Outsiders Brought In
Text: Luke 17:11-19
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you think international relations are bad today, I can assure you that they were just as bad, or even worse, between the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ day. They were from the same stock, originally all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But when large portions of the Israelites went into exile and only a few remained behind, that’s when the differences emerged. Those who stayed behind intermarried with the pagans that surrounded them. They lived under foreign rule. They refused to accept the writings of the prophets that Israel had while they were in exile in faraway lands. And when the Israelites returned to their homeland, they found the Samaritans worshiping at Mount Gerizim rather than at the temple mount in Jerusalem. The Samaritans cooperated with foreign emperors, even when their Israelite cousins rebelled. Tensions rose through the centuries. Finally, when the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim and the Samaritans retaliated by scattering human bones all over the temple in Jerusalem to defile it, things had reached a breaking point. There would be no interaction between them anymore. Any communication, if it happened, was hostile. Things had reached such a bad state that the Jews in Jerusalem had carved in stone on the temple, “Nothing foreign shall enter.” This referred to the Samaritans, those distant relatives of the Jews now considered outsiders, foreigners, traitors, even worse than Gentiles.
So when we hear this morning about a Samaritan in the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria having leprosy, you can be sure that many saw his affliction as justice. He was receiving what was only fair for one of his people, the traitors, to receive. He was cast out, which was they would think was all too fitting for someone belonging to the race that tried to usurp the Israelites’ inheritance, who sold them out to Gentile emperors. Of course, this Samaritan had taken up residence with some Jews who also had leprosy, nine in fact. But certainly the same judgments wouldn’t have been heaped against them. That’s just how confirmation bias works—you only see the things that you already think are right, only the things that prove your point. Those other nine were probably OK, they just had some bad luck. But that one Samaritan, he deserved it.
But there was still hope for him. Jesus was passing through. There had been reports everywhere in the region about how He healed and saved others: unclean people, even Gentiles. So as Jesus passed by on the road, the Samaritan leper stood with the other nine and cried out with them in hope from a distance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
That is when Jesus did something truly amazing. First, He called His shot, like Babe Ruth, but on a much grander, life-and-death stakes scale. He sent them to the priests to show them that they had been cleansed. Now they hadn’t been cleansed when He told them to go. It hadn’t happened yet. But Jesus knew exactly what He would do and exactly when and how it would happen, so He sent them. They were supposed to go to the priests, the ones trained to identify leprosy, as per God’s instructions about their job in Leviticus. So they went. This shows immense faith, created simply by the word of Jesus. Jesus called His shot and created faith in the hearts of these ten, who went without hesitation at His promise of healing. They weren’t healed right when the promise was spoken, but they trusted that it would be fulfilled. And sure enough, as they went, they were healed.
But now we have to back up to see the full picture of just how amazing this is. There’s much more than a physical healing happening here. There’s also a spiritual healing, through the faith created by Jesus’ promise. Remember, the Jewish lepers had been barred from the temple. Their leprosy made them unclean, and nothing unclean was permitted in the temple. So no matter how badly they wanted to go, no matter how much they needed the benefits of the sacrifices offered there, they didn’t have access. They couldn’t get into the place where God said He would make His name to dwell, where He would be present for the good of His people. But now, with this healing, they would be let back in. They were healed physically, but they were also restored spiritually. They were sent back into the community of their fellow Israelites, having access to their God at the temple again.
And there’s one more miracle in all this. Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell only the Jewish lepers to show themselves to the priests. He also sends the Samaritan. He wants the Samaritan declared clean. Remember that inscription in stone over the temple: “Nothing foreign shall enter”. But now, Jesus, the Lord who had been present in His temple throughout the ages, who was now present in the temple of His flesh and blood body, now He tells the Samaritan that he is to be declared clean enough to those holy precincts, to enter and present Himself before God’s altar. Jesus, with His Word, with His promise, is bringing the Samaritan into God’s people. Jesus is welcoming the outsider, even one that many would have considered the worst, beyond redemption, too distasteful or evil to be counted as one of the Lord’s saved.
But that’s what Jesus does. He opens the eyes of those on the outside and He shows them the truth. He turns the Samaritan away from his misunderstandings and sends Him to where the true God is living among His people. He did that for Ruth in our Old Testament reading today. He brought her, a Moabite, and He made her one of the Lord’s people. He even wove her into the family tree of the Messiah to come, making this foreigner an ancestor of Jesus. Jesus brought in the self-proclaimed chief of sinners, St. Paul, who had persecuted the Church, and made him an apostle, giving him God’s own words to speak to the Church for millennia to come.
And He does the same with us. We, who have been on the outside, who come from every sort of background imaginable, with sins and shames and sicknesses haunting our past—we have been brought into His temple here. He has brought us in, cleansed and purified us from the leprosy of sin. He’s woven us together as His people, united as one body in His own body and blood in the sacrament. He’s ushered us all into the temple of the Church through Baptism, keeping us safe, showing us where to run for protection. He’s done this here in this congregation, uniting us. He’s done this in the wider Church, with believers throughout the world, from every nation and language. He even unites us with the Church at rest, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, bringing the heavenly temple down to us every time He’s present in the Lord’s Supper. He heals us, body and soul, He brings us into His presence, He gives us access to Himself and surrounds us with others who have been healed like us.
There are times you will feel like you’re on the outside, alone, ashamed, unclean. This can be because of something you’ve had happen to you or something you’ve done. It could even just be because of something that seems like it’s a part of you. You’ll feel like you have something sticking to you, to your conscience, your heart, your soul, your mind, your body. You may even feel looked down upon, like a modern-day Samaritan. But Jesus has claimed you. He is not ashamed of you. He does not see you as an outsider. He’s called you to His temple, not of stone, but of body and blood, water and Word. He calls you to the Temple that the Samaritan recognized—Jesus Himself, the greater fulfillment of all that the temple was pointing forward to. So come to this temple of body and blood here at the rail. Be cleansed. Believe His promises, even if you have to wait until you’re on the way to see them fulfilled. And then, after giving thanks to Him for His love and mercy, rise and go your way. Your faith has made you well. Your Jesus has saved you. In the name of Jesus, who makes His Church one, Amen.