“It felt like I was in a scene from The Sopranos,” author Andrew Root writes about an unusual “prayer meeting” he experienced in a shady, off-site parking lot at the Newark airport. Back from a trip, he waited with his wife Kara and infant son for their shuttle driver. When he finally arrived, the driver was flustered, saying he’d been working twenty-two hours straight, exploited by a boss who paid little while constantly threatening to fire him. Soon, further details came out: a recovering addict, the driver had been clean for months but always tempted. If he lost this job, he’d not only violate his parole but lose the chance of seeing his children, who’d been removed due to the addictions. “He was a broken man,” Root writes.
At their parking lot, Root told the man they would pray for him. “I almost couldn’t believe the words were coming from my mouth; ”Root writes, “they felt so trite in the shadow of his story…” But the man said, “Will you pray for me right now?” So, back outside, they joined hands together, and “in a godforsaken parking lot a stone’s throw from the New Jersey turnpike, we prayed for our driver,” who they now knew as a person with a name, Mike. As Root describes it, as they prayed, they shared in each other’s persons, thus sharing in the person of God. And then, “We said ‘Amen’ and hugged Mike, and Mike shouted “ ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ partly saying it to us, and more so shouting it to God as he pumped his fists in unison and looked to the heavens. As we got in the car he hadn’t stopped, still shouting ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ in the gratitude of a broken heart touched.”[i]
The gratitude of a broken-heart touched is what the Samaritan in today’s reading from Luke also demonstrates. Mike was a paroled convict and recovering addict, and the Samaritan is likewise a double outcast. He was a leper from a culture that Jewish society considered “heathen,” and he dwells in the border regions between Samaria and Galilee, finding a community of misery[ii] with others whose skin diseases have also made them outcasts, who must keep their distance from others and name themselves “unclean” whenever anyone gets close.
Yet it is in this marginal community that the Samaritan finds himself positioned for grace, as the known-healer Jesus and his disciples travel through on their way to Jerusalem. Keeping a safe distance, the ten lepers cry out as one: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
What happens next is not very dramatic. Jesus never gets close or even touches the lepers. He just sends them to see the priests. Why would he do that? We might wonder, but they didn’t. They knew the priests had the authority to certify them “clean” again, safe to re-enter society. So the lepers do just as Jesus tells them, and start heading down the road to the Temple. Doing just as Jesus has commanded, they are healed.
Now, miraculous as this healing from disease is, it hardly gets any attention in this story. What Luke wants us to see is not just skin deep. So, we are introduced to the one healed man who turns around and comes back, loudly shouting praise and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. Luke wants all our attention to be on this man, who, it turns out, is a Samaritan.
And I that detail should make us a little uncomfortable. Really, this whole moment probably would have had most of us squirming—what a commotion this guy makes! His joy is uncontained, spontaneous, a little wild. The loud voice, the foreign accent, the awkward prostration—it reminds me of experiences with mentally ill homeless folks, who I sometimes encountered “off their meds.” There was little inhibition in their joy or sorrow; they shouted hallelujahs and wailed their tears with equal volume and fervor.
What a contrast to the nine who quietly went on their way! Let’s be clear, now—they weren’t doing anything wrong. They were obedient to Jesus and faithful to the Law’s requirements, and they are intent on getting back to the lives they’ve longed for in their illness and isolation. And, truth be told, that Samaritan likely wouldn’t be welcomed by the priests at the Temple. Though he sees himself as a Torah-believer, his foreign blood makes him a Gentile in their eyes. Even cured of leprosy, he’s still a Samaritan, after all. There’s no cure for that kind of “otherness.”[iii] Of all of them, the Samaritan outsider has the least urgency getting to the priests, and the most time to say thank you.
I don’t say this to take away from the remarkable, awkward beauty of the Samaritan’s loud praise. But I want to help us hear Jesus. “Were not ten made clean?” he says. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve tended to hear these words as a great big guilt-inducing “should,” as in, “Shame on you ungrateful people, you should have sent a thank you note!” So, I have to stop here and think for a minute: who is this guy, Jesus, again? Is he someone who enjoys heaping guilt and shame upon people, so that we’re paralyzed by our shortcomings, or is he someone who recognizes in us the spark of God’s image, hidden as it is by our brokenness and limitations, someone who longs for us to accept ourselves and others as God’s own beloved children, forgiven, redeemed and loved?
