Last revised: October 22, 2019
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PROPER 23 (October 9-15) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 28
RCL: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
RoCa: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
This week’s Gospel presents another instance of Luke’s Jesus crossing ethnic boundaries in an encounter with a Samaritan. He has already rebuked his disciples for their wishes to ethnically cleanse a Samaritan town (9:52-55); used a Samaritan in a parable to represent the good neighbor (10:30-37); and now he elevates a Samaritan healed of leprosy as a model of faith. In short, this passage lends itself well to the frequent theme of this website of healing tribalism. In 2016 I brought together a focus in our worship on the work of supporting refugees with Part 2 of a sermon series on Brian McLaren‘s just-published book, The Great Spiritual Migration, for the sermon, “The Great Spiritual Migration, Part 2: The God of Outsiders, Immigrants, and Refugees.”
But today’s texts also ring out a theme of gratefulness, the gospel lesson being a standard lection for Thanksgiving. More than commenting specifically on the lessons I’d like to explore the theme of gratitude — and, even more foundational, the theme of God’s grace as the call to live in gratuity. We will see from the work of James Alison how gratuity is the spur to the concept in Mimetic Theory of “good mimesis,” the way of living in the grace of God’s love.
Can Christian theology (especially in the light of Mimetic Theory) begin to do for gratitude what it has done for love? Namely, develop our understanding and experience of it as more than a feeling or emotion but also as a way of acting, a way of living. When Christ asks us to love our enemies, we have had to assume that he hasn’t meant just a feeling. It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel love toward one’s enemies. But we can act loving toward them. We can accept them as fellow children of God and refuse to return harm. We might even be able to find ourselves identifying with them and achieving some empathy.
I’d like to suggest a similar experience of gratitude. There are many situations in life and many experiences that feel more like curses for which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to feel grateful. But perhaps gratitude is also a way of acting, a way of living. What I have in mind is a way of acting which presumes upon the grace of God. Gratitude is a way of living that never lets go of living in dependence on God’s grace. The psalmist, for example, will often times lament a terrible situation for which it would be difficult to have the feeling of gratitude. But the psalmist nevertheless makes the lament to God. The psalmist continues to presume, to call upon, God’s grace.
The opposite of gratitude, then, would generally be the way of sin: living in the illusion that one is independent of God’s grace, that one is equal enough to God that one doesn’t really need God. Gratitude is a particularly difficult way of living in our modern age, I think, because we have a distorted view of both freedom and equality. Gratitude as a way of living must presume at least one true inequality: that between Creator and creature. God the Creator is the source of life; we the creatures are the recipients of life. There is no getting around our dependence on God’s gracious power of life.
As I’ve previously suggested in these commentaries: we cannot have true equality with each other as children of God unless it’s founded on that basic inequality between us and our heavenly parent. Otherwise, as mimetic theory helps us to understand, we fall into rivalry with one another. The way out of rivalry is for everyone to defer to God’s desire, to jointly seek God’s will. The way out of rivalry is to be disciples of the true Son who was able to defer to the will of his heavenly Father.
Jesus lived a life of gratitude. With only five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand, he gave thanks to God, broke the bread, and gave it away. On the night in which he was handed over, he gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it away — all as a sign of what he did with his life the next day. When we live the eucharistic life, we find real freedom from the fear of death. We are able to trust our lives to the God who is an unending source of life.
Gratuity is a favorite word of Girardian theologian James Alison, a central category of his thought that the reader will find throughout his work. Here is an example from the first chapter of his first book, Knowing Jesus:
Now, what was it that made the resurrection have such density? I don’t mean, what did it look like, or even, what did it feel like. What I mean is: how did the resurrection irrupt into that network of tangled, sorry relationships that were jarring painfully by Easter Saturday? Of what, insofar as we can describe a unique and a normative experience, was the resurrection experience made up? There are hints in the New Testament, but these are difficult to identify because of the familiarity of the texts, and because we know what is coming next. I would suggest that the first category by which we can look at this is that of gratuity.
It is almost impossible to imagine the shock of the sheer gratuity of the resurrection. Gratuity is when someone gives something to us without any interest attached at all, when we are moved by something that is quite outside the network of relationships, friendships, economic and political ties that constitute our life. It is when something appears in our life that has no reference at all to what we feel we need, or deserve, and over which we have no control, no ability to manipulate. Occasionally, we do experience hints of something like this, but mostly all of us are tied in to the rhythms of the expected, the reciprocated, the demanded, the earned, or the punished.
