On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then 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.” -Luke 17:11-19
Happy Thanksgiving weekend. This year, our lectionary reminds us of the story of ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, but just one who returned to say thank you. Contrary to popular interpretation, the focus of this story is not so much on the importance of being grateful (the obligatory message), but rather on the breathtaking, indiscriminate grace of God that, when realized, becomes the deepest source of one’s thanksgiving.
The key that Luke gives us to unlocking the powerful message of this story is found in his description of the returning leper – a single phrase that would have been utterly unmissable for Luke’s original first-century Palestinian audience: “And he was a Samaritan.”
Luke tells us that this story takes place in “the region between Samaria and Galilee,” which, given the particular geographic and ethnic settlements of those days, suggests that this socially ostracized colony of ten lepers is likely a mix of both Jews and Samaritans. The significant historical framework here is that there existed a deep-seated social and religious enmity between Jews and Samaritans in those days. And so, in spite of the fact that these ten lepers chose to set their differences aside and band together on the outskirts of society, the Samaritan in the group (of which we know of only one) would never – not in a million years – have expected to be the beneficiary of a Jewish Rabbi’s (Jesus) benevolence. Herein lies the true miracle of this story: The Samaritan gets the same gift that everyone else does. It is this unexpected and unmerited grace that drives him to his knees in thanksgiving.
Over and over again in his Gospel, Luke drives home the point that, in Christ, there are no outsiders. Luke demonstrates this truth through stories that focus on Jesus’ interactions with those who exist on the margins of society – prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, the poor, lepers, Samaritans, the lost, etc. When we consider the extent to which the New Testament bears witness to this truth, we start to realize that the grace of God is most powerfully experienced and appreciated in the absence of the illusion of merit. The reality of our human condition is that none of us have ever earned the love and acceptance of God – not through good works, or right affiliations, or even religious fervor or practice. God’s love and grace in our lives (and the lives of everyone else – both friend and enemy) is completely and utterly unmerited and free. To entertain the wonder of this mystery is to begin the journey toward true praise and thanksgiving.