An authentic encounter with God

Liz Stuart, 9 October 2022

2 Kings 5: 1–3, 7–15c; Luke 17: 11–19

‘He is not the Messiah. He is a very naughty boy.’ Words, of course, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a film which at the time was so controversial I remember crossing picket lines at the cinema to see it, twice. Forty-three years later it is hard to fathom what all the fuss was about. One of the characters in the film, played by Michael Palin, is an ex-leper. He approaches Brian, saying: ‘Alms for an ex-leper, sir’.

Brian: Did you say ‘ex-leper’?
Ex-leper: That’s right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
Brian: Well, what happened?
Ex-leper: Oh, cured, sir.
Brian: Cured?
Ex-leper: Yes, sir … miracle, sir. God bless you!
Brian: Who cured you?
Ex-leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! “You’re cured, mate.” ******* do-gooder.

When Brian eventually gives him some money, the ex-leper complains at the small amount. ‘There is no pleasing some people’, says Brian. ‘That is what Jesus said, sir’, replies the ex-leper as he skips off.

You could read our gospel story today as a story about ungrateful ex-lepers. Ten are cured but only one returns to thank Jesus. And in a sense it is, but I think the story is much deeper and richer than that.

I love it when scripture challenges our preconceptions. The leper who returns to give thanks is a Samaritan. I do not think I had ever noticed before that he was hanging around with a group of nine non-Samaritans – Jews. So much for Jews and Samaritans all hating each other!

And that reminds me that we often paint Jesus’ world with too broad a brush. Not all Catholics and Protestants hated each other during the darkest days in Northern Ireland. Not all Palestinians and Israelis hate each other today. So why should we believe that all Jews and Samaritans hated each other? The situation is always more complex than the norm or surface would suggest. People do not have to hate each other, even when their cultural context demands it.

Perhaps, we might think, when you are a leper and forced to the margins of society you are less fussy as to who you hang out with. But some scholars argue that there is little evidence that lepers were pushed to the margins of society in Jesus’ day as they were in later times. Certainly, they would not have been allowed in the Temple, and they may have had to wear the dress of mourners, but there is no evidence that they had to live or work separately from everyone else.

Think of Jesus’ visit to Bethany, when the woman anoints him with nard. Whose house is he in? Simon the leper, not Simon the ex-leper; and there is nothing made of this fact. It is presented as quite unremarkable that Jesus and his disciples should be having dinner in the house of a leper and that a leper should have a house.

Whatever, these ten lepers hang out together and approach Jesus together, crying out to him using the standard beggar’s cry, ‘Have mercy on us’, which is a cry for alms. They do not ask him to, but he heals them and sends them to the priests in the Temple to be declared clean. And this is where the story gets really interesting, I think.

You may remember that the issue which divided Jews and Samaritans, and still does, is where God is to be worshipped. For the Jews it was the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Samaritans it was and still is Mount Gerizim. The Jews know where to go – Jerusalem – but what should the Samaritan do? Should he go with his ex-leper friends to Jerusalem (he had after all just been healed by a Jew), or should he go to Mount Gerizim and his own priests? This story is set on the border between Samaria and Galilee, the symbolic dividing line between Jews and Samaritans. Which road should the Samarian take? It reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
and be one traveller, long I stood.

Crossroads are often regarded as liminal spaces, spaces between worlds which can be places of spiritual insight. We may imagine the Samaritan poised between two roads; his friends, tired of waiting, have headed off towards Jerusalem while he wrestles with which path to take. And then he sees which road to take, and it is neither the road to Mount Gerizim nor the path to Jerusalem, it is the road back to Jesus.

As he goes, he glorifies God as the shepherds did returning from Bethlehem because, like them, he knows he has seen God in action, and when he finds Jesus, he falls on his face, the position of worship. This ‘foreigner’ has realised that the place of authentic encounter with the living God is not in either temple but in the person who healed him. This is a profound Christological moment – the Samaritan sees God in Jesus.

Jesus is the true temple of the divine. The temple is not bricks and mortar any more. It is a person, and he loves you.

He gives thanks, eucharisto, which is a word in the New Testament that is only used to give thanks to God. Jesus is the true temple of the divine. Jesus is not miffed that the others have not come to say thank you; he just notes that they have not returned to glorify God. They have not ‘got it’. The temple is not bricks and mortar any more. It is a person, and he loves you.

Let’s give thanks through this Eucharist that we have ‘got it’. God was and is in Christ and Christ dwells with us, in us and between us, and he loves us. This realisation is what enabled that ex-leper and enables us to worship. As Jesus says to another Samaritan in another gospel, the woman at the well, worship ‘in spirit and in truth’.