October 9, 2016 – Proper 23 (Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost)
September 8, 2016 | by David J. Lull
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Jeremiah 29:1 & 4-7||Psalm 66:1-12||2 Timothy 2:8-15||Luke 17:11-19||2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c||Psalm 111|
Our world has too many refugees and exiles, yearning to be free and restored to wholeness. With them, we also yearn for a world without refugees, exiles, and deportees. Today’s lectionary readings invite reflections on hope and faith in the face of suffering. [This commentary is an improved (corrected!) version of my 2013 online P&F lectionary commentary.]
Fallacies of belief in an omnipotent God who causes all events, including exile and captivity at the hands of imperial powers, are as relevant to this week’s readings as they were to last week’s readings. See my commentary for last week.
(Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are adapted from the NRSV.)
Jeremiah 29:1 & 4-7
Our world has had too many (literal and figurative) refugees: in Sri Lanka and Europe, and in the U.S. from Texas to Ohio and Mississippi to North Carolina; victims of senseless violence, HIV/AIDS, hunger, of floods, a rigged economic system, of imperialism, foreign occupation, and settler colonialism, of deportations, and of anti-LGBTQI bias. As I write, refugee-producing events occur every day, and some days there are multiple events. We no sooner “get back to normal” after one such event than another one occurs!
What does Jeremiah say to the exiled Judeans? Jeremiah opposed the royal establishment—kings, priests, and prophets—the people who supported them, and their theology. Because they believed that God made an unconditional promise to Judah’s king, they believed that a rebellion would liberate them from Babylonian captivity. The Judeans believed false prophets who led them to take events in their own hands, instead of relying of God, in the false hope of cutting short their Babylonian captivity.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, believed in a stern God, who punished the king, priests, prophets, and the people by keeping them exiled in Babylon for as long as God determined (“seventy years,” according to 29.10). Chapter 29 is Jeremiah’s letter to the exile community. The once urban elites must now settle down for a long, modest life of farming in a foreign land (v. 5). They must pray for Babylon’s welfare, because their welfare was dependent on Babylon’s welfare (v. 7). Disobedience to God’s commandments had concrete, empirical consequences. Jeremiah interpreted those consequences—Babylonian captivity (586/587 BCE)—as God’s punishment. The lectionary stops short of Jeremiah’s political description of their salvation: God will see that, in due time, they return in freedom to the land that God gave their ancestors (vv. 10-14).
Not all refugees, exiles, and deportees are victims of consequences from their own sins. Many suffer the consequences of the sins of those who sinned against them! Jeremiah’s God is a stern punishing God, whose punishment affected not only the unfaithful leaders of Judah and their followers, but also those who were sinned against! Jeremiah’s God is a stern punisher of unjust leaders whose actions show their lack of faith in God and those who allowed the elite leaders to deceive them. But we should not throw a blanket of judgment and divine punishment over all refugees and exiles everywhere.
Jeremiah’s requirement that the exiled Judeans must live peaceably with the Babylonians and, indeed, pray for their welfare sounds like a puzzling word of God (v. 4: “Thus says the LORD of hosts”)! Remember, though, that Jeremiah (or someone in his name) wrote this letter after the Judeans’ disastrous rebellion in an attempt to free them from captivity. Jeremiah’s counsel is that it would have been far better had they lived peaceably and trusted God to find a better way to liberate them and return them to their ancestral land. That is precisely what happened when the Cyrus, the king of the Persian Empire (roughly today’s Iran!), defeated the Babylonians (roughly today’s Iraq!) and allowed the Judeans to return to their land and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Because history proved Jeremiah was right, he, and not the false prophets, has a place in Israel’s sacred writings.
Here too we need to be careful to point out that Jeremiah’s advice to refugees and exiles is situation-specific. It is wrong to use it to keep women and children in abusive relationships! It is wrong to use it to discourage civil disobedience! It is wrong to use it to counsel accepting conditions that create suffering. It is, however, worth considering whether its counsel against violent action is wise in certain, perhaps most, circumstances. For example, how is violence helping the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territories? What if people around the world followed Jeremiah’s counsel, combined with those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Jeremiah’s word from God is not only relevant to Judean and other exiles. It is primarily relevant to the elite establishment in any country. If refugees and exiles are supposed to live peaceably in foreign lands, and if they are to pray for the welfare of their captors and occupiers, the latter have a reciprocal obligation to care for the welfare of refugees and in their lands.
