The telling of this encounter seems straight forward: (a) Jesus encounters a group of lepers on the road to Jerusalem, (b) they ask for his mercy, (c) they are cured, but (d) only one returns to thank Jesus and that one is a Samaritan. A simple miracle story, yes? A narrative about faith as the foundation of healing? Such simple summaries, even if true, miss several key aspects of the encounter and the chance to reflect further on our own life of faith in Jesus. Faith and the response to Mercy inevitably leads one to cross boundaries.
The Boundaries. The account begins with Luke’s vague geographical reference [see the Note below on Luke 17:1] which introduces a theme of boundaries. The attentive reader is reminded of the divided tribes of Israel. The ten northern tribes had revolted against the throne of David after the death of King Solomon (ca. 920 BC). These tribes were conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC with most of the Israelites killed or taken into exile. However, a few of them, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in the north (that area called Samaria in the NT). 2 Kings 17:24 tells us that the conquering king forced people from five foreign cities/nations to settle in Samaria. These foreigners inter-married with the Jews and they brought in the worship of their own gods. By Jesus’ time, Samaritans were not considered true Israelites. They had perverted the race. They had perverted the religion. The northerners looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the Jews in the south. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory.
As clear as this boundary is, so too does the account raise other boundaries. Where the first boundary was geo-political, the other boundary is leprosy whose medical, social and spiritual implications are made clear by the simple passage: “They stood at a distance from him” (v.12). The listeners of Luke’s time (and ourselves as well) may have already begun to place the lepers in the category of the poor to whom the news of the kingdom is proclaimed. At this point the text does not tell us that one of the lepers is a Samaritan. The boundary of “other” or perhaps even “enemy” is not revealed until the end of the narrative.
The group of lepers that hails Jesus is composed of both Jews (Galileans) and Samaritans. The companionship of these usually bitter enemies indicates the desperation of their condition, which led them to depend on one another, letting boundaries fall to the wayside. Their mutual banishment from their native “camps” lead them to band together as they mutually depended on charity for survival. Even as the narrative is pointing out boundaries, it also shows that some boundaries are set aside.
What about the rest of us? The Talmud teaches: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” The faithfulness of the listeners (and ourselves) is also slowly revealed within this text. The truly faithful of God are those willing to cross boundaries, despite the way we perceive things, despite preconceptions about the “otherness” of those we encounter. The faithful cross such boundaries because of their faith/trust in God.