On this “National Coming Out Day,”
October 11, 2019,
I share a reflection based on the Gospel for this coming Sunday
Luke 17: 11-19.
The story of the healing of
“The Grateful Leper.”
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the
nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh;
and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.
Any LGBTQIA person who lived through the unfolding AIDS Crisis of the late 20th Century will most likely have their ears “perk up” whenever they hear the word leprosy. I think that it would be impossible to forget those images of emaciated gay men—often accompanied by lesions from Kaposi sarcoma. While not actually images of leprosy—it looked much like a form of leprosy to many of us. The memory of those painful stories of the unimaginable way that so many of our Brothers were treated in those days will haunt us forever! Fear! Fear of the disease, fear of the unknown, caused hospitals to refuse treatment and then even funeral homes to refuse service. It might be a projection of my own fears, but I seem to recall photos of people dressed in hazmat outfits when around some of the earliest victims—something like I recall seeing more recently in the Ebola crisis. And I certainly recall words like “gay cancer,” or “gay disease.”
Associated with all this was not only fear but revulsion! It brings to mind the response of people like St. Francis of Assisi who were disgusted and revolted when they encountered lepers in medieval Tuscany. Of course, after his conversion, he kissed the Leper and the earliest Friars are remembered for their loving care of those afflicted with this fatal and contagious disease. I remember so well the same kind of revulsion being expressed when it became apparent that AIDS was somehow mysteriously connected to gay sex. For many gay men of that era, it meant a “forced expulsion from the closet.” Because of the nature of the disease there was no hiding that fact that they were, in fact, gay, and that they had been sexually active.
So, for gay men of my generation—who are also persons of faith—it is easy to identify with those afflicted with leprosy. The story of the “Grateful Leper,” though, is even more meaningful, powerful, and useful for us. Because this Leper is called, by Our Lord a “foreigner.” He is labeled and identified as an “other,” a “stranger,” an “outsider.” And then, unexpectedly and shockingly—he is presented as a person of tremendous faith. He is held up as an example of what it means to be a faithful disciple. What an unanticipated and delightful twist!
The great irony, is that, as so many of us have come to prayerfully discern, being LGBTQIA is not an illness at all—nor is it a choice. It is just who we are! We have come to believe that it is the very way that we were created by a loving and compassionate God.
Yet, we know, that–even had HIV not come along–for millennia, other “people of Faith,” viewed our “queerness” as a kind of moral disease. While they might not have singled us out as the only notorious sinners, we were to be “loved” at the same time that our “sin” was to be “hated.” We were warned that if we acted on our “disordered” and “unnatural” “inclinations” we were in danger of hellfire. Being LGBTQIA was viewed as a kind of “moral leprosy.” And yes, it was thought to be largely fatal and contagious (the words of Anita Bryant and others like her made this clear). Or else, it was dismissed as something which was “silly” (I was actually told that once by a medical doctor!) and which could be easily laid aside like any other “sin” if we repented and turned to Jesus!
This powerful story which is found only in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke is worth looking at more closely. It has much to say to the LGBTQIA community—and to all who are “grafted into” the Jesus Movement.
It is a story of communities in tension and conflict.
There is the community of Jesus and his closest friends. They are on their way up to Jerusalem. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is heading to Jerusalem to suffer and die. This is a farewell journey—though Jesus’ friends either do not really know that—or understand it. They are in denial. Despite the warnings of the coming passion, they do not really believe it is true. They may well hope that Jesus is wrong–mistaken. They desperately long to believe that is true. So here they are on a journey with him to Jerusalem-to the Holy City, to the Temple, into God’s presence. That is their destination. Later, in looking back on that last Passover Pilgrimage, they will remember everything which Jesus did and said—and in those words and actions will find meaning which they were not able to see, hear, and understand at the time. They will realize that God was pulling back the curtains and allowing them to see what was “really happening,” though at the time they were quite clueless.
There is the community of Samaria and of Samaritans—the place where this story takes place. Jesus and his disciples, we are told, are travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem—and that journey takes them through Samaria. How ironic. They can not travel from one “home enclave” to another without stepping outside their “own” reality into another. In recent years scholars have suggested that Galilee may have been far more diverse and Hellenized than believed previously (after all two of Jesus disciples, Andrew and Philip, have Greek names). But both they—and the Samaritans—would have viewed “Galilee of the Nations” as basically Jewish.
Of all the “other” communities, first-century Jews had the most contentious relationship with the Samaritans. Perhaps it is because they had far more in common than separated them. As is often the case, those differences were highlighted and intensified (as an aside, I remember from my childhood how careful the Southern Baptists in rural Appalachia were to stress their distinctness from the “Holy Rollers.”). I am not entirely sure that the Samaritans would have chosen to focus on the few differences—had they not been excluded, abused, and mistreated by the Jews of that era. Which wrongs and hurts came first? Who knows? But it is clear that there was a mutual distrust, fear, and a reciprocal hatred.