In addition, Jeremiah 29 is a warning to any nation that thinks it is “exceptional.” Thinking that God “blesses” the U.S. and makes it “exceptional” among the world’s nations is a modern form of the royal theology that Jeremiah opposed. Under a false belief in “American exceptionalism,” the U.S. military and corporations have cooperated in making sure oil reserves beneath Middle Eastern sands flow to U.S. and other NATO countries (in competition with Russia and China). In pursuit of those U.S. national interests—which the U.S. promotes as global interests—the U.S. and other NATO powers have had to engage in multiple wars in the region, of which there seems to be no end. A similar scenario applies to U.S. military presence in Africa and the Pacific (from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea to the Philippines). Jeremiah is a warning primarily against national elitism and imperialism, and their consequences.
Finally, Jeremiah’s promise that God will return ancient Judeans to the land of their ancestors is part of a narrative that is having tragic consequences in modern Middle East geopolitics today. On the one hand, at least since the beginnings of Zionism in the late 19th century, Jews and Christians have tried to make Jeremiah’s promise come true for modern Jews on the grounds of their “right of return.” With the help of the British, French, and, especially, the U.S., Jews have succeeded in making Jeremiah’s promise come true in the form of the modern state of Israel. On the other hand, Israel’s superior military and economic power, paid by U.S. taxpayers, has forced many Palestinians into exile and has held the rest in captivity in their own land under Israeli occupation. For too long, too many Christians have falsely applied Jeremiah’s promise, which he meant for particular ancient Judeans under specific historical circumstances, exclusively to the modern state of Israel. The modern state of Israel, and its patron, the U.S., need to heed Jeremiah’s warning against losing faith in God and turning to faith in military and economic power. The Palestinians, for their part, might do well to consider the wisdom of Jeremiah’s nonviolent alternative. The violent option is not turning out well for them any more than it did for the ancient Judean exiles. No “Persian king” has appeared as the Palestinians’ savior. The state of Israel has a powerful one in the U.S.
Most, if not all, of what I wrote about Jeremiah 29 applies to this psalm. Instead of repeating myself, I will address three other issues. Contrary to first impressions, they are related to Jeremiah’s issues.
(1) The NRSV translation committee made a decision to deal with grammatical gender as related to people. However, did not address the issue of gender related to God. As a result, the psalms are overwhelmingly loaded with masculine pronouns. Here is an adaptation of the NRSV with a genderless God (the italics identify my changes): Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; 2 sing the glory of God’s name; give to God glorious praise. 3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. 4 All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Selah 5 Come and see what God has done: God’s are awesome among mortals. 6 God turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in God, 7 whose might rules forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations—let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah 8 Bless our God, O peoples; loudly praise God, 9 who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. 10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. 11 You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; 12 you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
Masculine language for God “exiles” many women and girls from a loving relationship with God. None of the standard English translations used in our churches, including the most recent Common English Bible, has done anything about that. It is up to those who lead worship and conduct Bible studies to amend the text. Do not let the translations hold the people in captivity; rather, peaceably resist with inclusive, expansive revisions!
(2) As is often the case, the lectionary left out the essential end of the psalm. After a communal praise song in vv. 1-12, the psalm continues in vv. 13-20 with an individual’s song of praise. The latter names deeds that will make praising God real, concrete, and empirical. Praise with words alone has limited value. Praise songs won’t keep; something must be done with them (to paraphrase one of my favorite Whitehead sayings).
It is also worth noting that praise and thanksgiving are appropriate at times of “trouble” (v. 14). Deliverance might seem to be a more appropriate time for such songs. However, times of “trouble” are occasions when it would be easy to lose faith. Singing songs of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness can strengthen the sense of God’s empathetic and providential presence in times of “trouble.”
