Fear, Forgetfulness, & Faith

As Jesus continued on toward Jerusalem, he reached the border between Galilee and Samaria. As he entered a village there, ten men with leprosy stood at a distance, crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He looked at them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy. One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus, shouting, “Praise God!” He fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking him for what he had done. This man was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And Jesus said to the man, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
— Luke 17:11-19 (New Living Translation)

In the Holy Land, there are many biblically significant sites to visit. In Jerusalem alone, there are so many, including, but not limited to: St. Anne’s, the church next to the Pools of Bethesda. Dominus Flevit Church, on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, where Jesus wept before entering the Holy City. In that teardrop-shaped church, you can look through the Sanctuary window across the Kidron Valley, to see the old city of Jerusalem.

The Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night he was arrested. St. Peter in Gallicantu, a church built over the prison where Jesus was held, and where his friend Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the rock of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified.

There are beautiful churches all around the land, such as: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; the Basilica of the Annunciation and St. Gabriel’s Church in Nazareth.

Off the beaten track, though, there is a seldom-visited church in the Palestinian town of Burqin in the West Bank.

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Burqin is not a thriving metropolis like Jerusalem. You can see it there, the red pointer. Almost directly south of it, at the very bottom of the frame, you can see Jerusalem. At the top, directly north of Burqin, is Nazareth in Galilee. There are under 6,000 people living there, the majority of them Muslim.

But there is a small community of Christian families, about 75 people, who can trace their ancestors back before the time of Jesus. Each Sunday they gather to worship at their church, known as the Church of the Ten Lepers.

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If you were sitting in their Sanctuary on a Sunday morning, in the pews with the worshipping community of Burqin, this is what you would see in front of you.

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It’s a very small church, with just enough room for the congregation to sit closely together on the wooden benches. The wall of twelve hand-painted icons in frames above the priest’s doorways reflect different scenes from the life of Jesus.

The first known church on this site was built in the 4th century. Local Burqin tradition tells us that that early church was built at the direction of the Empress Helena.

Helena was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who legalized Christianity in 313AD with his Edict of Milan. His mother’s deep faith had a great deal to do with this world-changing decision.

Toward the end of her life, we know that Helena took a pilgrimage through the Holy Land, and she is responsible for the initial preservation of many holy sites. When she came to the town of Burqin, she commanded that a church be erected to remember Jesus’ healing the ten lepers who encountered there.

Again, if you were seated in that small Sanctuary on a Sunday morning like this, looking at the icon wall, as beautiful as they are, your eyes might actually be drawn to what you could see off to your right.

You would see there a roughly hewn space, with unfinished and rough stone walls. In the middle of that space is a baptismal font, covered with a red and gold cloth.

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Because of its remote location, this church in Burqin escaped the large-scale destruction of churches by invaders over the centuries. Additional structures were built around Helena’s church, but the surviving original church, which included this room you see here, is one of the ten oldest churches in the world.

If you look closely toward the top of this picture, behind the hanging lantern, a large hole. This hole in the ceiling would have lead up to the surface of the hill above.

This room was once an old Roman cistern, a placing for storing water. In the years since it had been dug out, it had fallen into disuse, and was used instead as a living space, separated, away from the world, for ten lepers, cast off from society. One wall of the cistern was removed to open it up, and the sanctuary was built next to it.

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Can you imagine living there? With your only source of light and air coming through that hole in the roof. A hole that would enable you to get in and out, but would also let in the rain, the cold.

Can you imagine what it would have been like? Ten people living there together, closely packed in that dark, damp, depressing place. This was the home for those ten people afflicted with a disease so terrifying, so disfiguring, that they were rejected by their family of faith, by their own families, by their community.

This terrible disease, caused by a bacterial infection, not only robbed them of their health; it disfigured them, made them objects of fear and ridicule. It stole from them their community and their ability to care for themselves.

It is no wonder that, when they hear that the miracle-worker Jesus is walking by, on his way to far-off Jerusalem, they cry out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us!”

Have mercy on us.
Have compassion.
Look at us, see us, care for us.
Help us.

And Jesus does. He has mercy on them. He looks at them, seeing not their disease, but seeing children beloved of God.

These desperate people, rejected and scorned, living forgotten in their dark oubliette of a cistern, Jesus has compassion for them, and he offers them the mercy for which they are begging.

“Go,” he says. “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

The priests were the ones who would have declared them unclean at the beginning stages of their leprosy. The priests would have provided the diagnosis, would have cast them out of the faith community. And they are the ones who can proclaim them cured and welcome them back in. It makes complete sense that Jesus would command them to show themselves to the priests.