Now, the resurrection was entirely gratuitous. It was gratuitous for Jesus, an act of love by the Father, not a payment for deserving service. Where it is suggested in Hebrews (5.7-9) that Jesus deserved the resurrection for us, this has nothing to do with Jesus having acquired a right over against the Father, a debt which the Father had to honor. What is being talked about there is an exchange of love — the love lived out in obedience in Jesus’ life, a love made possible by Jesus’ being loved in the first place. In no exchange of love are words like ‘deserving’ or ‘earning’ other than weak metaphors — at least from the viewpoint of the participants: their mutual self-giving is gratuitous, and urges no rights.
If then the resurrection was gratuitous for Jesus, it must have seemed even more so for the disciples. It was quite outside their experience, and indeed, in the form it took, quite outside the possibility of human vocabulary. Nothing in popular Jewish belief in a resurrection on the last day had led them to prepare for this. It had nothing at all to do with any system, or structure, or order or network, or relationship to which any of them belonged. It was for them something utterly ‘other.’ To say that it was surprising, unprecedented, and so on, is not enough. The gratuity of the resurrection, and its utter otherness, were part of the same package — the life of Jesus — that so disconcerted the disciples. If there’s anything clear from the accounts of the appearances it’s exactly this element of consternation, fear, the inability to recognize at first. The way Jesus had to preface his remarks with ‘Peace, be not afraid’ points to this. . . .
Furthermore, the irruption of the gratuitous ‘other’ happened within the disciples’ frame of reference. They were frightened, ashamed, muddled, disappointed; the irruption didn’t depend on them being in the ‘right’ mood. And it happened as forgiveness. This is the second great category of the experience of the resurrection. Part of the utterly gratuitous other is that it is entirely outside any system of retribution and desert, and is therefore experienced by us as loosing us from being tied in to the ‘customary’ other. The gratuitous other quite undermines all things that do not depend on gratuity, both our wounded relationships, and our virtues, which involve elements of protection and security. It is both as forgiveness of our sins and complete restructuring of our virtues that the gratuitous other reaches us.
The resurrection is forgiveness: not a decree of forgiveness, but the presence of gratuity as a person. The simple fact of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, as soon as they had recovered from their consternation at the presence of what was quite outside their experience, was the presence of forgiveness. Their sorrow, and guilt, and confusion, could be loosed within them, because the focus of their sorrow and guilt and confusion had come back from right outside it, and was not affected by it. There was no element in the presence of the risen Jesus of any reciprocating by Jesus of what had been done to him. If there had been his presence would not have been outside our human tit-for-tat, it would not have been gratuitous, and it would not have been forgiving.
So, Jesus tells his disciples in John (20.23): ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain any, they are retained,’ and in Luke (24.47), that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ is to be preached in his name to all nations. It is the presence of the gratuitous other as forgiveness that is given in the Holy Spirit, and it is this that is to be made available to all nations. The gratuitous other has irrupted into the network and construction of human relationships as forgiveness. (pp. 12-14, 16-17)
In other words, truly a theology of grace! The next category that Alison gleans from the John 20 text is mission: disciples are sent out with the gratuitous presence of forgiveness. Again, gratitude is more of an action than a feeling. As we have so often articulated on these pages for our current global scenario, we are sent out on a mission of healing tribalism, the presence of gratuitous forgiveness for healing the structures of Us vs. Them.
Another key is the theology itself, what Alison calls the ‘other Other.’ God is revealed not in the structures of human power, among the powerful. God is revealed in the opposite: those marginalized by human power schemes. Finding God among the least of Jesus’s family undoes the typical structures based on Us vs. Them. We find God, for example, precisely in the brown people being turned away at our southern border in 2019. Which brings us back to . . . “The Great Spiritual Migration, Part 2: The God of Outsiders, Immigrants, and Refugees.”
2 Kings 5:14-17
Reflections and Questions
1. This story is alluded to in Luke 4:17. Jesus implies to his hometown crowd that he will not cater to them; he will bring his ministry to outsiders like Elijah did with the Widow of Sidon and Elisha with Namaan the Syrian. The people of Nazareth react in a rage and try to lynch Jesus, to force him off the cliff. See comments for Epiphany 3C and Epiphany 4C.
