This stewardship reflection is based on Luke 17:11-19.
In every community, there are lepers—the people no one wants to associate with. Maybe it’s the person who appears unkempt, maybe it’s the person who appears ethnically different from the majority, maybe it’s the person with a mental illness or disability, maybe it’s the person who just has a way of irritating people and getting under everyone’s skin.
In this story, Jesus is travelling through a border land—a place that is neither here nor there. It is significant that the story takes place on a journey and that it takes place in between. Jesus often walked the line between the powerful, wealthy people and the poor, outcast people. We need people willing to walk the line in between.
Jesus often stood up for the people on the fringes against those in power. You might hear this story and think it is a story about healing—and it is. But it is also a story about changing and transforming relationships.
Jesus is travelling through a land that is in between two different geographic regions and always within a land where many different ethnic groups are living. On his travels in this land he comes upon a group of lepers. We think of a very specific disease when we hear leprosy but in biblical times leprosy was a category for many different skin diseases and deformities. Some were curable and some were not. Anyone with these types of diseases was removed from the community and could not interact with those who were healthy. It was at heart a measure to prevent the spread of diseases which were not well understood.
At the same time, the Jewish religion prevented its members from eating and drinking with non-members and tended to segregate itself from the surrounding ethnic groups. So Jesus comes upon a group of people who are all outcasts by nature of their various illnesses and within that group there are people who would not normally interact because of their ethnicity.
The lepers know that they are forbidden from getting too close to Jesus or anyone else and so they call to him from a distance, ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us.’ They just want his attention. They haven’t asked for healing. They haven’t asked for anything except mercy. Mercy is about compassion and deeply felt love. It is about our response to people who are suffering for whatever reason. So the lepers are asking Jesus for his compassion and love.
So Jesus says to them, ‘go and show yourselves to the priests.’ The priests are the ones who decide who is clean and healed and who would be welcomed back into the main community. It would be a bit like the minister setting boundaries around the congregation and deciding who was welcome and who would be shunned. Personally, I don’t want that kind of power. I don’t want to decide who is welcome and who is not. I could decide that everyone with brown hair should be disallowed in the congregation. If you do a good enough dye job I might let you back in. In ancient times the practical reason for segregation was to prevent the spread of disease. With medicine and more understanding of how disease spreads, segregation only becomes necessary in very specific situations.
If the priests were the ones determining who is out and who is in why didn’t the lepers go to the priests and ask for mercy, for compassion and love? Perhaps they knew that priests had already decided they were unworthy, hopeless cases. Perhaps they recognized that Jesus would look beyond their illness and see a real person. But Jesus sends them back to the priests, to the very people who keep them excluded and apart from society. In sending them to the priests, Jesus is requiring the priests to put their teaching of compassion and mercy into practice. The priests will have to look again and see the people they have given up on in a different light.
We don’t hear what the priests say to the nine lepers who arrive at their door asking for permission to re-enter the community. There would be ceremonial washing and a waiting period of seven days to see if the healing was permanent. Then they might get readmitted.
But we do see the Samaritan return to Jesus with gratitude. And now the Samaritan can get close enough to touch Jesus. He kneels at Jesus’ feet and kisses him. He gives thanks to God through Jesus. His healing does so much more than restore his health. His healing also allows him to be a part of the community again. He can go home. He can be welcomed at meals and eat with other people. He can touch someone. He is allowed to be in relationship.
Imagine the life that the lepers had before their healing. They could only touch each other, speak with each other and eat with each other—when there was food. We have examples in our own history: residential schools, internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII. These are relatively fresh in our history. We also have people in our own communities who are isolated, for a variety of reasons, for the wider community. We have people who live in care homes and see only other residents and staff. We have people who may appear unkempt and so we keep our distance. Our community tends towards racial and economic segregation. There are always people who are not “one of us.”
Relationships are an important part of good stewardship. It is easy to maintain relationships with people that we see on Sunday morning. It is easier to maintain relationships with people we have known for a long time or whose paths we cross regularly. It is more difficult to build and maintain relationships with people that either we don’t see or that we see as being separate from ourselves. But Jesus calls us to offer mercy—compassion and love—for the ones who are forgotten, for the ones no one else will welcome.
You have probably seen pictures and heard about the mosque in Cold Lake that was vandalized after the shooting on Parliament Hill. In the moments when the vandalism occurred, the Muslim community was like the lepers. They were being identified as their own group separate and apart from the main community. And like Jesus, many people in Cold Lake—including some soldiers—crossed the borderline and offered mercy to the Muslim community.
And in those moments, faith in Jesus who draws people together was being expressed in a concrete and visible manner. We pray for a world in which peace lives. But we cannot have peace without relationships that cross the boundaries. As people of faith we have a role to play in intentionally offering our mercy—our compassion and our love—to people that might seem unlovable. We can offer that mercy to people who might appear at first glance as the enemy.
Relationships are something that all of us possess. Stewardship is about making good use of the resources available to us and in the case of relationships, nurturing them. We all have the ability to cross the barriers that tend to separate us from others. Sometimes the barriers are obvious, like a fence or a wall. Sometimes the barriers are more subtle.
In this congregation you might sit beside someone you’ve never sat with before. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Invite someone to stay for coffee. Participate in an activity or sign-up help with something.
In our community, we can volunteer with organizations or participate in events that connect people across the boundaries. We can look for opportunities to interact with people who are different from ourselves by age, appearance, ability or lifestyle. All people are worthy of the mercy that Jesus shows in this scripture.
When we show mercy in our relationships and are good stewards of our relationships, we create healthier people, healthier communities and a more peaceful world.