The Samaritans are the “lost tribes,” the “Northern Kingdom of Israel” which had been conquered by the Assyrians. As a result, they had ceased to be “racially pure,” as viewed through a literal reading of the Law of Moses. They were viewed by first century Jews as “mongrels and muts.” They could not claim to be authentically Jewish—and yet they did! They believed in the one “God of Israel.” They accepted the Torah as God’s word (though not the oral law—odd that they had that in common with the Sadducees!). They had a Temple on Mount Gerizim (until the Maccabees destroyed it) in which the Tamid (offerings of spotless lambs, wine and bread) were offered twice daily. The Samaritans claimed to be descendants of Abraham—in fact, they claimed that the binding of Isaac had happened on their holy mountain and not on the Temple mount in Jerusalem (it is interesting that in Islamic belief it was Ishmael and not Isaac who was bound and that it might have taken place in Mecca).
So, there is very little, if anything, from their perspective, which ought to differentiate Samaritans from Jews. This would presuppose, though, that being Jewish could be a faith of choice and not only something into which one was born. It would mean that, the Jewish authorities would have to welcome the Samaritans as coreligionists—even if they actually viewed them as Gentiles. It would have to mean that room was made for them at the table. To the Jewish leaders of that time this was unthinkable, unimaginable, and unwelcome.
And so, the people of Samaria had to endure the horrors of tourist season—at least three times a year. Huge traveling groups of Jews passed through Samaria—coming and going on the way to and from Jerusalem each Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. It was a reminder that the people of Samaria were excluded from those pilgrimage festivals. Were those Jews traveling through Samaria viewed as “Ugly Americans?” Perhaps! But clearly, over generations, the two groups had come to a level of open hostility and acrimony. Samaria was viewed as a dangerous place, a rough area, as an obstacle through which one had to pass before entering once again into the safety and “home” of the Southern Kingdom—of Judah and Benjamin.
The Gospels—especially Luke and John—present a much more nuanced view. Luke’s parable of the “Good Samaritan” suggests something which many in the audience would have thought impossible-even oxymoronic. A “Good Samaritan!” There aren’t any! Like the “Good Shepherd,” one could say, “I never met one!” Is there anything good that comes out of Samaria? And John’s story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well (a most effective early missionary and disciple—perhaps even the Apostles could have learned from her methodology) shows that the Jesus movement—from the very beginning was of importance, significance, and value to those “outside” of Judaism. This was not an accident or a mistake of history, but actually part of God’s plan.
In the Gospel of Luke-written for a Gentile audience-this makes perfect sense. The Acts of the Apostles (volume two) takes us from Jerusalem to Rome. It shows the astonishing inclusion not only of Samaritans but even of Gentiles who could claim no connection to Judaism at all! So, these early positive interactions between Jesus and Samaritans are intended to prepare us for what is coming! In Christ there is neither Jew nor Samaritan nor Gentile!
But there is a third community—the community of lepers. Almost nothing is said of them! The Book of Leviticus reminds us that this community existed even during the time of the Wandering in the Desert—part of the Exodus. Lepers apparently traveled from Egypt through the wilderness and into the Land of Promise. The Laws which laid out a detailed procedure for their detection, expulsion, and potential re-integration (Leviticus chapters 13 and 14) show that they had always been a part of the experience of the People of Israel. On the margins, sick and struggling, depending on the charity of others, these unfortunates were popularly believed to have been punished by God for some sin—either their own or that of their parents. Forced to cry out “unclean” when they came into contact with those unafflicted by their malady, they lived on the margin, on the fringe! They were viewed with fear, revulsion, and loathing.
The Gospel of Luke offers a surprising possibility. They were a community of love and support for each other. All of the things which had mattered before ceased to be of importance when one was declared to be impure and cast out. The rich, the poor, the educated, the illiterate, the powerful, and the weak were equalized by the disease. The only thing that mattered now was that they were a “leper,” that they were “unclean.” And so, in this new equality, the only thing that really counted was functionality—and mutual support. All recognized that as the disease progressed, they would become totally incapacitated and then would die a horrible and painful death. Digits, limbs, and features would be eaten by the disease and body parts would rot and fall off. If those who were relatively well did not care for those at the end of the disease, they had no reason to expect that anyone else would care for them when their time came to suffer and to die.
It is fascinating that this particular community of lepers was multi-ethnic. It was composed of Jews and at least one Samaritan. And yet, there is no indication that this was in any way a source of concern or division for them. They were united by the plague of leprosy. It made them into Siblings—into family! To those who did not suffer from leprosy—“all lepers are the same.”
