Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 17:11-19
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This the prophet Jeremiah writes from Judah to his fellow Jews who are in exile in Babylon. They’ve been forcibly uprooted from their homes. They are many miles away. They are separated from their culture, their temple and geographical heart of their faith, they are separated from people they love – family members and sweethearts. They are hostages in a place where they do not speak the language. They have no realistic hope of going home during their lifetime. Perhaps it will happen to their children. And if their children do get to go back to Jerusalem, what? Their businesses will be gone, family members dead, homes inhabited by someone else. Will their grown kids know Hebrew, or worship God, having grown up abroad? Jeremiah tells them to live fully there, to have family, to create new generations. He tells them to live. Don’t live as exiles to the extent you don’t have to. Abide by their rules, because you must, but then just live. I have a friend who’s struggling with cancer. She is treating it aggressively, with as full an onslaught of medical therapies as possible, but she’s not living with cancer. She’s just living, doing the same things she had planned to do before this recurrence of her disease. Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon, “Do whatever you have to do to survive this, and live. Meanwhile, live and love as fully and comprehensively as if you were with us here in Jerusalem.”
And then he tells them more. They shouldn’t just expand their families and live, they should proactively promote the welfare of the Babylonians who have them captive. They should help them out. They should pray for God to bless them. The hostages in Babylon are told to make their captivity into a time of spiritual discipline, and in that, a time of showing true mercy to all around them, even their captors, even their neighbors who don’t support their captivity, or who just can’t be bothered to care. Why? Because the oppression of the Jews is justified and the Babylonians should be rewarded for it? Because the Jews should have gratitude for being their hostages? No. Because the Jews welfare was intimately bound up with that of their captors. In every society, the welfare of every last person around us is bound up in our own. We can’t really thrive until every last person around us can really thrive. “Seek the welfare of Central New Jersey, where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Seek the welfare of Princeton Borough and Township. Seek the welfare of Princeton University. I hope very much that you do not feel exiled to these places – on the contrary, I hope you feel affirmed, free, and fully alive. I hope this is exactly where you want to be. No matter how you feel or where you are, seek the welfare of the community around you, for its welfare is intimately tied up with your own.
Perhaps you have something in common with the Judeans in Babylon – you may not be in exile, but like them you know yourself to be other. You may be other because of the way you think or what you look like, the culture you come from, your language, something about your identity or the things you believe. I think that there are things that have made almost every person feel other at some point in their life. Some of us live with it continually, some of us just once or sporadically. I am grateful to my parents for moving our family to Hong Kong when I was four. We lived there for three years. At the time, my father was a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong Medical School. It wasn’t always easy for me to be different. The overwhelming majority of people in that, the most densely populated place on earth, are Chinese, and what white people were there in the mid-late sixties were from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. I remember holding my mother’s hand as we walked through open air markets teeming with people. The walkway was covered with blood, entrails, chicken feathers, hog stubble and human spit. To my left and right the stalls had huge pigs and cows hung by their jaw bones from massive picks. They’d been skinned and entirely gutted, a long slit down the length of the gaping body. I could have fit inside the carcass. The smells, the language, everything was different. Actually, it was I who was different, and stared at. I am now, as I’ve said, grateful for that experience. Jeremiah tells us that especially when we know ourselves to be other, different, it is time for special spiritual discipline, for showing mercy to others, and for seeking their welfare. It is our otherness that may give us the capacity to do so.
Jesus is walking down a road in a religiously mixed region, along the border of Samaria (home of Samaritans) and Galilee (home of Jews like himself). Ten lepers are appropriately keeping their distance, but Jesus’ reputation must have spread even to this mixed area, because they call on him to have mercy on them. They are other. Their disease sets them apart not just emotionally but physically, including from those they love most. Everything about their old lives is over. Jesus can heal them and so, of course, he does. He tells them to go show themselves to the priests, the men who can give them a “clean skin, no disease” certificate whereby they can be restored as much as possible to their former lives. They go happily, but one turns around to thank him. “And he was a Samaritan,” says Luke. This guy couldn’t go show himself to the priests; they’d have thrown his defiling presence out of the synagogue. Is that why he turned back to say thank you? He had nowhere else to go anyway at the moment? How about those other guys? They must have had a lot to get back to, once they had their certificates of cleanliness in hand. One was hoping his job in engineering would still be waiting for him. Another drove a truck. One raised organic produce. One worked in retail down at the mall. Another taught at a university and had certainly had missed many departmental events in the meantime. There were wives and girlfriends to get back to. There was a lot of explaining to do – “don’t worry, I’m healthy now, I can’t give the disease to you. I know no one’s ever been healed of it before; it doesn’t just go away, but everything you may have heard about Jesus from Nazareth is true. We were all suddenly healed. If I can find the other guys again you can ask them. Don’t worry, I can’t give you the disease!” These men were healed of their otherness and they promptly forgot what it had taught them, if anything. They were back to the status quo, to the comfort of being in the majority. If their otherness had taught them mercy or gratitude it was gone at the moment of restoration. When we are healed of disease or trauma, who wants to look back? It was awful. It was terrifying, wondering if this would be our end. We never want to be that vulnerable again. We don’t want to think about it. Sometimes we forget to say thank you, when it is over.
Ten lepers were healed, but one was saved. His leprosy was gone but he was still other, he was still a Samaritan, a minority who knew plenty of discrimination. He couldn’t go back to a life on cruise control. His otherness gave him the ability to truly encounter Christ the Messiah, not simply Jesus the Miracle Worker. The others went home and told folks to go check out Jesus, he could heal your acne, your cleft palate, your club foot, your depression. People did line up for healing. The Samaritan was saved, and he was never the same again. He now has, as Jesus says, “faith.” The nine others get their jobs back.
This story of the lepers has been interpreted through the centuries as a story about gratitude – gratitude to God and Christ for all they have done for us. I think that this interpretation is right on. But the subject of the gratitude has been the leper’s healing, and I think that’s only the first part of the lesson. The next part is gratitude for what our otherness can teach us, for the ways, as with the Samaritan, that it can be the key to our salvation. Otherness can be our way to wakefulness, to mindfulness; it can be the position from which we gain clarity about situations, the position from which we learn to show mercy, the position from which we can seek the welfare of the place where we know we are other and pray to God on its behalf. It’s the place from which we understand that our welfare truly is bound up in that of those around us, no matter how different they may be, and that we thrive or flounder or fail together. Our spiritual senses are not dulled by familiarity. Edgy, aware, we can be truer disciples in the world, more attuned to the welfare of those around us, to the ways in which their otherness calls us to acts of justice, mercy and love. We must always be grateful for blessings, but also for otherness, the gift that may not always be comfortable, especially if others are cruel (for which there is no excuse). But our otherness can indeed be a portal to a fuller life in the world and a fuller life in God. Gratitude, in our Lukan passage, isn’t responsible for healing (that is the love and mercy of Christ). Gratitude is responsible for the Samaritan leper’s salvation.
If, in all of this, I’ve made otherness too blithely easy, acceptable, forgive me. You know from your own experience what the ramifications upon a human life can be. What I want to say is that our otherness is understood and validated by God, who made us proudly who we are, and that God invites us at all times – first, to reach out to the otherness of those around us, no matter how different their circumstances, and second, to know our otherness not as our handicap but as our portal to a life of deepened faithfulness and service. None of this comes cheaply. Just ask the hostages in Babylon, to whom the prophet said, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Joseph Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).
Fred Craddock, Luke (Interpretation Series), WJKP, 1990.
R. E. Clements, Jeremiah (Interpretation Series), Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.