(3) Verse 6 alludes to two events of deliverance: one, “God turned the sea into dry land,” alludes to the story of the Exodus; the other, “they passed through the river on foot,” alludes to return from exile across the Jordan to Judah. Some interpreters propose that the latter alludes to the post-exodus crossing of the Jordan into Canaan. Marti Steussy, however, argues that almost the exact same wording of a double description of crossing the sea and river in Isaiah 11.15 alludes to the Exodus and the return from Babylonian captivity to Judah (Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today, 142).
2 Timothy 2:8-15
This section of the letter offers encouragement to endure suffering hardship or misfortune. The first word, “remember,” reveals the foundation for this endurance. It is not just a matter of recalling something about Jesus Christ—God raised Jesus from the dead, so he must have died; and he was a Jewish Messiah in the tradition of Israel’s King David. Even that would be useful to those who suffer misfortune. They could remember that someone as exalted as the Messiah also suffered misfortune. Say to them, “You are in good company! Be proud!”
But there is more: They are not suffering alone—they are suffering with Christ Jesus (“if we have died with him”). The act of remembering calls attention to the presence of the one remembered (compare 1 Cor 11.24-25 and Lk 22.19). Christ Jesus is with them in their suffering, as their companion and comforter. In addition, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so that he lives again, so also those who suffer will “live with him” in “eternal glory.”
Teaching those who suffer that they must endure it has been abused, with tragic results. For slaves and women or children in an abusive relationship, endurance does not mean “putting up” with their suffering and misfortune! It means doing what they have to do to survive and, if possible, to get free from the abuse! (See 1 Cor 7.21 in the RSV, NIV, NET, CEB, and the NRSV note.)
The counsel to endure suffering is not about any and all suffering! This text’s two qualifications of the suffering to be endured are significant. The focus is on suffering hardships or misfortune for the sake of the gospel and God’s beloved (“the elect” or “chosen ones”). Think of it as an answer to the question, “What, if anything, are you committed to living and dying for?” Is it amassing wealth, fame, or popularity? Is it your country? Is it the gospel and God’s beloved people?
The word “remember” also implies that those who suffer hardships (e.g., poverty, ridicule, martyrdom) for the gospel should imitate Jesus Christ. Jesus remained faithful to God’s good news for the poor and all who were marginalized and oppressed. He endured hardships and misfortune, even to the point of dying for others. He remains faithful even when those for whom he died are unfaithful (v. 13). “Remember Jesus Christ” implies, “Go and do likewise!”
What price are you willing and able to pay for the sake of God’s beloved people—the poor, people of color, the uninsured, minimum wage workers, LGBTQI persons, Palestinians … you name them? How far are you willing and able to remain faithful to the gospel among people who are “unfaithful”—those who commit crimes, those whose behavior is legal but immoral, in your view, and those whose politics are, in your view, unfaithful to the gospel?
This task is not for everyone! It requires the strength and training of soldiers and athletes (vv. 1-5). It is for those who are willing and able to work hard, like a farmer (v. 6).
The summary of the gospel in v. 8—“Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (compare Rom 1.3-4)—includes nothing from Jesus’ earthly life, not even his death, except by implication (“raised from the dead” in v. 8 and “if we have died with him” in v. 11). His resurrection and his Davidic lineage are all that qualify him to be the Jewish Messiah. What is the connection between resurrection and a messiah like King David? By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus is a royal Messiah who “rules” (v. 12) like King David. Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled God’s promise to preserve Davidic royal rule forever (e.g., see Psa 132.11-12; Isa 9.7; 2 Chron 6.16). However, the expectation that a Davidic Messiah would restore Israel as a sovereign nation by defeating Israel’s gentile enemies is not in view here. What is in view is that Jesus, as the Davidic Messiah, “governs” the world.
The Roman Catholic lectionary stops at v. 13, because vv. 14-15 belong to the next section of the letter. I can’t figure out why the RCL includes them but not the rest of that section (vv. 14-19). You could leave them out, with no harm done. Or you could explain how they introduce the next step of laying out the concrete, behavioral forms of remaining faithful to the gospel. Verses 14-15 are general enough that you could fill in examples of your own, or mention the examples in vv. 16-19 (and vv. 20-26).
