Thanking is Believing: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Eighteenth Week after Pentecost

 
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Eighteenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 17:11-19

Big Picture:

1) Jesus is on the homestretch now, the last leg of his journey to Jerusalem, which began in Chapter 9 and will end in Chapter 19.

2) At the very outset of that journey, Jesus and his entourage are refused hospitality in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56).  This enrages the disciples, who promptly ask Jesus - with good Christian charity, no-doubt! - if they should “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Luke 9:54, itself a reference to the Elijah story; see 2 Kings 1:9-12).  Jesus immediately rebukes the disciples for their zealotry - and then, in the very next chapter, casts a Samaritan as the hero in a story about following the Jewish law: the famous “Good Samaritan” parable.

3) Samaritans were the descendents of generations of intermarriage between (a) Jews left behind during the Babylonian exile and (b) Gentiles the conquering Assyrians settled in Israel.  Thus Samaritans shared a common heritage with Jews, but also were quite different: they worshipped at a different temple and revered a different-but-overlapping library of scripture. Imagine Roman Catholics and Protestants in early modern Europe, with their mutual bigotries, suspicions, and appetites for vengeance.  Jews and Samaritans were likewise enemies, their similarities only sharpening their contempt. All this would make the Good Samaritan parable surprising, even scandalous, to Jesus’ contemporary Jewish audiences - not least because “Samaritan” was a kind of shorthand for both “apostate” and “adversary.”

4) Remember, too, the violence at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when his hometown crowd tries to kill him after he alludes to a story about Elijah, in which the prophet heals Namaan, a leper who is also a foreign leader opposed to Israel (Luke 4:27; 2 Kings 5:1-15).  By referencing this story, Jesus seems to imply that God’s salvation extends to “outsiders” and cannot be assumed by “insiders” - an idea his hometown listeners understandably interpret as a slap in the face.  From the first, then, the theme of “outsiders” upstaging “insiders” is front and center in Jesus’ ministry.

5) Finally, in Luke’s Gospel, a common icon for faithful life is “returning and praising God.”  In the Christmas story, for example, the shepherds “returned [hypostrepho], glorifying [doxazo] and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).  And at the Gospel’s end, after witnessing Jesus’ ascension, the disciples “worshipped him and returned [hypostrepho] to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52).  As you read this week’s passage, keep those two verbs in mind: return and praise.

Scripture:

1) The setting here is both ambiguous and telling: Jesus is traveling through a borderland of sorts, an area neither inside nor outside Jewish territory, and neither inside nor outside Samaritan territory.  As such, it’s a zone of uncertainty (and therefore of danger), and also of encounter (and therefore of new possibilities).

2) A group of ten people with “leprosy,” carefully keeping their distance according to custom, cries out to Jesus, calling him “Master” and asking for mercy.  Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priest, and they find themselves healed along the way. Only one, a Samaritan, returns (hypostrepho) and gives glory (doxan) to God for what Jesus has done.  Jesus commends him, highlights that he’s a Samaritan, and then celebrates his devotion: “your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19).

3) This formulation - “made you well” - is a translation of sesoken, “to save, heal, preserve, rescue, deliver.”  But what is it, precisely, that Jesus celebrates about the Samaritan’s faith here?  It’s not revering Jesus - for all ten call him, “Master.” It’s not obeying his instruction - for all ten do what he commands, setting out toward the priests to be officially reconciled to the community.  And it’s not theological correctness - for Samaritans and Jews disagreed, often bitterly, over theological matters. But if it’s not reverence, obedience, or orthodoxy - what is it?

4) Indeed, it’s worth noting that the Samaritan rather boldly disobeys Jesus’ instruction.  Instead of going to see the priests, he pivots and returns (hypostrepho), praises God (doxan), and thanks Jesus (euchariston).  Despite his years of ostracization and keeping his distance, he has the audacity to approach Jesus directly, to throw himself at his feet in thanksgiving.  And for this impertinence - Jesus exalts him as an exemplar of faith.

