Sometimes Biblical passages just beg for Midrashic readings. On the surface, the details don’t add up, so the options available to the interpreter are to ignore most of them, usually constructing a one-dimensional moral or dogmatic lesson; or to take the gaps as invitations to contribute meaning and pray that one’s own contribution is a faithful one.
This coming Sunday, I think I’m going with that latter sort of move.
Clearly this week’s gospel reading from Luke has a clear moral lesson (gratitude as the proper response to divine grace) and a lesson about the character of the Kingdom (the fact that a Samaritan is among those made whole, contrary to prevailing first-century notions of the Reign of God). But piecing those two lessons together requires some interpretation. Perhaps this story foreshadows the great lack of gratitude that will, at the end of Acts, define the Jerusalem Temple. Perhaps this is another story of the forgiven sinner, something like the tale of Zaccheus, in which someone doubly alienated from the life of YHWH in Jerusalem comes to a faithfulness defined by gratitude irrespective of cultus. Perhaps this is a polemic against those who would seek out ritual rather than faithfulness. I could imagine sermons that went any of those directions (and I imagine preachers across the lectionary-preaching neighborhoods of Christendom might be preaching each of them), but ultimately I’m interested in what grows out of the geography of this story.
The text makes clear that this encounter happens on the borders of things, places in-between. The village is in between Samaria (a place itself between Jew and Gentile in the imagination of first-century Jewish nationalism) and Galilee (a place in between fervent zeal and backwater violence). Jesus meets the lepers on the way into the village, between wilderness and town. And the men are lepers, somewhere between human beings and walking diseases in the imagination of the Temple cult. And when Jesus encounters them, and they address him as Master, they do so precisely from nowhere, as people without a village and without a nation, who do not even have the fortune of being lepers some-place.
And Jesus does something bizarre, as he often does in Luke: he tells them to go and to visit the priest. Now there could be a range of meanings for “priest,” but more than likely a first-century reader would immediately think of the Jerusalem priesthood, a group of people who are decidedly somewhere, not between places like these lepers. No doubt some folks in a first-century audience would hear this as a cruel joke; lepers, as a group, could not enter the Temple, and having a holy man tell them to go there and see priests who would not go near them must have sounded like “Let them eat cake,” a command so tone-deaf as to be either mean or utterly ignorant. Yet as they go along, they discover that they’re whole again, able to return to the Temple indeed, and so they go. After all, these lepers, perhaps for the first time in years, can once again enter into the life of Israel, the life of YHWH as they know it. The text of Luke never says what came of them, but it’s hard not to imagine that they might have been among the crowds crying “Hosana!” when Jesus entered the city.
But the story’s attention turns to one leper in particular, one who does not go on to Jerusalem but turns back, returning to nowhere. That one leper, we readers find out late in the narrative, was one more sort of in-between: an ethnic Samaritan himself, his story was a tragic one, delivered from one sort of alienation only to discover that the alienating name “Samaritan” remained all-too-present once the alienating name “leper” went away. When Jesus says that only one returned to praise God, there has to be some irony there: after all, he knows full well that the other nine are headed to the place of praise, that their lives now will include articulations of divine praise that their sickness had denied them. Yet Jesus reserves his own praise for the Samaritan, the outsider, the one who will live in-between for his whole life, leper or not. The dark tragic humor of his story is that the leprosy was the one thing that allowed him fellowship with Israelites, and now that is gone.
But the end of today’s reading, Jesus provides one more word of comfort, still mysterious, to the man. Although the Samaritan would forever be denied the life of faithfulness that lives in the Temple, nonetheless his own sort of faithfulness, the sort that returns not to a holy city but to the moment and the story in which his body received its health, has made him whole and will give his life wholeness, even in-between. It’s a hard lesson to receive, and my own Midrash might make too much of the life in-between, but such is the life of faith: sometimes the more obvious next step just is not available.
May the God who encountered Moses beyond the wilderness hear our prayers from in-between, and may the Kingdom come to all places and to every nowhere.