11 Now, as Jesus was going to Jerusalem and he was going through the area between Samaria and Galilee, 12 and when he entered a certain village, ten men with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and raised their voices, saying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 And when Jesus saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Then, as they were going away, they were made clean. 15 But one of them, because he saw that he was healed, turned back to praise God with a loud voice 16 and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet to thank him. (Now, he was a Samaritan!) 17 In response, Jesus said, “Ten were made clean, weren’t they? But where are the other nine? 18 None, except this foreigner, were found to return in order to give praise to God, were they?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Rise and go. Your faith has saved you.” [This is my translation. I had the most trouble interpreting and translating v. 19. Please bear with me as I work up to it!]
The story begins with three allusions to important Lukan themes:
First, this story is part of Jesus’ fate-filled “journey to Jerusalem” (v. 11a echoes 9.51, 53; 13.22; and anticipates 18.31; 19.11 and 28). That puts it in the context of Jesus’ teachings, primarily to his disciples, about his faithfulness in the face of opposition, even to the point of death.
Second, the itinerary in v. 11b is baffling. Jesus should not be going east or west, but south; not, however, from Samaria to Galilee, which is to the north, but from Samaria to Judea. The Gospel author, writing 50 or more years later somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor, might be excused for seeming to be directionally challenged or cartographically confused. However, a more likely explanation is that these geographic details are important theological allusions: namely, to the prominence of Samaritan converts to Jesus’ Galilean movement. Jesus’ good news of “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (24.47). Jesus’ disciples were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8).
Third, in v. 12, the noun form of the Greek verb ἀπήντησαν (apēntēsan, from ἀπαντάω, apantaō) in “ten lepers met him” refers to the “meeting” with the risen Jesus as early as the pre-Pauline description in 1 Thess 4.17 (the noun form is ἀπάντησις, apantēsis), which is the same term for the “meeting” with the “bridegroom” in Mt 25.6 and the large crowd’s “meeting” with Jesus as he entered Jerusalem in John 12.13 (which has the variant ὑπάντησις, hypantēsis). In other words, the verb in Lk 17.12 alludes to an encounter with the risen Jesus, the promised Messiah, who is full of divine power to heal.
Now let’s explore the rest of this story.
All ten lepers called Jesus their “master” (v. 13), implying that they all considered Jesus their social superior and a person with power. [The Greek word ἐπιστάτης (epistatēs) in v. 13 occurs in the New Testament only in Luke where, except here, it is on the lips of Jesus’ disciples. The parallel passages in Mark and Matthew that have an epithet have “Lord” (kyrie), “teacher” (didaskale), or “rabbi.” Although some nonbiblical Greek texts use epistatēs for a teacher or tutor, its more common use is for someone who has power, like an administrator or commander (compare LSJ ἐπιστατεία [epistateia] II and III and François Bovon, Luke, Hermeneia, 2.503). All of the passages where this epithet occurs in Luke depict Jesus as a person with divine power (5.5, 8.24 and 45, 9.49, and 17.13) or as a divine figure in the company of Moses and Elijah, who also are depicted as divine figures (9.33).]
All ten lepers petition Jesus in language that is typical of prayers to God and is common in healing stories in the Gospels: “have mercy on us” (v. 13). That implicitly attributes to all ten a belief that God’s power was at work in Jesus, that Jesus would have compassion on them and use his God-given power to heal them, and that God would listen to Jesus’ petition on their behalf.
All ten lepers were “made clean” (vv. 14 and 17) after they obeyed Jesus command to “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (v. 14). Note the sequence: a request for healing, then a command to go, then obedience, then the healing occurs “as they were going.” The point is that healing occurs in response to a pious request and an act of obedience, both of which might be considered “works”; certainly they are deeds. Although there is no indication that they were considered meritorious, they do have a role in the healing, even if the ultimate role was God’s or Jesus’ (see below).
We don’t know whether any of the lepers showed themselves “to the priests.” It only says that they all were cured as they went, went along, or were going (RSV, NIV, NRSV, NAB, and NET), or as they left (CEB), so that we could assume they were going to look for priests, perhaps in the temple in Jerusalem. Whether any of them did that, we are not told. Maybe some did, maybe all did, maybe none did. What we do know is that one of them, “… because he saw that he was healed, turned back…” (v. 15). That implies that this healed leper turned back before reaching the (temple) priests. Finally, v. 14 does not expect that any of them should return to Jesus. We are left with the assumption that showing themselves to the priests would be a sufficient way to verify their purification and to praise God (compare vv. 15 and 18).