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Reflections and Questions
1. In 1995 I used the Pauline image of dying in Christ as a jumping off point for a sermon “Healing through Death.” We need to die to the sin of righteous violence and take up Jesus’ way of unconditional love, even toward those we deem enemies. We were observing “Pink Ribbon” Sunday that day, lifting up those who battle breast cancer. The themes of dying in Christ and battling cancer are roled in with the image of a computer virus around an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “I, Borg.”
2. “if we deny him, he will also deny us.” Is this true? What about Peter who denied Jesus? Wasn’t he forgiven instead of reciprocally denied? The next line seems to imply Christ’s faithfulness to us even when we aren’t faithful to him: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.” So I’m doubly puzzled by the previous phrase regarding denial. These two lines seem to contradict each other. And Jesus clearly didn’t deny Peter after Peter denied him.
1. If this were Mark’s Gospel, we might take the mentions of Samaritans in Luke 10 & 17 as an inclusion since Mark is famous for that. What about Luke? Could he have an inclusion in mind here? Luke 10:25 begins with the question about the greatest commandment, to which Jesus most immediate response lifts up a Samaritan as exemplary in the second part of the greatest commandment: the “Good Samaritan” shows us how to love our neighbor. In this next mention of a Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, isn’t this tenth leper an examplary of first part of the greatest commandment? Jesus queries, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18) And the irony of a Samaritan who knows how to truly worship God is even more pronounced than a Samaritan who knows how to love neighbor. The Jewish hatred of Samaritans stemmed from their differing worship practices. The Samaritans had it all wrong. Yet this Samaritan, in bowing down and giving thanks to Jesus, is the exemplary of true worship. How might we read all that comes in between as an inclusion?
2. Michael Hardin, at PreachingPeace.org (the “Anthropological Reading”), offers the reading of Jesus command — “Go and show yourselves to the priests” — as a plural, “priests,” that points to the differing worship practices. The nine Jewish lepers were to go to their priest; the Samaritan to his priest — thus, the plural “priests.” The Samaritan ends up choosing his priest as Jesus, modeling true worship.
3. The only other mentions of Samaritans in Luke are the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and as Jesus begins what in Luke is called the Journey to Jerusalem:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56)
This passage is most often interpreted with a negative focus on Samaritans. My Oxford Annotated NRSV Bible, for example, titles this passage (in the footnotes) “The hostile Samaritans.” I find this to be absolutely incredible. To me the passage is clearly about the rebuke to the disciples for assuming the Samaritans to be hostile — which means modern interpretation hasn’t advanced a wit over the disciples. As Jesus turns his face to his own offering up to our engines of righteous violence, the disciples display a fundamental misrecognition of his mission in their wishing for an act of divine righteous violence upon their enemies.
In a published article, “The Work of René Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics” (Currents in Theology and Mission, June 1999, pages 196-209.) I use Luke 9:51-62 as an example of how mimetic theory can help us to correct such mistaken readings (link to excerpt on Luke 9:51-62). I argue that “they” in “they did not receive him” actual refers to the messengers, not to the Samaritans as is usually assumed. Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, unbeknownst to the others, and so he changes his plans about going to the Samaritan town. The advance guard of messengers don’t receive him because he has changed his plans. The disciples wrongly assume that Jesus has changed his mind because of the Samaritans, their enemies, and wish divine fire down upon them. They coudln’t be further from the truth, and Jesus rebukes them. Supportive of this reading, in my view, are the two subsequent uses by Jesus of Samaritans as exemplifying both parts of the Great Commandment: worshiping God (17:11-19) and loving neighbor (10:25-37). (For more on Luke 9:51-56, see Proper 8C).
4. There are four times in this passage that healing is indicated, and the different words that Luke chooses to convey it are interesting. First, the two most common words used to indicate healing in the NT are iaomai and therapeuo; the NRSV, for the most part, adopted a convention of translating the first as “heal” and the second as “cure.”
