09 September 2016

Kingdom of Heaven/ On the Borderlands

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17.11)

As I studied this text in Bible study this week, I noticed for the first time the setting of Christ's confrontation with the Ten Lepers. Luke carefully sets this scene in time and place.

The opening word, "Now...," puts the reader in the moment, joining the throng that follow this Galilean messiah to make his mark in Jerusalem, ready to trade petty exchanges with local pharisees (14.1-14) and synagogue leaders (13.14-17) for far-more-daunting challenges with Jewish and Roman elites in the big city (13.31-35).

But Jesus travels slowly--at least in the way Luke tells it. All the way back in chapter 13, Luke had shown that "Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem" (v 22). Three chapters later, Jesus is still moving, glacially, toward his destiny, following "the border between Samaria and Galilee," probably no more than ten miles from his hometown of Nazareth and fewer than five miles from Nain, site of one of his greatest miracles (Luke 7).

The borderlands would seem a strange place for a messiah to walk. There are no highways there. Few people. Most borders follow mountain ranges or rivers. Perhaps Jesus had taken the warning of Galilean pharisees seriously after all--"Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you" (13.31). There were only two routes to Jerusalem from Galilee, the broad seaside highway along the Mediterranean coast, and the route down the Jordan Valley, the latter of which Jesus would follow.

Borderlands are places for wild animals, not teachers. I live in a town near the border between Kentucky Tennessee. Until a few years ago, the only buildings one actually found close to the border of the two states were roadside bars and honkey-tonks. The border was a place to sneak away to, a place to imbibe things that couldn't be consumed in town. When I note that Jesus was following the border, I remember a famous quote from another frontier, border town in Star Wars:

"Scum and villainy," indeed. The border lands are home to bandits, exiles and--apparently--lepers.

"Jesus, Master," they cry out. Close enough for the group to hear, no closer, they continue, "have pity on us" (v 13). 

Jesus makes no move, he makes no incantation. He simply directs them to get a new opinion on their condition from the priests. "And as they went, they were [all] cleansed" (v 14).

I have written elsewhere about the Jewish obsession with cleanliness. This obsession continues in the Christian rites of baptism and Maundy Thursday footwashing. It would seem that the diseases of the time had two explanations--demons and a lack of cleanliness--and the final word on healing lay not with doctors but with priests. 

I'm going to skip the most obvious detail--that only one of the lepers returns to thank Jesus, and this leper appears to be a "foreigner" or Samaritan. That's for others to recount. What struck me as the Bible study finished was a peek ahead to the next section in Luke--another Kingdom of God reference.

I imagined the Ten Lepers as something other than a real event, but as a Kingdom parable. "The Kingdom of God is like unto Ten Lepers who came upon a Healer in the border lands and called out unto him for mercy...."

What strikes me about this story is this: while one of the lepers returned to thank Jesus, "Were not ten cleansed?" (verse 17). This seems like a minor point, but all ten lepers receive healing, because they are healed at the moment they believe Jesus and turn around to find a priest for confirmation.

The grateful leper, commended by Jesus for returning to thank and praise God (Jesus mentions God, not himself), remains just as healed as the other nine.

Perhaps this is because the other nine were in a hurry to get confirmation from the priests--this foreign Samaritan may not have felt the need of institutional confirmation once he saw for himself that he was healed. The border lands were always in flux. Messiahs might appear, so might murderers. There were plenty of reasons not to return for the other nine, grateful or not.

But there may be something more that Jesus is revealing about salvation here--something surprising to me. It seems like there is a two-tiered version of redemption in the story that may help us understand other events and parables in the book of Luke. There seems to be "saved" and "better-than-saved."

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, both brothers remain in their father's house. Nine coins are safe in the bank along with one that was lost. Ninety-nine sheep are safe in the pen, along with the one who which was found. So much for good guys and bad guys.