This is puzzling! Are we supposed to assume that the other nine, somehow, did not see that they had been healed, that they continued to the priests in order to obey all that Jesus commanded, and that they expected the priests to heal them? The narrative gap invites speculation, and these are plausible assumptions. Nevertheless, it is better to honor the gap with silence, or at least a great deal of suspicion that any assumptions might be way off!
All ten lepers were “made clean” after they left Jesus (v. 14), so that it is unclear how they were “made clean” and who healed them. What did Jesus do to make them “clean”? Or did God make them “clean”? For example, are we to assume that Jesus lifted up their petition for mercy to God in prayer, because God would listen to him but not to the lepers, because their leprosy made them impure? The primacy of God’s role is implied by the expectation that they all should “praise God” (v. 18). The one leper’s act of thanking Jesus (v. 16) acknowledges Jesus’ role in their becoming “clean.”
There is something of a consensus that vv. 11-14 are a self-contained, complete healing story, showing Jesus to be an agent of God’s healing power, and that vv. 15-19 are a later addition, switching to the remarkable faith of the Samaritan, a “foreigner,” in contrast to that of the Judean lepers. Let’s closely at these two stories.
Verses 11-14 tell a story about Jesus’ cleansing or purification of lepers. Almost all cultures, from ancient times to the present, have considered lepers (people with a variety of skin diseases) “unclean.” Their status as “unclean” is both physical and social. Most people think they physically contaminate communities of otherwise healthy people. Some skin diseases are communicable or contagious. At the physical level, healers or physicians can cure “lepers.”
Whether we are supposed to think that is what Jesus does in this story is not clear, because the story leaves out such things as descriptions of Jesus’ curative technique and of the lepers’ cure, such as washing in the Jordan River, which produces clean, healthy skin (compare 2 Kings 5.1-18). The language about “cleansing/purifying” also suggests that the story has to do with restoring social outcasts to inclusion in the community. Jesus’ instruction to “show yourselves to the priests” is not just about verifying their physical cure and giving thanks and praise to God (see Lev 13.19 and 14.1-11; and Lk 5.14). It is also about initiating a process of incorporating them back into the community.
In vv. 11-14, we are not told anything about the identity of the lepers. In v. 16, we learn that one is a Samaritan, but we don’t learn that he is an exception until v. 18, where we also are told that he is a “foreigner” (ἀλλογενής, allogenēs, a term found in the NT only here). The implication is that the others are not “foreigners,” so that we are supposed to assume that they are Galileans or Judeans.
That introduces an oddity absent in the earlier (layer of the) story. A Samaritan would not be instructed to go to the temple in Jerusalem, let alone Judean priests! Verses 15-19, therefore, presuppose a situation in which Samaritans have already become part of the Jesus movement.
In vv. 15-19, what makes the faith of the Samaritan leper, a “foreigner,” remarkable in contrast to that of the other lepers? If we are supposed to assume they showed Judean priests their restored purity and presented thank offerings to God, which is a fair way to fill in the narrative gap in vv. 11-14, they would have fulfilled all that Jesus commanded. It seems that the Samaritan’s faith is remarkable because, in addition to praising God (v. 15), he demonstrated devotion to Jesus as a person worthy of worship, represented by his prostration at Jesus’ feet (v. 16), and he thanked Jesus, which are appropriate responses to Jesus’ role in healing him. Verse 18 implies that, if the other lepers went to the priests and gave God praise, that was not enough, in spite of Jesus’ command in v. 14. Verse 18 adds a new expectation: They were supposed to return to Jesus and give God praise (again). It is not enough to give God praise in the presence of Judean priests—they also should show the same devotion to God-present-in-Jesus that the Samaritan showed (v. 16). The author of this Gospel and the book of Acts was keen to show that many more Samaritans (and other “foreigners”/gentiles) than Judeans turned to acknowledge the presence of God in Jesus.
