On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
If you wanted to find that region on a map, you’d have to make it up. There is no region between Samaria and Galilee just like there is none between Kentucky and Tennessee. There is a line, and in the case of Samaria and Galilee, this line runs between two groups of people who haven’t been friendly with each other for generations. Some readers of Luke comment, almost apologetically, that the author isn’t very familiar with the lay of the land between Nazareth and Jerusalem. Others notice that Luke’s odd geography serves a theological purpose.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and there he’ll face our rejection and damnation; he is on the way to the cross where he’ll be executed, a stranger who stands outside all the lines that define human communities. Jesus is on his way to become the ultimate outsider and to bring reconciliation, and his path leads him between groups and nations with hands stretched out to either side of the boundary line. The region between is not a geographical entity, but the place of Jesus’ ministry.
By making up a region between Galilee and Samaria Luke also subtly reminds us that there are people who live in that no-man’s-land, people who belong neither here nor there and who would disappear altogether if there were cracks for them to fall through. The region between is the invisible land where invisible people live – or perhaps I should not say live, but long for life.
The region between is where Jesus encounters ten lepers. It doesn’t matter anymore what side of which border they once came from. It doesn’t matter if they used to be poor or wealthy, men or women, highly educated or illiterate, young or old, pious or irreverent, natives or aliens. It doesn’t matter who they used to be or could have been; they have a disease that isolates them completely by rendering them ritually unclean. Whoever they used to be, now they are lepers, untouchables. They have been pushed out for fear of contagion and left to wander in the region between.
Jewish law states,
Persons who have the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head be disheveled; and they shall cover their upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” They shall live alone; their dwelling shall be outside the camp Leviticus 13:45-46.
These ten whose dwelling had been outside the camp for who knows how long approached Jesus, but instead of crying out, ‘Unclean, unclean,’ they shouted his name and begged, “Jesus! Have mercy on us!” What do you think it was they wanted? Something to eat? A hug? A friendly conversation? Or did they approach him seeking life?
Jesus, we read in Luke, when he saw them, said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus saw them, which is no small thing in a world where so many people and things demand attention, and yet remain invisible. Jesus saw them, and he responded to their cries with a simple command. Go, show yourselves to the priests. It was the priests’ responsibility to examine their skin in order to determine their physical health and, if all was well, to restore them to life in the community. Go, Jesus said, trust my word, show yourselves to the priests. And as they went, they were made clean.
The ten, after their encounter with Jesus, left the invisible land and returned to life. They were finally able to go home and kiss their spouses, hold their children, pray in the synagogue, do their work, and eat and drink with their friends. You know they came home laughing and singing, and they danced around the bonfire in which their old, torn clothes went up in flames. They were alive, they were at home.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
Ten cried out for mercy, longing for life. Ten were made clean. But one of them saw something the other nine didn’t. One of them didn’t return to the life he once knew before he had been pushed out. He returned to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. One of them returned to the region between and to the one who embodied God’s healing, saving, reconciling, and fulfilling presence there.
Ten cried out for mercy. Ten were made clean. Nine of them got their old lives back. One of them found new life.
He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
Again it was a Samaritan who saw what others didn’t or wouldn’t see. At the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus told a story about a man who fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. You know the story. A priest happened to come down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Next a Levite came to the place and saw the man, and he passed by on the other side. And then a Samaritan came near, and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. Three men saw a wounded man by the side of the road, but only one saw a human being crying out for mercy, and that one was a Samaritan.
In Luke, Jesus tells us two stories where it is an outsider who sees what those considered insiders do not see or perhaps cannot see. It is an outsider who shows the meaning of love of neighbor. It is an outsider who recognizes the meaning of Jesus.
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.”
Ten cried out for mercy. Ten were made clean. Nine went home and lived happily ever after. One returned and gave praise to God. One returned because in Jesus he had seen the healing, saving, reconciling, and fulfilling presence of God. It was a Samaritan who saw that God had entered the invisible land where outcasts long for life to restore wholeness and bring creation to fulfillment.
For centuries, leprosy was an incurable condition that pushed a person outside the community, often isolating them in every way imaginable. Leprosy became a metaphor for forces beyond our control that cut us off from life. Complete isolation may be difficult for some of us to imagine. But to the degree that we don’t feel fully at home in our lives, we all know what it means to dwell in the region between. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old, women or men, black or white, poor or wealthy – to the degree that we are not at one with the world and each other and ourselves, we all know what it means to wander the roads outside the camp.
To me, the story of the ten lepers is a story about us. It is a story about our hunger for life, our need to belong, and our hope that God hears our cries for mercy. And it is a story about God’s mercy for all and how hard it is for us to fully see what Jesus has done for us. There is a wholeness that awaits those who see in Jesus God’s mercy at work in the world and who return to him with songs of praise on their lips. And it’s not just about gratitude which leads us to humbly and joyfully receive life as a gift instead of simply taking it as a given and demanding more. The other nine, for all we know, may well have thanked God in their respective houses of worship, and every morning when they woke up and every night before they went to sleep. But the Samaritan didn’t return to Samaria but to Jesus to offer his gratitude and praise to God. He knew where to find him. It wasn’t in Jerusalem or in Samaria or in Galilee, but in the region between where God meets us to reconcile and make whole what sin divides and breaks.
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well,” Jesus said to the Samaritan. Your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you whole.
The Samaritan saw that the way of Jesus was the way of healing and wholeness for the whole world. The Samaritan saw that the way of Jesus didn’t introduce yet another tribe to a world already torn by hostility between tribes and peoples. The Samaritan saw that with Jesus the reign of God had come to the region between, to the invisible land where the outcasts of all camps and tribes long for life.
The way of Jesus leads to the cross, and the cross stands outside the city gates, in the region between Samaria and Galilee, between Jerusalem and Rome, between Jews and Gentiles, between us and them. There we find him, hands stretched out to either side, waiting for us to see and embrace the things that make for peace. Lord, open our eyes.