Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pntecost 20C

Probably you, like me, had it drummed into you as a kid that you had to say 'thank you' when you received a gift, even if it was just clothes or something that you didn't really want.  You had to say thank you when your mum put your dinner in front of you, even if it was cabbage.  You had to say thank you when a family friend gave you a lift in their car, even if it was to somewhere you didn't particularly want to go, like school.  You had to say thank you even if you didn't really feel grateful, even if it was just something that grown-ups were supposed to do for you.  You see, as a kid, you were surrounded by adult grace, by the everyday actions of other people that made it possible for you to get on with the business of learning, and growing, and exploring the world.  The downside of being made to say 'thank you' was that it became a chore, a duty that you did because for some reason adults placed great store on being polite.  The great benefit, if your experience was anything like mine, is that as you got older you began to realise that we are never really separate from other people, we're never really independent, and the continual small gifts we receive from other people aren't ours by right.  Like the gift of being socially recognized, the gifts of recognition and affection that make it possible for us to live in community.  Learning to recognize when we have received a gift from another person, and to express gratitude is about recognizing that at a deep level we receive who we are as a gift from one another.

So real gratitude is not just about being polite – real gratitude is about perceiving what the gift is, perceiving how we have been transformed by it, perceiving where the gift comes from and what it means – real gratitude is about perceiving the truth about ourselves and the truth about those around us – in other words it's about seeing or perceiving who we are in relation to other people – and in relation to God.  And so our gospel story this morning, which is about gratitude, is also on a deeper level about seeing and being seen.

I made the choice this morning of reading the gospel from a different translation – the New International Version – because it translates Luke's original Greek better as 'ten men who had leprosy', rather than 'ten lepers'.  The difference is subtle, but just as people today who work in the field of disability insist that we should talk about people who live with a disability rather than disabled people – emphasizing the person not the problem – Luke does the same thing in his original Greek manuscript and again it's about seeing accurately, it's about refusing to accept that a person is just the sum total of the labels that society puts on them.  In the context of the social world of the 1st century, this is a huge thing – if you were labeled a leper then you were unclean, you were isolated from society and forced to live outside the towns and villages and fend for yourself – reduced to traveling around in groups for protection and begging from a distance – just like the ten men in this story do when they encounter Jesus.  Somehow they have heard about Jesus and they beg for compassion – and after they call out to him, Luke tells us that Jesus sees them – what Luke means is that Jesus sees who they really are – Jesus sees their need.

There are two parallels to this story, and the first one is with the Old Testament story of Namaan the Syrian, who comes to Elisha the prophet to be healed of his leprosy.  But where Namaan at first refuses to do what Elisha says, this group of men take Jesus at face value – when he tells them to present themselves to the priests – off they go.  At this level it's already a story of faith that God is working through Jesus of Nazareth.

The second parallel is with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Because in that story, Jesus also talks about seeing – the priest and the Levite see the injured man but are more concerned with ritual purity – but the Samaritan traveller sees the man's need, and the opportunity to be merciful.  This Good Samaritan is the no. 1 example of compassion to one's neighbour – seeing the truth about our relationship with those around us - which Jesus says is half of what it means to keep the Torah.

The Samaritan in today's story – the second Good Samaritan – embodies the second half of what it means to fulfill the law, and that is seeing the truth about our relationship with God.  Now when I say Samaritan, mentally translate it to Muslim and you'll get the idea – Samaritans practice a false religion, they have peculiar laws about food, Samaritans are hostile towards us and we don't trust them.  But Jesus is telling us that these two Samaritans together have become our model for salvation.  What the second Samaritan does, of course, is to see what God has done for him – the gift of healing is indiscriminate, all ten are made clean but this outsider recognises the gift as the action of divine grace and he comes back – not just to say thank you like I did for my cabbage, but to praise God because he recognises that God has touched his life through his encounter with Jesus.  Together, these two outsiders in Luke's gospel embody the whole of what Jesus says the Law is about.

But why come back?  After all, Jesus simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. The other nine, who presumably weren't Samaritans, were probably grateful too – we don't know - maybe they went to the priests in Jerusalem like they were told, and gave thanks there.  Maybe the Samaritan came back because he was a Samaritan – excluded twice over, once for being a leper, once for being a Samaritan – he would not have been welcome in Jerusalem, would not have been allowed into the temple, so he comes back to give praise to the one who healed him – that is, to God – through Jesus as the one through whom God is acting.

Well, we don't know why he came back.  Luke apparently isn't interested in that. Luke's more interested in saying something about how the boundaries of God's grace have just got bigger.  Through Jesus, God's grace is going expand to include even foreigners, even those the world defines as unclean or impure, even those who don't practice the "right" religion.  Luke is telling us a story about a daring boundary crossing, daring both on the part of Jesus but also on the part of the Samaritan.

I'm struck by how the Samaritan's physical posture changes. When we first see him, he and the other nine keep their distance.  None of them break the rules of their disease. But when he comes back, he lies down at Jesus' feet.  You see, one of the things this healing has made possible is the movement from isolation to intimacy. And maybe that's why he came back, not simply because he wanted or needed to say thank you but out of a desire for intimacy with God - a sense that faith doesn't just mean performing rituals but being drawn into a relationship with God that's intimate and dependent.

And so Jesus declares that the man has been made whole.  All ten have been healed, but only this one receives Jesus declaration of healing which in the Greek is literally: your faith has saved you.  The physical healing was just the beginning of the journey towards wholeness for this man whose experience of isolation was beyond anything we could imagine.  When we're most truly whole is when our lives express a deep gratitude toward God and toward the people around us who reach out to us across all the real and imagined boundaries of our social world – and by doing that give us life and dignity and joy.  Dependence is not the dirty word that our culture makes it, dependence on God and on one another is just the simple pattern and the plain truth about life.  Luke knows that this man is healed by God, not by his own faith, but he also knows that true wholeness comes when the experience of God's grace meets with the human response of gratitude and delight.  True wholeness can be present where physical healing can't happen, and we see this in those who are so tuned in to God's grace that they experience all the circumstances of their lives as filled with God's goodness – where the most harrowing ordeal becomes the opportunity for greater and greater dependence on God.

A bit more Greek: the word for what this man does when he returns and lies down in front of Jesus and gives thanks is eucharisté, and that is what we are going to do in a few minutes time.  As we share the bread and the wine what we are doing is giving thanks for the gift of God's grace which fills all the circumstances of our lives, no matter how joyful or how painful they may be.  Gratitude is the heart's memory of grace, the human response that completes the circle of blessing and wholeness.  Let us give thanks.