It seems that this later addition to the story of the lepers is about the Samaritan’s exemplary “faith.” However, here too we see a shift from the earlier (part of the) story. The request for healing implies faith in Jesus as a healer, a faith attributed to all ten lepers (v. 13). The same faith is implied when all ten lepers obeyed Jesus’ command (v. 14). If the Samaritan’s faith made him well (v. 19 in the RSV, NIV, and NRSV), the same faith also must have made all the others well, for all were “made clean” (v. 14). Again, this is puzzling.
Another translation of the verb in v. 19 (σῴζω, sōzō) is “your faith has saved you” (NAB). That suggests that this part of the story is about a representative “foreigner” (gentile) who is not just healed but also saved (in an eschatological sense, saved from divine judgment) through faith. That rephrases the puzzle: Why doesn’t the faith implicitly attributed to all ten lepers (v. 13), which led to their healing, also lead to the salvation of the other nine?
We might find a clue in a contrast with other passages in which the same verb is used in the saying “your faith has healed you/made you well/saved you.” In Lk 7.50, where the context is the salvation of a sinful woman, all translations translate the verb as “saved.” In all the other passages, the context is a healing story. In Mk 5.34 (par. Mt 9.22 and Lk 8.48), where “a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” touches the hem of Jesus garment and is healed, and Mk 10.52, where Jesus heals “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar,” all but the NAB (which has “saved”) translate the verb as “made well” or “healed.” In Lk 18.42, where Jesus heals a blind beggar, the RSV, NIV, NET, and CEB translate the verb as “made well” or “healed,” but the NRSV (inexplicably, because this is a parallel to Mk 10.52) and NAB translate it as “saved.”
Based on this usage of this verb in the context of healing stories, it should be translated in Lk 17.19 as “your faith has healed you/made you well.” To smooth over the narrative difficulty that this leper and the other nine were already “made clean” before the Samaritan leper turned back, praised God, and thanked Jesus, interpreters make distinctions between being “made clean” (purified) and being “saved,” and between faith in Jesus as a healer and faith in Jesus as the Savior. Some support these distinctions by interpreting the act of returning as repentance or conversion. The Greek verb in vv. 15 and 18 is ὑποστρέφω (hypostrephō). This verb appears only in Luke and Acts, where it never refers to repentance or conversion; rather, it refers to “turning back” to a person or physical location (for v. 15, see the KJV, NAS, RSV, NIV, and NRSV; and for vv. 15 and 19, see the NET). Where it does refer to the act of returning to something like an existential state, it describes the impossibility of the risen Jesus’ returning to a state of “corruption” (Acts 13.34) and what we might call “backsliding” (2 Pet 2.21)!
Clearly, vv. 11-19 depict two events, of which the first is unambiguously about healing the lepers (vv. 11-14). The second is more difficult to describe, because it cannot be a re-do of the healing and because the vocabulary doesn’t fit repentance or conversion. I’ve suspected a solution to this puzzle all along but I’ve only just now discovered how to make sense of it. The most amazing thing is that the clue is in a translation issue concerning a Greek participle!
In all translations of v. 15, we find “prais-ing” or “glorify-ing for the present participle δοξάζων (doxazōn), which implies an action contemporaneous with the action of the main verb: “he turned back as he was praising God.” However, all Greek participles are “temporal,” so that we have to ask whether a more specific temporal nuance fits. It makes better sense to translate this participle, and the present participle εὐχαριστῶν (eucharistōn) in v. 16, as referring to the purpose of the main verbs in vv. 15-16: “Then one of them, because he saw that he was healed, turned back to praise God with a loud voice, and so he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet to thank him [i.e., Jesus]. Now, he was a Samaritan!” [Compare the Greek infinitive phrase δοῦναι δόξαν (dounai doxan) in v. 18 (my translation): “None, except this foreigner, were found to return in order to give praise to God, were they?”]
What this translation shows is that the Samaritan leper turned back in order to praise God, which he did when he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. The faith that saved him is the faith that acknowledges Jesus’ deity. This is one of the earliest descriptions of Jesus’ followers acknowledging Jesus’ deity. And it is done, not by a Judean, but by a Samaritan!
