The events of the past few weeks have taken me back to the early 70’s when the suffix “gate” started to be added to every kind of scandal imaginable. I was in college when Watergate became a household word and the student body reflected the nation in its division regarding the President’s role.
I was in a class on English Augustan Poetry and before the professor arrived a conversation/argument began on current events. When my professor arrived, instead of beginning his lecture, he began to tell a shocking story. He spoke of growing up in Germany. That alone was a surprise to us, he spoke without a trace of an accent. He cautioned about the dangers of hero worship. He was a boy in the 1930’s and recalled how the new chancellor was restoring a sense of German pride to a people struggling for a sense of identity after World War I. He talked about finding a sense of belonging in the Hitler youth with smart uniforms, patriotic songs and complete belief in “the leader” and the notion that the German people were superior.
Of course, it all came crashing down. The war was lost, survival became challenging and then the truth of genocide and crimes against humanity, especially those already on the margins and deemed expendable, was revealed. The uniform in which he once took pride was now a symbol of shame.
The room that had been loud with voices fell silent as he spoke in confessional tones, still filled with the horror from thirty years ago. He then spoke of his time as a refugee and the welcome he was given, first in England and then in the United States. He spoke of what the experience taught him about caring for those who had no one to care for them and then quoted Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.”
Immediately after the apostles asked Jesus to “Increase our faith!” they enter a village where there are 10 lepers who cry, “Have mercy on us!” Luke shifts the subject of the story from the 12 who formed his inner circle to 10 who were not just on the margins, but completely cast out. The conventional wisdom of the time was that diseases of the body were a manifestation of a disease of the spirit. Those with leprosy not only had to endure being ostracized from society but were also required to shout, “unclean, unclean” when others approached.
This is often interpreted to be a story about gratitude – the only leper who returns to offer thanks is the Samaritan – and it is that. But it is also a story about inclusion. Not only did Jesus restore all ten of the lepers, he also did so without asking them for anything. They did not have to repent of their sins, they did not have to profess their faith, they did not even have to accept Jesus. He simply told them to go show themselves to the priest and as they went, they were made clean. Jesus did not expect any reciprocity.
What about the Samaritan? He had two strikes against him: he was a leper and a Samaritan; someone who was by definition inferior. When you think about it, why would he go to the priest, why would he show himself to a leader of those who excluded him? It was probably because he was an outsider that he understood who Jesus was more than the other nine. Because of that, he was not just made clean, he was made well.
Here is verse three of Scotsman John Bell’s hymn, “The Summons.”
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?