In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is in a hurry. In John, he seems to be in control. In Matthew’s gospel, he does parables. In Luke, Jesus is forever crossing borders and finds himself in liminal places – always on the threshold having gone beyond the first step but not yet at the next one, and in the middle of things. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to meet his fate. He is ‘between Samaria and Galilee’ where there is nothing. It is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is at the border. And it is in this space that Jesus meets people. Jesus seems to be all about crossing boundaries, both physical and theoretical and will cross another to heal these men as we will see.
Jesus encounters the lepers whilst traveling through an ‘in-between’ territory, a seemingly God-forsaken place. It is a no-man’s land where people gather who have no other place to go. They live there because they are not welcome in either Galilee or Samaria. They are connected with one another by their common exclusion from family and the wider community. Being largely isolated, alone and unsupported, they could be tempted to believe that no one, not even God, cares about them. They are on the ‘out’ of a religion that is built on some being ‘in’ because others are ‘out.’
Jesus and the lepers are at this threshold where everything could change—where the lepers believe things will change. Maybe they know that Jesus is all about the liminal, that he likes being in the borderlands.
All the readings take place in marginal settings. Naaman is asked to bathe in the dirty Jordan River, and Paul is chained ‘like a criminal’ in prison. But, it is in marginal places, that people are freed from their usual conventions, from business as usual living, to receive God's faithfulness in unexpected and extravagant ways. So, rather than being God-forsaken places, these are where God is present and at work. Jesus shows up as one marginal person with the marginalised. This is where God is to be found. The first reading and the gospel are about foreigners/outsiders/ people with double stigmas, and how they respond to God.
We live in a time when people want to put up walls on our various literal and figurative borders. These borders are supposed to determine who is on the right side and who isn’t. We don’t want to mix things up, and we’d rather not live in a liminal state. There are the obvious borders that are being erected to prevent asylum seekers entering various countries. As the Synod on the Amazon shows, which begin last Sunday in Rome, church leaders and others have tried to prevent the voices of a people who have been colonized by foreign powers and the church, continue to be savaged by logging companies and farmers and have their lands confiscated for the sake of progress from telling their story. Not only that, Pope Francis who has put himself in a liminal position is also facing condemnation by people who see their interests threatened. But Pope Francis, is trying to tell us again that God is to be found where people are consigned to the margins, oppressed and forgotten. And Jesus has always been at the borders, at the threshold. It seems to be where Christ is found. Being at the threshold or the frontier is something Jesus was familiar with. Each stop along the way to Jerusalem is part of a process, a process that brings him closer and closer to a moment when everything will change. What about us? Where are we? Are we willing to live at the border? Today there are people who are forced like the lepers to live in a separate land where they are alone. Is God calling us to cross a boundary, to be willing to live in the liminal in order to bring healing?
The gospel’s scandalous inclusivity again confronts us. We can easily draw lines around people – those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ or to be kept apart. We do it in our minds and very much on Facebook. Politicians automatically categorise people in need of social security as drug addicts or pushers, alcoholics, or lazy and thus not worthy of assistance. But the gospel is about liberation, about ‘outsiders’ being drawn by God’s love into a new embrace, included and at home with God and God’s people.
Jesus’ journey reveals the strength of God’s compassionate love - and how various people respond. People have different ways of responding to God’s compassion. It is manifested in Jesus and offered to people who are marginalised, hurting or suffering. Jesus’ going through an ‘in-between’ region symbolises his mission. He is the heart of God ready to go to any out of the way places. Today’s gospel again manifests God’s passion for the lost, the marginalised, the abused, the excluded, and the stranger.
The story is less about the miraculous cure than people being restored to the community, to relationship. One turned back when he saw what had happened. He saw something different. Whereas the other nine returned to a world based on boundaries that separate good from bad, well from sick, and the ‘in’ from the ‘out’, the one left that world to embrace a new way of living in a new and exciting world where all exist by grace and no one is excluded. When we see everything with Jesus eyes, we discover that God for all people who is nothing but forgiveness, gentleness, blessing, benevolence, compassion, and tenderness. And when we get it, there can only gratitude and openness to life.
