“All He Has Is Jesus”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 13, 2019
The account is short and it reminds us of life in the pre-scientific world. For centuries, and even longer, there were people who were afflicted with all sorts of diseases and conditions that we don’t have to fear these days thanks to the medical and scientific communities. The drama that unfolds today in the gospel lesson is confirmation of the strength of fear. Here are ten souls, ten bearers of the image of God, walking at a distance away from the main road because that was the law. These were people who were born with real hopes and dreams. They once walked with purpose and meaning with their peers and families and friends. But now, due to the accident of being in some place where they contracted this disease, their lives were as good as over. They lived in fear of crossing the lines that were set for them; the rest of the community lived in fear that one might cross over and infect the rest. For all intents and purposes, in the eyes of the community it would have been better for the lepers to have not been born at all.
Leprosy was the most feared disease in the time of Jesus. It removed one from living life in community, pushing them out to places where unclean things live. No cure awaited them, just a life of begging on the fringes of society until their death-march through life came to an end. Jewish law was not kind to lepers, either. Jewish law was clear that lepers could not come within a prescribed distance of someone who was deemed ‘clean.’ Even into the Middle Ages people with leprosy had to wear special clothing, shake bells as they walked, and they had to announce, “Unclean,” as they walked among the un-afflicted. As Jesus entered the village, ten lepers, ten of these outcast and stigmatized and isolated and suffering and exhausted and friendless people, called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Traveling with the lepers is a Samaritan. Samaritans pop up throughout the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and we watch Jesus interact with these Samaritans even though it would have been better at that time to have leprosy than be from Samaria. A leper from Samaria is not only outside the circle of acceptability and cleanliness because of his disease, he is not considered to be fully human in the eyes of the Jewish religious establishment because of his ethnicity. His religious practices are different. His race sets him apart. He is a foreigner in the space between Galilee and Samaria, maybe even a refugee of some sort. His orientation is that of someone who was born with different characteristics that make him impure even if he did not have leprosy.
If you have ever had an experience where you discovered that you did not have the same access to the table as other people, then you have felt a little of what it was like to be a Samaritan. Maybe it was because of your gender and the remaining glass or stained-glass ceilings that need to come down. Perhaps it was an issue about race, status, or sexual orientation. Perhaps it was in seeing other people walk around with a sense of entitlement, and you knew deep down in your bones that anything you attempted to do would be an uphill battle. Perhaps it was in your first or many encounters with inequality, injustice, or racism. This was the life of a Samaritan, each and every day. And for the Samaritan in the story today, his difficult life was made even more difficult because it was narrated with the word ‘unclean.’
When the ten people with leprosy come before Jesus, keeping their respectable distance of course, Jesus says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they walked, the could not help but see that they were made clean. Healed. Imagine how they felt now that their lives were really their own again. I can imagine that they rushed to wherever they were staying, washed their faces, put on clean clothes, and began to march to Jerusalem where they would finally be let back into their houses of worship. They could go home! They could go out to eat! They could enjoy time with friends! What a joyous day! Except for one. One was healed on the road and could not turn to the accepted religious institution to present himself as clean. Whoever he was, and wherever he was on his journey, he was not welcome here or in Jerusalem. The priests to whom the other nine went represented for this one left behind the religious institution that condemned him. And why did they condemn him? It wasn’t because of the leprosy. It was because he was a Samaritan.