In the case of these lepers, the main word that Luke uses to indicate the healing in vs. 14 & 17 is katharizo, “cleanse,” “make clean.” In between, in vs. 15, the major witnesses use the word iaomai. But there are several ancient texts that keep it consistent at this point using the word katharizo. The significance of the word choices is that Luke’s Jesus changes to a very different word for the final pronouncement, saying to the Samaritan leper in 17:19 (NRSV), “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” “Well” is the translation of the Greek word sozo, “save,” “rescue.” Especially if we take the lesser textual witnesses, Luke changes from “made clean” to “saved.” Has there been a double healing for the Samaritan? Does sozo indicate a healing, a salvation, for the Samaritan that goes beyond the initial cleansing enjoyed by all ten lepers?
1. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, PreachingPeace.org. Hardin brings mimetic theory to bear upon this passage as being about the perspective of the victim. These lepers are pushed to the margins between their homelands. The one Samaritan with none Jews is even the lowest of the low. Hardin concludes:
Not only do we have a group of marginalized lepers, but that group also has its singular marginalized person, the Samaritan. Shall we suppose that the disease of leprosy so united the lepers that they no longer were engaged by the victimage mechanism? Shall we suppose that the nine Jewish lepers did not in some fashion ostracize the Samaritan within their little circle? Would their leprosy have overcome the hundreds of years of social animosity that they carried with them in their worldviews? No. This seems to be implied by Jesus reference to the Samaritan as an allogenes, a foreigner. The Samaritan, in other words, is the victim par excellence in the story, he is the victim of the victims, yet it is this most marginalized one who truly sees (not at all an unfamiliar theme in the gospels).When all were healed and only one returned thanking God, where did the other nine go? They made a beeline back to the social matrix from which they had been thrust, back to families they may have missed, back to the world of social respectability. They made straight for the religious dimension of the sacral mechanism, the priest, who would declare them socially acceptable. They failed to see that God, in cleansing them, had already accepted not only them, but also their fellow leper, the Samaritan. A new sociality had been given in the miracle that they failed to grasp and so they took this gift from God and walked right back to the system that had previously extruded them without seeing or understanding that something indeed was bent about the system. Nor, as mentioned, did they see a new thing had occurred in their midst, the healing of a division that went back hundreds of years. Jesus brings healing to each of us and all of us in order that we might be one in Him. Do we see any clearer than the nine?
2. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on this passage in 2013, “Cast Out by the Outcasts.”
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Is Gratitude a Form of Faith That Makes Us Well?“; a sermon in 2016, “One Embraced a New Way of Living“; Russ Hewett, a blog in 2016, “Ten Lepers — When Disobeying Jesus Is the Right Thing to Do.”
4. Paul Nuechterlein, The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014, pp. 246-47. This text is also the Gospel Reading for Thanksgiving Day A. A Thanksgiving sermon that I’ve given at several times and places is, “Give Thanks and Be Whole.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 Brian McLaren‘s extraordinarily important book The Great Spiritual Migration had just come out, which elaborates three essential migrations for the Christian movement at this point in history. I decided this book is so important that I’d like to try a three week series that fits each of the three migrations to three consecutive sets of readings, beginning last week. (Note: McLaren titles the theme of the second part in his book as, “From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation.) This is the second sermon in the series, “The Great Spiritual Migration, Part 2: The God of Outsiders, Immigrants, and Refugees.” (Link to Part 1, Part 3)
At the parish I was at, we also designated this day as Refugee Sunday, a means to lift up the excellent work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). The basic moves for this sermon included:
- Setting up the problem of reading Scripture where you have “God is love” (1 John 4) and God commanding genocide (Deut. 7). The popular reading strategy, treating all parts of scripture as literally and equally true, leads to such contradictions.
- A new reading strategy has been needed for a long time: viewing Scripture anthropologically as the true narrative of God taking human beings on a journey from our false gods to the true God — who is love, period. It’s a narrative in travail (see McLaren, ch. 6, “The Bible in Labor”), a rebirthing of humans beings.
- Part of the story of travail, then, is human beings — including subsequent Christian history! — continuing to mistake false gods who do things like command genocide as the true God (see McLaren, ch. 4, “The Genocide Card in Your Back Pocket”).
- The basic god who evolved as the basis of our cultures, our original birthing, is the God-on-our-side. God-is-love, the true God behind our rebirthing, does not take sides, coming to expression in Jesus’s message to love even one’s enemies (Matt 5:38-48). (In McLaren’s excellent elaboration of this migration, see ch. 5, “God 5.0.” The evolution of God to my designation of God-on-our-side is God 4.0 in McLaren’s nomenclature. Jesus takes us to God 5.0.)
