of their perceived differences in culture, religion, and ethnicity. And so here Jesus is, balanced between two areas where there are different cultures and laws and expectations. Neither side is dominant in this borderland, and that’s where we find a leper colony.
The lepers saw Jesus from far off, and they recognized him. Notice that they called out saying “Jesus,” and not “rabbi” or “teacher.” Jesus had already worked miracles, healed people, and even had restored a leper back in Luke chapter 5. These lepers, despite being separated from their societies, had learned of Jesus and were as close as they could be to him. Luke makes sure to locate these 10 lepers as outside the village – perhaps close enough to hear the commotion of a famous teacher and miracle-worker entering, but not close enough to be a part of anything. Here, the lepers live in their own borderland, excluded from the village and society, living out where you’d expect to find a cemetery, but not dead yet.
It’s important to know what leprosy meant under 1st century Jewish law. Modern leprosy is curable, and honestly not that terrible of an illness. It’s possible to transmit it, but it’s not a particularly contagious disease, as was once thought. The big problem is that leprosy interferes with your nerves, making it difficult to notice things like wounds or cuts, and thus, makes you much more susceptible to another infection. Much like AIDS, most people with leprosy are actually killed by secondary infections. And in a world that couldn’t use a lab to tell bateria apart, any skin infection was possibly deadly and contagious. The Jews had a procedure for telling if a skin disease was dangerous or not, involving a priest checking the sores and patches over time. If someone failed this test, they were sent out from the community with the expectation that they were never to come back. Leviticus 13 and 14 set these rules, and the punishment is severe – the person is to live alone, and have no more contact with their people. This is how they treated dead bodies. Lepers were their own sort of borderland between living and dead.
Already, then, we see that these lepers have violated their law. They lived together, and had established something new, unlike the single leper whom Jesus healed in chapter 5. Of course, that detail Luke offers us is once again, important. For now, just keep these basic details clear: We’re in a borderland, in between two dominant cultures. Lepers are essentially the walking dead – treated as if they were corpses, but still alive. And these lepers, unlike previous stories, have violated the law in order to form their own community.
It’s easy to read the interaction between the lepers and Jesus as pretty straightforward. Jesus does a great healing work, and the lepers obey him, though only one experiences gratitude. By healing these walking dead, Jesus subverts death. This isn’t a healing narrative – these men were dead, and have been brought back to life! This is a resurrection! And if we stop there, a common sense reading just tells us, hey, Jesus does great work in us, let’s be grateful. Rejoice that you’ve been saved, that death no longer wins. And that’s not a bad thought, but it doesn’t really illustrate to us the absolutely radical, world-flipping ministry of Christ.
Consider this. Going back to the Greek, Luke writes that all of the lepers were cured, using the verb Katharizo. But, Luke then writes that Jesus calls the Samaritan saved or whole, with the word Sozo – this is a step further, behind merely being cured. Why? Just because of his gratitude? Why is gratitude any better than obedience? After all, the Samaritan is the only one who doesn’t listen to what Jesus commands.
And there’s the lynchpin. The Samaritan can’t go with the Jews to the priests. They go off, leaving their makeshift community in favor of being restored back to their own village. What they had before. They leave the Samaritan behind to face the world as a second-class person, someone who is essentially subhuman. Trash. They are in the borderland, so the second they start walking, they make a choice – are we walking to the priests of the Samaritans, or the priests of the Jews? They make their choice, and the one excluded returns back to Christ.
We can read this story as a reminder that Jesus heals us so that we can participate in community again, but that is far too small of a vision. No, Jesus sets up here a ministry that subverts both death and life. The lepers are clean, and they are inclusive. They have been taken in as a chosen group, saved from death by the power of God, and the people who should have recognized this first lose focus and leave behind someone without regard to their social placement.
What they should have seen, and what we are being called to see, is that life and death and smaller than our God. That if we treat death as nothing to be feared, then we can treat life the same way. Christ asks us to open up to a radical new vision, in which we no longer divide out people based on what side of the border they come from. All are included, from zealots to Romans, from Jews to Samaritans, from women and the poor and the sick and the disabled to the rich and powerful alike, if only we’re willing to sacrifice our worldly sense of what life has to look like.
The world will never perfectly reflect the Kingdom of God, but we can live out the Kingdom of God in the world. We are always being asked to choose between a world based on simple life and death, or a world that radically subverts both. We are always being asked to choose to welcome and include based on the Christ we worship, or to treat people as other, as different, as trash. Even right now, a 10 year old boy from Kerrville, just two hours from here, lays in a coma in San Antonio. He was picked on because of his speech and hearing disabilities, and last Sunday kids he wanted to be friends with intentionally set him on fire. Our faith does not allow us to be silent about this. Or about the dehumanizing of immigrants, no matter your stance on politics. Nor can we be silent about one more trans person of color murdered for their gender choices, no matter your stance on sexuality or bathrooms. People are people, not trash. That’s fundamental to the radical message Jesus is sending. The belief that differences can be used to separate and harm is antithetical to the Gospel of Christ, and we as the people who affirm that message have to stand up to the fear-mongering, the rhetoric, and the intentional separation of those the world would call different. We have to be the ones inviting in the homeless men on the Drag, the ones caring for the very difficult to love, the ones welcoming in those considered trash. Because if not, we’re letting the world get in the way of the radical Kingdom Jesus is calling us into. We have a choice the second we leave this service. We can turn back to the villages and communities that we are a part of and are welcomed in, even while others are not, or we can choose to live in the borderland, open to the radical notion that all are welcomed by Christ.
Let me close with this quote from United Church of Christ pastor Kathryn Matthews:
“Maybe it’s human nature to draw lines, to separate ourselves from others, and at least some of the time our motives are reasonable–the world, after all, is a dangerous place. But then, it so easily becomes “Us and Them,” and “Them” are perceived as neither desirable nor good. In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is somewhere “between Samaria and Galilee.” The only place scarier than a border is an in-between place, where boundaries and borders aren’t clear.”
I think perhaps it’s time to see that scary in between place as holy, as well. Amen.