5) Thus Jesus completes the striking portrait he began in Chapter 10, with his famous parable.  The “Good Samaritan” dramatizes what it looks like to follow the second dimension of the greatest commandment, loving “your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Leviticus 19:18).  But in this week’s story, what we might call the “Thankful Samaritan” dramatizes what it looks like to follow the commandment’s first dimension: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27; Deut 6:5).  What does loving God in this way look like?  It looks like thanking and glorifying God for being the One from whom all blessings flow.  It looks like having the insight - and the nerve - to stop, pivot, return, and praise. To illustrate the essence of Jewish law, Jesus paints a diptych, a pair of pictures featuring two Samaritans: one merciful, the other thankful.

6) Why is thanksgiving so central to the life of faith?  All ten in the group believe in Jesus’ power; all ten obey his command; and all ten are blessedly restored.  But the act of thanksgiving, in effect, deepens and completes the act of receiving a blessing. Think of a child who receives a meal from her parents, a dish they’ve specially prepared for her as a gift: if she simply consumes it as fuel, or devours it as a privilege, or thoughtlessly enjoys it as an indulgence - in fact she misses the truth of her situation.  She misses the gift. In that sense, she never actually receives the blessing, much less comes to believe in her blessedness. It’s only when she genuinely perceives the meal as a gift, and genuinely thanks her parents for it, that she receives it as it is, and so may experience reality. Her thanksgiving is part and parcel of both her receiving and her believing that she is the beneficiary of her parents’ love and care.  Thanking is believing - or, to put it another way, thanksgiving is the unmistakable sign of understanding that a gift has been given. Gratitude, not obeisance or obedience, is the natural echo of grace.

Takeaways:

1) All ten in the group “know” that God has healed them, but only one truly “believes” it, truly internalizes and metabolizes it into an active, vibrant response: the response of thanks and praise.  Accordingly, the life to which Jesus calls us is a life of bold thanksgiving, continually returning and praising God, the font of every blessing - even to the point of prioritizing such bold thanksgiving above other more “respectable” modes of relating to God, including reverence, obedience, and orthodoxy.

2) But this passage is more than just a morality tale urging us to be more grateful.  The story’s center of gravity is the surprising fact that the exemplar here, the only one who pivots and returns and gives thanks, is an outsider, a supposed enemy of Jesus’ followers.  Like the Good Samaritan parable, this passage is an occasion for reflecting on whom we consider to be our adversaries, people we put “outside the circle” of acceptability. Is it those from whom we’re estranged, or about whom we’re suspicious?  Is it those on the other side of the political aisle, or the religious (or non-religious) aisle? And then, once we have these opponents in mind: What can we learn from them? What do they model about the essence of life, about loving God and neighbor, about living with gratitude and mercy?

3) Ultimately, this is a story about faith as a form of courage: audaciously returning, “praising God with a loud voice,” throwing ourselves humbly at Jesus’ feet - and at the same time, following Jesus’ lead, being willing to learn from those we’re inclined to consider adversaries (Luke 17:15).  Think of it: to illustrate fidelity to Jewish law with Samaritan exemplars would have been, in Jesus’ day, nothing short of outlandish, like illustrating Christian life with atheist exemplars, or Muslim exemplars, or even (gasp!) Christian exemplars from your least favorite pocket of Christianity.  And that is the Good News of the Gospel this week: God’s bold, outlandish grace knows no bounds; even “outsiders” may well show “insiders” how to live; and even longstanding enemies, after all, may turn out to be friends.  

4) In the Book of Acts (also written by Luke), when the risen Jesus commissions the apostles, he seems to picture Samaria as a kind of first step, a threshold to the wider world God means to save: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  God’s saving love is for everyone, but the road to “the ends of the earth” goes through Samaria, which is to say, it begins by reconciling with - and learning from! - the supposed adversaries right next door.