The nine lepers were returning to the old world. They are assured of being ‘in’ where others are still out. The only difference is that they are no longer ‘out’. It is the old world of separations, of judgment, exclusion and tit for tat. We don’t know why the other nine don’t return to see Jesus. We do know that this one man realizes something has changed. As a Samaritan, he would have known a lot about borders. He knows what it means to be on the other side of a border, and now he knows that things have dramatically changed. He knows what it means to be on the outside, and now he is crossing into a new land where he is whole. Whereas all ten people suffered from a common disease they were bonded by their outcast status. After they were healed, nine returned to their old ethnic and religious world. The foreigner was still excluded and only had Jesus at that point and perhaps found his true home.
His new way of living is grounded on having experienced God’s love for him, having recognised that God is active in the ‘nowhere’ places of our world, and that he now also has a love he can now share in his encounters with others. It is not business as usual for him. This happens to people who may have been involved in a car accident, or survived cancer or suffered a coronary. Some people go back to business as usual, and others see the experience as another opportunity to live life to the full and to serve. It comes out of an awareness that life is something gracious and given an awareness that we have creative energies to use for the good of others. Though these situations are not the experience of all, we do not have to wait for such experiences to realise that that our time is limited and the only time we have is ‘the now’. The ‘present moment’ is all we have; it is the ‘sacrament’, the moment of encounter with the Sacred in our lives.
People have always accepted a different status for some people to others. Slavery, for example, was only condemned in 1965 during the Second Vatican Council. It was accepted that some people were lesser than other people; that there was a boundary in that God was not fully in them. During the Spanish invasions in Latin America and Central America and European invasions of Africa and Spanish and US invasions of the Philippines, native peoples could be killed because they we considered less than human. Others, however, understood that that is not the way God is. God is present to every person and can speak through all of us. This is one aim of the Synod of the Amazon. Change rarely comes from those in leadership but from the people themselves. We see that God works in the lives of people of integrity regardless of gender or their ethnic or religious backgrounds or sexual orientation. One would not expect a Samaritan to do the decent thing because we know what Samaritans are like, don’t we? You would not expect an Indigenous person to do the right thing! And we know what Muslims are like, or Africans because we have been told by our political leaders. We could not expect a gay person to do the right thing in the class room. You cannot trust the motives of those people who come here by boats. It is not be difficult to find other examples in our communities. No matter what we come up with, Luke is clearly subverting stereotypes whether racist, political, or those based on gender and sexual orientation.
As conflict threatens the peace and survival of our planet, religious exclusivity and finger-pointing is not just immature but very dangerous. Jesus comes into this ‘nowhere land’ challenging us as he crossed all sorts of lines in order to draw circles around everyone. All are loved and accepted by God. Where many tend to define ourselves according to nationality, race, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, educational level, language and so much more – and use these definitions to justify all kinds of injustice, discrimination and stereotyping, the call to those who follow Jesus is to make outsiders insiders and embrace people not easy to love. This is the gospel of nonviolence that is world-changing. The stories today are deliberately subversive. The people represented are despised and not respectable but become models of faith, who recognise God’s loving activity in all places and in all people; who respond to God by being in solidarity with all people. It is a story that lives itself out in every generation. But how do we match up to the recognition of God as a God of all people?
As we gather each week, we hear the words of Jesus challenging us to be healed – of our pride, selfishness, anger, apathy, laziness and deceit, sense of exceptionalism, grandiosity, the need to build walls and barriers. If the Christian community is to retain any prophetic voice, Christ’s radical inclusivity must be embraced daily. It is not about the right prayers prayed, the right theological ideas taught, but where following Christ being one of opened arms to all others, being indiscriminate who we serve, love, give to, include, and bless.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Erskineville NSW
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia [NSW]
President, Pax Christi Australia