Boundaries

Today is the feast day of St. Pope Leo the Great. The gospel reading is the familiar Lukan account of the 10 lepers who encounter Jesus on the way and are healed – yet only one returns to give thanks to God. There is a lot that can be said of the reading, but let me mention but one: boundaries. “….As he continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.” (Luke 11:17) In the one simple verse, we are 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 key Israelites killed or taken into exile. It was the practice of the Assyrians to destabilize effective cores of resistance to their rule by deporting half the population and replacing them with Assyrians or other conquered people, eliminating religious practices other than their own, and forcing Akkadian language upon the people.  2 Kings 17:24 tells us that the Assyrian conquerors forced people from five other foreign cities/nations to settle in the northern lands. During the Old Testament times the former lands of the north were called “Israel” (as opposed to the south, Judah), By Jesus’ day the area was called “Samaria.”

Under the rule of the Assyrians, the people exiled from their lands or cities and forced to settle in “Israel” eventually began to intermarry with the Jews. They 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 the Temple in 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. Family feuds are typically fraught with more animosity and acrimony

History forms one boundary, but the account raises 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 are mutually dependent 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.

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