Instead of hearing a scolding Jesus, let’s hear a joyous Jesus, celebrating with the Samaritan, asking questions in wonder. Maybe even Jesus himself is full of wonder at God’s grace, which shows no partiality, abundantly overflowing any boundary human beings try to assign. Maybe Jesus is marveling that God’s grace is present, not just in his mercy to the ten lepers, but also in the Samaritan’s spontaneous praise and thanksgiving.
And that’s why it’s a misreading to think this passage is shaming people who forgot to write thank you notes. No, this story is about the grace of God in an outsider. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, the Samaritan is “a double loser lying at the feet of Jesus and thanking God as if God were somehow present in a man, and somehow revealed in the presence of that man… He was one of the unclean who saw what the clean could not see, and who refused to be separated from what gave him life.”[iv]
Now, when it comes to the Presbyterian Church, I am about as insider as it gets. Born and baptized into the Presbyterian Church, the daughter and granddaughter of ministers, now here I am, a pastor myself, married to yet another one!
But the irony is that, because I was a “good girl” who grew up safe within the realms of good, kind people, when I became a teenager, I had no actual awareness the grace that gave me a place in their midst! I just thought that this was what church was about, and I was not grateful, I was bored with what I thought were their “good girl” expectations, and I wanted to be almost anywhere else.
It’s a classic story, of course; when I ventured out of that safety and encountered difficult times and spiritual isolation, I finally began to discover exactly what I had left behind. I began to see the congregation that raised me as a group of broken people who had turned to God, people who accepted me as a broken person, too, people who loved me and longed for me to come into my identity and vocation as God’s beloved child. I began to see those people and the community, the church, God had created in them as a miraculous and precious gift.
Sometimes we just don’t know what we have until someone’s uncomfortable praise and thanksgiving explodes in our midst, flinging out irrepressible laughter and tears. And all that emotion can feel dangerous if we have become accustomed to going through the motions. It can trigger emotions we have pushed out of the way to get on with our agendas. It can remind us, uncomfortably, that our agendas are not necessarily God’s.
But the Samaritan and Mike the driver know what is truly dangerous and truly uncomfortable—a life outside the loving circle of God’s wide, wide arms, a life turned away from God by our sinful self-preoccupations or the exclusion of a forbidding society.
D.T. Niles, a Sri Lankan priest and ecumenicist, once said, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” The Samaritan comes into our midst this morning, a beggar who has received the life-giving bread of Jesus Christ. He is here to show us the ecstasy of eating good bread, when you have been without bread and hungry for so long.He cannot but respond in praise and thanksgiving.
And Mike the driver reminds us what a gift it is that we can gather in this beautiful place every Sunday—or even a seedy Newark parking lot—to nourish one another as we share ourselves, praying our lives together, sharing from our broken hearts, and rejoicing in spontaneous gratitude. In the sharing and the gratitude, we turn again to God, we are bathed in Christ’s presence, our spirits drink in the Holy Spirit, and we are made clean, made whole, and fully saved.
Later this morning you will hear me say these words: “It is truly right and our greatest joy to give you our thanks and praise.” These are words of the Great Thanksgiving, which we pray before we receive the Lord’s Supper. Festive and solemn, they are meant to characterize not only our lives before God in Sunday worship, but every part of our lives as Christians. We can only be overflowing with gratitude, my friends, for we are beggars who know where to find bread.
It is here, at this table, where we are joined together with all those who trust in Jesus, and it is everywhere that Christ is present in and through our faces and hands, outstretched to share our very lives with a world in need. All praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Amen.
(Keith’s sermon on this text from 2010 is here.)
[i] Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013,169-172. (This my new favorite book in shaping the practices of ministry!).
[ii] Here’s an insightful take on this passage: http://biteintheapple.com/how-does-the-creature-say-thanks/
[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993, 109-110.