- How does God-is-love move human beings past God-on-our-side — a virtual rebirthing since experience of gods (transcendence) is fundamental to human evolution? This is my basic move that highlights Refugee Sunday: God must progressively be identified with the outsiders, immigrants, and refugees. Read the Bible through that lens, and it rather immediately reveals its truth. Abraham and Sarah open the story by being called out of their culture to become perpetual wanderers. The foundational story of God’s people is liberation as slaves in Egypt to become wanderers in the wilderness. After a relatively brief time of landedness and a successful monarchy, the remainder of the story of God’s people is either one of exile-diaspora, or one of being outsiders in one’s own land, a people under the oppression of foreign empires. Jesus the Messiah comes into this story and, instead of turning it around to a wonderful dénouement of God-on-our-side, defeating all God’s enemies, Jesus the Messiah lets himself become the ultimate outsider on the cross, letting God’s enemies defeat him. And only the resurrection, as God’s vindication of the ultimate outsider, can begin to turn human history to begin evolving toward God-is-love. The Resurrection begins the rebirth of Creation because the children of God have been rebirthed (Romans 8:18-23).
2. katharizo, “made clean,” is a term of sacred religion which divides the world along lines of sacred/profane, clean/unclean. When the Samaritan, instead of doing his sacred duty by going to the priest for official pronouncement of his status of purity, returns to Jesus giving thanks, is Jesus’ final pronouncement upon him referring to the fact that he has been saved from the system of ritual purity itself? His faith in Jesus has now taken him outside of the sacred system, rescuing him from its pronouncements?
On the theme of healing vs. ritual purity there is much from the viewpoint of mimetic theory during a four-week sermon series on healing from Mark’s Gospel during Epiphany 2003. It might be most poignant to begin with Mark’s story of Jesus healing a leper in Mark 1:40-45 (Epiphany 6B), which is paralleled in Luke 5:12-16 (but not part of the Year C Revised Common Lectionary).
3. What is the significance of this leper being Samaritan in terms of his religious duty to be pronounced clean? Would he have needed to go to a Jewish priest like his fellow cleansed lepers? Would he have gone to a Samaritan priest? Or is part of his returning to Jesus, forsaking the visit to the priest, due to the fact that he is a Samaritan and had different ritual requirements in the first place? In the latter case, his differing religious “faith” would have saved him the trouble of needing to do what the other nine Jewish lepers needed to do. (See Michael Hardin‘s reading in note 2 of the Exegetical Notes.)
4. When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.'” What is Jesus doing here? In other stories of Jesus healing lepers, he makes a big show of bucking the purity system by even touching them when he heals them. And there’s nothing about showing oneself to the priest. Here, it seems he keeps his distance, merely calling to them to go show themselves to the priests. He seems to be going along with the purity system. But, upon being made clean, the Samaritan forsakes that system to immediately come back to thank his healer and to praise God. Is his leaving behind the purity system the point of this story? True faith goes beyond the sacred system of clean and unclean to find a compassionate God who truly can make us “well.” But, in that case, why does Jesus tell them to follow the purity system in the first place? Was his telling them to go the priests a test of sorts to see which ones had enough faith to forsake the purity system in favor of the truer, more complete source of healing, one which saves us from the ill effects of the purity system itself? In that case, it’s significant that only the Samaritan, only the one that Jews considered as religiously inferior, was able to pass this test of true religion. Only the one designated as the outsider was able to escape the dis-ease of playing games of insiders and outsiders.
5. If the purity system itself is cause for dis-ease, then the Samaritan was the only one in need of a double cure from it. He was unclean both by virtue of being a leper and by being a Samaritan; his fellow lepers were only unclean in terms of their leprosy. The priest could pronounce the lepers cleansed of their disease, but they would not pronounce the Samaritan clean of his being a Samaritan. Only Jesus, the one who would expose the dis-ease of the sacred system itself, would pronounce the Samaritan’s second cleansing, a pronouncement that effectively declares his having been rescued from the system itself. Jesus would let himself be judged unclean in order that the veil would be rent in two that keeps us from seeing the emptiness of the sacred system.
6. True faith. Is this story a follow-up for Luke to last week’s text when the disciples ask for an increase in faith? See the comments on the Gospel for Proper 22C. Also, 17:9-10 raises the issue of giving thanks.