We need to be careful not to overstate what that means. It does not mean that the other nine lepers—representing Judeans—were not “saved.” All ten were “made clean” after they addressed Jesus as a man of power (“Master,” epistatēs) and asked him for mercy, implying they believed he possessed divine power, or even that he was God or a god. The difference is simply that only the Samaritan professed explicitly the faith they all implied at the beginning of the story. Verse 19 does not undo vv. 11-14. They would still be “made clean” and welcomed back into the covenant community. Also, v. 19 does not say they wouldn’t or couldn’t “be saved” by faith.
Perhaps 17.19 alludes to “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (24.47), including to this Samaritan, “a foreigner” (17.18). Nevertheless, sin plays no role in vv. 11-14. Nor does v. 19 refer to being “saved” by (in, with, or through) Jesus’ death. Jesus’ “journey to Jerusalem” (v. 11) is about Jesus’ destiny in the tradition of the prophets executed in Jerusalem (13.33-34 and 18.31; compare 9.51 and 13.26). Jesus’ execution in Jerusalem is about his departure (ἔξοδος, “exodus,” 9.31), ascension (ἀνάλημψις, analēmpsis, 9.51), and his entry “into glory” (24.26).
One obvious contemporary “application” of the first, original story (vv. 11-14) is to healthcare in the U.S. Jesus’ healing stories make universal healthcare one of the church’s mission priorities! This story about the cleansing of lepers also calls the church to speak out against the shameful underfunding of care for the mentally ill and the still widespread social marginalization of people suffering from mental illnesses. The Christian, especially Protestant, emphasis, almost exclusively, on forgiveness of sins and justification overlooks how many Gospel stories are about “salvation” in the social, economic, material, physical, empirical realities of this daily life on earth!
A contemporary “application” of the second, later story (vv. 15-19) is to Christian understandings of other religious traditions. For example, here is an opportunity for Christians to jettison the age-old mistaken belief that Judaism is about self-righteousness and works-righteousness, whereas Christianity is about righteousness by faith. We can imagine, beyond the limits of this narrative, that Judeans, no less than Samaritans, were “saved by faith.” In any case, v. 19 does not undo the fact that the other nine lepers expressed faith in Jesus as a healer, faithfully obeyed his commands, and consequently were “made clean” while they were going to the priests.
The Samaritan was a “foreigner”—that is, not a Judean—who traditionally would have worshipped Israel’s God, not in Jerusalem, but in the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that they preserved the original Abrahamic religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian exile. From the perspective of most Judeans, a Samaritan was an apostate.
Here also is an opportunity to reflect on multiple paths to “salvation” in the original tribes that made up Israel and Judah (northern and southern kingdoms). Even within Christian traditions, we have multiple paths to “salvation” and correspondingly diverse understandings of “salvation.” Largely under the influence of the Pauline letters, Christian understandings of “salvation” in the west focused on Jesus’ death as the event in-with-through which God forgave humanity’s sins and, thereby, “justified” sinners, or made them “righteous.” Today’s story, however, like many others in the Gospels, is about “salvation” in the social, economic, material, physical, empirical realities of this daily life on earth! In the ancient pagan and Jewish world, diseases were a sign of divine punishment for a person’s sins. There is no hint of that view in this story. If there is any clue about causes of skin diseases here, it is in Jesus’ title “master” or “commander” (epistatēs). Impure spirits in the lepers’ skin were made to depart by a superior power in Jesus. Of course, I am speculating, in the absence of a fuller account of the cleansing process. The title “commander” is all the text gives us. What is clear, however, is that the story gives no hint that the lepers’ sins are the issue. Their salvation is palpable: their skin is cleansed of leprosy, their purity is restored, and they are reincorporated into the community.
If Christian traditions speak of multiple paths to “salvation” and correspondingly diverse understandings of “salvation,” how much more diverse are the “salvations” and paths in the world’s religions! Scholars like John Hick argue that the world’s religions are like multiple paths up a single mountain. A view, like John Cobb’s, that focuses on the differences among religious traditions preserves and honors their distinctive particularities. An appreciation for multiple paths up multiple mountains opens up richer possibilities of mutual respect and creative transformation!
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock); and, with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). In 2010, he published a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” (Religious Studies Review 36/4: 251-62).