On Friday evening, about 100 of us gathered at the Goodman Center to celebrate the more than thirty years Grace’s Food Pantry has been in operation, to thank those whose vision brought it into existence, and the many volunteers and donors who have given so much of their time, skills, and financial resources to help the pantry provide food for food-insecure families.
We also learned some sobering information about the need in our community. I’ll just throw out a couple of statistics: 48% of the children in Madison schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The number of visits to food pantries in Dane County almost doubled between 2007 and 2012. And it’s estimated that about 20% of all families are food insecure, that is to say, they aren’t sure whether they will have enough food to survive til their next paycheck.
We live in a society that is increasingly divided between have and have not; but it’s not just that. The problem is that the gap between the haves and have nots is growing wider day by day, and the number of those who are falling out of the middle class into poverty continues to grow.
Those are the statistics, but what I’m worried about is the effects of a government shutdown on the neediest in our society. Already we’re seeing that in many states, the WIC program, which provides food for pregnant mothers, and infant formula, is shut down. In some states, the supplemental food program, SNAP, what is often called food stamps, is already stopped, and if the shutdown continues, it will end everywhere. And the commodity programs, TEFAP, which provides free food to organizations like our food pantry, has enough food to last the month, but no more.
All of this is frankly, frightening. Whether our dysfunctional political system can come together long enough to avert even greater catastrophe is not at all clear. And even if it does, it’s likely that the most vulnerable in our society, children, mothers, the elderly, poor, and disabled will continue to be demonized by a culture that values only wealth, success, and celebrity.
By now, some of you may be thinking this sermon is veering into a political screed but I want to remind you that the Jesus we follow, the Jesus we encounter in the Gospel, is someone who ministered to and among the neediest members of Palestinian society. His first sermon in Nazareth proclaimed his mission statement: “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
As we have read the gospel of Luke, we have seen him do those things: offer hope to the hopeless, food to the hungry, heal the blind and the deaf, raise the dead. But it’s not just Jesus. When he sent out the seventy, when he commissioned his disciples, he sent them to extend his ministry, mission, the good news of God’s reign into the wider world.
In today’s gospel reading, he does it again. On the surface, it’s rather a simple story. Jesus cleanses ten lepers; he tells them to go to the priests to be certified as clean, and then to go back home. Only one of them returns to thank him, and it turns out to be a Samaritan who responds to Jesus’ acts with gratitude. On the surface, this story seems to be about etiquette, about giving thanks.
As an aside, let me offer a brief comment about leprosy. In the biblical tradition, leprosy seems to have been a number of possible skin conditions, even something as simple as psoriasis. And the biblical injunctions were not about keeping physical infection away; rather they were about purity and cleanliness. That’s made clear by what is a very curious element in the discussion of leprous diseases in Leviticus. You were only unclean if the condition was partial, that is to say, you were unclean if you had spots of the disease on your body. If it made you white from head to toe, the priest would certify you clean.
The important thing about leprosy is that it excluded you from the community. Leviticus dictates that a person with leprosy must live alone, away from human habitation, that lepers were to wear torn clothes and cry out “Unclean, unclean,” when anyone approached.
Jesus heals the ten lepers and then instructs them to go to the priests to be certified clean. This is was in perfect keeping with Jewish law as laid out in Leviticus. Nine obeyed him; one did not. The tenth came back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. Luke adds, as if in a marginal comment, “And he was a Samaritan.”
This story is not primarily about etiquette. It is about religious norms and values. The Samaritan was doubly unclean in the eyes of Jews. As a leper, he would have been excluded from the community, shunned. As a Samaritan, he would have been reviled for the religious traditions he followed. What is puzzling is that his being a Samaritan takes on significance only after his leprosy is cleansed. Jesus told all ten to present themselves to the priests, what the law required. But of course, as a Samaritan, he would not have had that option, or indeed, it would not have been necessary. No certificate from any priest deeming him free of leprosy would make him a part of the Jewish community. Perhaps that is why he came back to Jesus. He realized he had been cleansed, and that was all that mattered.
By contrast, the other nine needed the priests’ certification of being leprosy-free before they could rejoin their community and assume a role in the religious life of Judaism. There was more at stake for them. Still, whatever their motives, whatever Luke’s motives for telling the story in this way, what intrigues me here is what Jesus says in response to the actions of the Samaritan.
The nine lepers did nothing wrong. They cried out to Jesus, asking, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” Luke is careful to point out that they did not transgress any boundaries. They stayed as far away from Jesus as they could; they respected the boundaries set up in the law. When Jesus told them to go and present themselves to the priests, they obeyed without question. They followed the rules, and no doubt, they were quite happy that they were cleansed.
The Samaritan turned back, he glorified God, fell on his knees and thanked Jesus. We might think such a response would be natural, but isn’t it the case that most of us would follow the rules laid out? We would do whatever it took to be restored to our families, our livelihoods, and our religious lives? It was only the Samaritan who responded differently. He acted as unexpectedly and extravagantly as Jesus himself did. He came back; and because of his response, he was rewarded extravagantly. The NRSV , “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” In fact, a better translation would read, “your faith has saved you.”
It’s the not just that the Samaritan was cured of his leprosy. He was saved. He recognized in the healing of his body the gracious power of the one who healed him. He looked beyond himself to Jesus. In so doing, he becomes for Luke a model of faith. The ten lepers had pleaded with Jesus, “Have mercy on us.” But only one, the Samaritan, the outsider, the foreigner, recognized and acknowledged their master, only he came to faith. In fact, only he was truly, completely, transformed by the experience.
When describing the Samaritan’s actions, Luke chooses a very interesting word. eucharistein. It’s translated as giving thanks, and it’s the word from which Eucharist comes. But it’s more than giving thanks—just as we do each Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s also about glorifying and praising God.
Having been cleansed of his leprosy, he had much for which to glorify, praise, and thank God. So do we. The Samaritan came back and thanked Jesus in an act of spontaneous, embarrassing joy. He made a spectacle of himself. It’s a response we should have to the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. That joy should be the heart of our experience of Jesus Christ. That joy should transform us
He gave thanks with all he had, and so should we. We are accustomed to thanking God in word, in prayer, in hymns. Thanking, praising, glorifying God should take place with our whole being as we acknowledge all that God has given us. We can give thanks in word. We can give thanks in our actions as we reach out to help the hungry and the homeless, to do the work necessary to maintain and build up the body of Christ in this place. And we also need to give of our financial resources—so that through Grace Church, its ministries and mission, people can come to wholeness, restored in body and spirit by their encounter with God’s love among us.
We all approach Jesus, begging him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” We all have experienced, or hope to experience, the power of his healing love. Jesus pronounced the words of salvation to the tenth Samaritant, “Your faith has saved you.” May we also experience that wholeness, in body, mind, and spirit, and respond to it from the wholeness of our being, in faith, and gratitude, and generosity. Like the Samaritan, may our joy be embarrassing.