2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
This Sunday’s Gospel is a little complicated.
On one level, the story is easy to follow. Jesus heals ten lepers. Only one comes back. “Your faith has saved you.” A good homily could be given on that level.
But the complication begins with the difference of that one leper. All ten had cried out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Normally, that seems to be all it takes for him to say, “Your faith has saved you.” For example, in the next chapter, the blind man will say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus will say, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (or “saved you,” or “healed you”: it’s all the same in the Greek). But here, he says that only to the leper who returns.
It’s all about geography. Our reading begins, “As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem”—the organizing theme of Luke’s Gospel—“he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.” I’m not sure what to make of that. Galilee is the north, Samaria is the middle, Judea, with Jerusalem, is the south. The first half of Luke’s Gospel, and the early chapters of Jesus’s life, are in the north, in Galilee.
The turning point of Luke’s Gospel is Luke 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”: he heads south. The very next verses say, “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”
His journey begins by entering Samaria. The Samaritan religion was a variant of Judaism that didn’t recognize Jerusalem, but held onto the older tradition: before David built Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple, the previous version of the Temple, the wandering Tabernacle, had been kept in the central plains. Samaritan means “the keepers”; the Samaritan version of Judaism guarded that older tradition, in defiance of David and Solomon’s Temple.
It’s funny, then, that this Sunday our reading begins, “he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.” Galilee should have been left behind. I don’t know what to do with that, except to say that Luke is drawing our attention to this journey. But I do notice: Jericho, to the east of Jerusalem and on the Jordan river, is also the route to Jerusalem that Galileans used to avoid going through Samaria. Maybe Luke is thinking of Jericho again?
The next appearance of Samaria was in the chapter after he set his face to go to Jerusalem. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell among robbers was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Jerusalem is in the mountains. You always “go up” to Jerusalem. This man was leaving—on that Galileean road.
So was the priest who passed him by. With the Levite who passes him by, it is unclear, except that it says he did “similarly” to the priest. And it’s very clear: priests and Levites do their work in Jerusalem. They work in the Temple.
But the Good Samaritan is just “travelling.” It doesn’t say he was “going up” or “going down,” but it’s interesting that the priest and the Levite have their backs to Jerusalem. Interesting, too, that when the Good Samaritan takes the man to an inn, the Greek word is literally, “a place that receives all people.”
The third time Samaritans appear in Luke’s Gospel is in our reading this Sunday. The lepers “stood at a distance,” because they were following the Law: leprosy is contagious, and lepers were supposed to keep far away.
Jesus follows the Law on this, too. He does not lay hands on them. With the blind man in the next chapter, “Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him.” But with the lepers, he does the opposite: he tells them to go away: “Go show yourselves to the priests.”
He is following the Law in a second way. The Law requires those who are healed of leprosy to have their healing confirmed by the priests. And the priests are now in Jerusalem. He is sending the lepers to Jerusalem.
The one who returns is a Samaritan, someone who doesn’t believe in Jerusalem.
“He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”—the word for thanks is eucharist. Jesus said in reply, “. . . Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks?”
Our first reading is Naaman the Syrian, another foreign leper. That story too is earthy, geographical: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” The waters of the Jordan heal him. He takes two mule-loads of earth home with him so he can worship on holy ground.
Our second reading, from Second Timothy, shifts from land to the body of Jesus, “raised from the dead, a descendent of David.” Salvation is “in Christ Jesus.” “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.”
Jesus is the new temple, the new Jerusalem. The place of worship matters. We need to go up to the Temple. God is everywhere, but we meet him by going to the place where he chooses to reveal himself to us. The Samaritan is wrong to deny Jerusalem, so important to Jesus—but also right to replace Jerusalem with the higher temple of Jesus’s body.
Jesus removes the ethnic attachments of Israel. You don’t have to be born of Israel to come to the Temple. But you do have to go to the Temple. Just as Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, we have to go to Jesus. We don’t eucharist just anywhere, but at his feet.
Does your religion ever get disembodied? Could you be more Christ-centered?