And it also makes sense that they, hearing Jesus say these words, would have understood exactly what he meant: they were going to be made whole again.

And they take off at a run.

We don’t know how far along their journey it is that the healing takes place. Did one of them turn to another, and see that the lesions had disappeared, that the skin was now smooth and unblemished? Did they then look down at their own hands, previously rotting-away stumps, now with fully extendable fingers. Did they feel the healing in their eyes, as their vision strengthened, and they could see the road in front of them clearly for the first time in years?

We don’t know when it happened, but we know it did happen. And, no doubt, there was joy and praise ringing from their throats and tears streaming down their faces as they ran to show the priests what had happened.

Then… one of those men stopped. He watched as his fellow sufferers ran on. And he turned back. He went back to the place of his shame, his alienation, now the place of his healing.

He went back to give thanks to the one who had healed him. He falls at Jesus’ feet, pressing his face to the ground, and cries out: “Praise God!”

Jesus looks down at this man, and asks a question of those around him: “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?”

And then he says to the man: “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

This story is often told as kind of a cautionary tale about remembering to give thanks. We’re reminded that 90% of those Jesus healed at Burqin that day ran off without even a “Hey, thanks!” to Jesus. We’re told that we should be more like that one, lone man who returned, as an afterthought, yes, but who returned to give thanks to the man whose power had healed him. We need to be more aware of the ways God is working in our lives, and to be grateful for it all.

And that is absolutely true. Living lives of profound gratitude to our God is a fundamental lesson of this story. No doubt about it.

But there is a detail here that makes it about even more than simple thanksgiving.

We’re told that this man is a Samaritan. In our translation of the passage, Jesus calls him a “foreigner.” Allogenés: a person from another nation. We can gather from this that the nine other men — still running full tilt toward the priests who can declare them healed — those men were all likely Jewish. But this man is not.

Sometimes you’ll hear this story used as a condemnation of those nine ungrateful men. They violated the rule our Mamas taught us:

Say thank you.
Be polite.
Show gratitude.

But remember: they are just doing what Jesus told them to do! Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and that is exactly what they’re doing. Showing their thanksgiving through their joyful obedience.

So, why does the Samaritan come back?

As a Samaritan, he was already outside the purview of the priests. He wouldn’t have worshipping in the Temple or the local synagogues. He wouldn’t have gone to the priests for admittance back into the Jewish community, because he wasn’t a part of the community to begin with. So although he starts out automatically with the others, following Jesus’ orders, he stops and comes back.

And seeing him lying at his feet, Jesus gives him something that he did not offer the others. In addition to that physical healing, he says, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

Jesus uses a different word for healing here. And it’s a really important one: sózó. It means to be delivered from danger, to be rescued, to be taken to a place of safety. It’s the foundation of the word Savior.

This man, the only one who came back to thank Jesus, who shows his faith in his healer by throwing himself to the ground and crying out “Praise God!” … this man is offered salvation through his faith.

As I sat in that little sanctuary in the Church of the Ten Lepers, as I stood in the middle of that cistern, I thought about how easy it is for people of faith to lose track of what is ultimately important.

It is easy for us to be deeply thankful for what we have, but forget all about the One who has given it all to us. It is easy for us to sing out with joy for healing, but not lay our lives down at the foot of the Healer.

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to help us see the danger in that.

The Samaritan wasn’t looking for human recognition of his healing. He was looking to praise the one who had given him that healing.

Those nine men did nothing actually wrong in racing off to the synagogue to be declared healed and returned to membership in the community. It was, after all, exactly what Jesus told them to do.

The error was in seeking first the approval, the acceptance of human beings. In seeking first the human acknowledgement of this miraculous healing.

Those nine men were deeply grateful for the gift they had been given. They knew what it meant for their lives, and they could not wait for it all to begin.

And that is completely, totally, utterly understandable.

But in their hurry to run toward that future, they literally turned their backs on the one who made that future possible, taking off without even a glance in the rear-view mirror.

My prayer for us this day, this Lent, is that we would not make that same mistake in our lives.

Instead, may we, like the Samaritan man, see the ways God is powerfully at work in our lives — the ways God is drawing us closer to God’s love, the ways God is healing us and guiding us and calling us and saving us — and that we would, like that man, lay our entire lives in front of Jesus, with hearts full of gratitude, crying out with full-throated voices:

“Praise God!”

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