Have you ever looked at someone, heard them speak, or perhaps seen them involved in some project with love at its core and recognized that you were in the presence of someone who was truly authentic? In those thin places when we stand on the threshold between the commonplace and the genuine, you can feel vibrations and electricity and warmth and power. Some voice, some instinct in this Samaritan caused him to turn back because in turning back, he could bow at the feet of the One who is the most authentic of all. 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?” The others were on their way back home to their lives, families, friends, jobs. But this foreigner—all he has is Jesus. He doesn’t have a hometown or a supportive community or a church family—all he has is Jesus. And laying there at Jesus’ feet, Jesus says to him, “Get up on go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The 20th century theologian Karl Barth once said that the basic human response to God is gratitude—not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but gratitude. To have faith is to live faith, and to live faith is to give thanks. Living into a real life of gratitude is to live a life of faith. And we receive that lesson today from the most unlikely person of all. The Samaritan who was healed and made well was seen in every other setting of his life as the ‘other’—the other that was unclean, the other that had to walk away from the road, the other who could not go to church, the other who had to live his life as a constant apology. But he returns to give thanks and he is made well. Jesus had already cleared up the skin issues when he healed the whole group, but the Samaritan’s gratitude has made him truly well.
In our world, and particularly in the extreme complexity of our times, the shunned Samaritan shows up over and over again. We might be able to find this foreigner in the strangers who are fleeing places of violence and death, strangers we are often told to be wary of. He could be a young, African-American man who simply went out to the store and got shot, whose parents will never hold him close again. The Samaritan might be the man or woman who is outside of an “acceptable faith,” who is facing a ban, or a wall, or some type of limitation put on their life and on the lives of those like them. He or she might be threatened with a prejudice masked as “religious freedom” that makes it OK to bully a small percentage of God’s people. It may be someone who lacks access to basic medical care, basic nutrition, basic education because the decision-makers don’t really care about anyone other than themselves. It may be one of the obscene number of young people who are currently living on the streets America, often turning to suicide as the only option, who were kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation. There are many, many more.
Like the people struck with leprosy in today’s gospel encounter with Jesus, no one should have to live in fear on the outskirts of society. And like the Samaritan who had leprosy, we all have neighbors who live life with layers and layers of these descriptors and biases. A good question for us to ask today is how do we make this different? How can we, as followers of Jesus, work for a better and more just world? As Jesus’ people, how do we go about life in a such a way where perceived or actual differences do not rule our relationships? How can we be the church in a time when so many claim to know the one and true way of Jesus? How can we be more empathetic, more compassionate, and more loving towards the Samaritans that walk among us? The answer, I believe—and you might have already guessed it—is Jesus.
All that the Samaritan had was Jesus, and all we have, all we need, is Jesus, too. The Samaritan ran back to the source, the real healer, the historic foundation, the teacher, the leader and guide, the Authentic one, and we must run back to him, too if we want things to be different. If we find ourselves in places of worship, or places of learning, or workplaces or places where we are entertained or enriched, and these turn out to be places where not everyone is welcome, the gospel invites us to shake the dust from our feet, walk back on down the road, and plant ourselves at the feet of the One who created the heavens and the earth. If we find ourselves in conversations where someone is demeaned or belittled, where an insult or a jab seems funny because its just between friends, the gospel invites us to shake the dust from our feet, walk back on down the road, and plant ourselves at the feet of the One who lived and died that we might be free. If we find ourselves doing anything less than working with God to bring about God’s vision of abundant life for every person and everything, the gospel invites us to shake the dust from our feet, walk back on down the road, and plant ourselves at the feet of Jesus. Because it is there, in faith, that we are made well. And it is in being made well that lock hands with God and go about turning this world around.
We don’t have to go anywhere to be made ritually clean or sanctified or born again. We just need Jesus and the greatest news of all is he is right here, he is everywhere, waiting for us to come and receive his mercy. It is through our faith that we come to him. It is through our faith that our lives are enriched and we are made into more open and loving people. It is through our faith, despite how hard we might to try to resist it, that we fully and finally accept that we are loved and enough in the eyes of God. It is through our faith that boundaries disappear, barriers dissolve, and veils are torn to shreds so that we can fully see the face of God in each person we meet. It is through our faith that we receive the gift of grace and forgiveness that sets us on a path that leads to true life. So, like the Samaritan, let’s return to Jesus and give thanks. He is all we need and he has made us well. Amen.