A few details from the story stand out. United as one community, the lepers collectively called out—from a distance, as the law required–to Jesus–to beg for mercy, compassion, healing, love—and acknowledgement. Jesus could have ignored them and gone on his way (that is what we most often do when accosted by beggars and homeless people on the street). He did not. He heard them, acknowledged them and helped them (though I am not sure that they really appreciated that fact at first-had I been a leper, I would probably have thought that Jesus instruction to “go and show myself” to the priest was either naïf or else actually cruel—return to the very people who had cast me out for another dose of abuse and rejection?).
It is fascinating that in Luke, the lepers used a title for Jesus which is only found in Luke (and there apparently used seven times), “epistata.” Not one of the usual titles which one would expect, neither “Rabbi,” nor “Lord.” It is translated as “Master,” but a word search reveals that “master” is a weak translation.
The Epistata was the “number two person.” Literally, he was the person who stood immediately behind the person who held power. The word literally seems to suggest one who “stands in power over” another. I think that the English political term “Viceroy,” might be a good fit. This title recognized that Jesus was a representative of God. Jesus spoke with God’s voice and with God’s power. His orders were to be obeyed as if they came directly from God. What an affirmation of faith in Jesus! Wow! He did not seem to receive this kind of respect and obedience from his “own people”!
When Jesus told the lepers to show themselves to the priest (in Jerusalem and perhaps for the Samaritan on Mount Gerizim), they obeyed without hesitation or question—even if it made no sense to them! Jesus could have touched them and healed them (as he did with another leper in Luke 5: 12) or said a word and healed them. He did not! He asked them to follow the procedure laid out in the Law of Moses. He obeyed the Law and asked the lepers to do the same. He asked them to take the risk of being willing to give God another chance. We are later told that it was this faith which was the locus of their healing, “your faith has made you whole.” After all, they were not healed when they began the journey and only discovered that they had been healed along the way!
It was at this point that the story takes an unexpected turn. Nine of them continued on (to Jerusalem) to complete the order which Jesus gave them. At this point, the community which they had shared came to an end. After they were “re-integrated” into the People of Israel, the lepers returned to their “status quo ante bellum.” They, we imagine, returned to their families, and perhaps to their professions. They “resumed” their lives where they left off. All the differences and distinctions: cultural, social and economic, which divided them, were reinstated. They no longer had anything in common—except the experience of having at one point been lepers—and one can only imagine that they may have wished to quickly put that memory behind them.
For the “now-healed Samaritan,” this engendered a crisis of identity. To what community, if any, did he now belong? For whatever reason, he came to realize that the only community which mattered to him was fellowship and discipleship in following Jesus. And so, he turned away from Mount Gerizim—or to whatever destination he had been headed and went “home” to be with the Epistata, with the ‘Master.” His response when he saw Jesus is amazing. He first rejoiced and gave thanks to God (in a loud voice—this certainly sounds like a Post-Pentecost experience to me). He then gave thanks to Jesus (literally he “eucharisted” the ‘Master.”). And then he threw himself at Jesus feet in worship, love and praise. Talk about an example of love and devotion coming from “out of the blue.” A Samaritan, possibly even a gentile, at a time when not even those closest to Jesus expressed such love, devotion, and gratitude.
A final thought. Jesus called the Samaritan a “foreigner.” The word which he uses in Greek is allogenes—and this too is a word used only in Luke. It literally means to be “begotten other.” What a fascinating concept. The Samaritan may not be born of a Jewish mother—and so was not viewed by Jewish authorities as being Jewish—even though he may, in fact, have worshipped the one God of Israel. He was “other.” And yet, in Jesus, he found welcome, inclusion and community. Does he now follow Jesus? Does he return home and spread the good news there (like the woman at the well). We do not know. But we recognize that he was a tremendous person of faith—and was just the first among millions who chose to follow Jesus and to be “grafted into the Jesus movement.”
For those who are LGBTQIA, the word allogenes is a powerful one! We have not chosen a “lifestyle,” “sexual orientation,” or “gender identity.” We are “born this way.” Our birth has been labeled as “other.” But in Christ we are “reborn,” and made very members of the household of God. In Holy Baptism, we too are “sealed as Christ’s own forever.” Some may consider us to have been born or created as “different.” But, even if that were true, it would no longer matter “in Christ.”
Interestingly enough, Jesus did not ask the “Grateful Leper,” to change, to convert–to become Jewish—or even to become “Christian”. Neither does Jesus ask LGBTQIA persons to give up or surrender our being–to change and become something or someone else. He only asks that we become ever more fully who we have been created and are called to be. Now that is good news indeed!