Ronald Arms: A Samaritan Thank You

October 15. 1995
Ronald Arms 
Texts: Luke 17:11-19

A Samaritan Thank You


Today’s text invites study and curiosity. The story of Jesus healing the ten lepers is unique to Luke’s gospel. Critics disagree on its proper title, its literary category and historical origins. Its theological message is also a subject of debate. The story begins with a confusing geographical reference. It is the only place in the Bible where people who are not disciples call Jesus "master." The text also uses a word for "foreigner" not found elsewhere in the New Testament. This is a complex passage. If we would allow this story to speak to us, we will allow its complexity to put us on the spot.

Because Jesus heals ten people it is easy to focus on health and miracles. When we look deeper, however, this is a story about belonging. The healings refer us back to Leviticus 13 and 14. There we find Israel’s purity code. This is a complicated system that divides "clean" from "dirty" as a way of defining and understanding what it is to be human.

Dirt is a hard subject to work with. It is the nature of dirt in any culture that people do not ask what makes it dirty. In Israel lepers were dirty. They had to live outside town, wear warning bells around their necks to avoid accidental contact with others, and let their hair grow long. For Jews lepers were in the same category as menstruating women, unclean animals, cross dressers and homosexual men.

This is a story about social boundaries then. To be a Jew did not mean to confess a certain faith, but to belong to a certain people. This is about who is in and who is out. Lepers were out, and Leviticus 13 and 14 give detailed instructions on what they need to do in order to be in. The social pressures of being a minority group in an alien culture demanded that the Jews justify their separateness. In this story we see one way in which they drew those lines. So it seems particularly relevant for Recommitment Sunday.

Part of my original attraction to the Church of the Savior is the difference it draws between members and others. While Seekers doesn’t use the words clean and dirty, we are serious about call and boundaries. I’m grateful this is a place where once a year all of us think about who is in, who is out and what this means.

The story of the ten lepers is a story of outsiders who want to claim a place among God’s people. They want their health back 80 they can cross the boundary that separates them from insiders. They want to join the community. Reading from this point of view and asking how this text puts me on the spot raises three pointed questions I want to work with today:

  1. Have I experienced Jesus, or do I just have knowledge about him?
  2. Can the practice of giving be a way to the living Christ?
  3. Am I willing to work at a relationship that defies easy definition?

Knowledge or Experience?

Chances are the ten lepers knew a good bit about Jesus. He enjoyed a growing reputation as a healer. People said He favored the outcasts and the poor. He challenged the authorities of his day. Many talked about him. He had called twelve disciples. Even people living on the outskirts of town are likely to have had knowledge of this special person.

So it is with us. We have heard about Jesus since our childhood. His followers have a long track record. Many of us have read the gospels, and studied materials about Jesus and the Christian faith. Perhaps we are not driven by the urgency for healing that the ten lepers had, but like them we have knowledge of this special person.

When we allow this story to put us on the spot, it challenges us to go beyond our knowledge of Jesus. The Samaritan thank you reminds us that it is the experience of the living Christ that is crucial. To encounter a true master is said to be worth a century of studying his or her teachings. We should strive for this personal encounter.

Today is not about checking our beliefs to make sure they are correct. It is not about proper words, or even proper behavior important as both are. It is not about a particular concept of the church or faith community. Today should be about experience-about knowing in our heart, in our daily life, right here and now that the living Christ is as interested in us today as he was in the ten lepers long ago.

Marjory put me on the spot a short while ago when she asked me about my personal relationship with Jesus. We talk on a regular basis, but it is not often that she jolts me with this particular question. While I was taken aback, I’m grateful that she did.

I remember talking about independent insides and compassion. I returned to my journal to dig more deeply. There I discovered that whether to claim Jesus as master or to honor Him as the One who sets me free to be my own master is my basic issue. I suspect it is more traditional and acceptable to declare myself His slave. One way to learn about freedom is to study slavery. But if Jesus came simply to show me the right kind of captivity, I’m not sure how valuable a gift that is. My conviction is He came to enable and facilitate my direct contact with the Creator. Mine is a first hand faith.

Even if we are outsiders, even if we are sick, Jesus is available to us. Not just the Jesus of history, but the Living Christ. Jesus comes to us in the Holy Spirit. When we base faith on experience rather than knowledge, we come alive. We do not have to die to arrive at the gates of Heaven. In fact, we have to be truly alive. We need to touch life 80 deeply that the Kingdom of God becomes a reality in our midst. We do not so to the Kingdom of God; it comes to us. Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come…" Have an experience today, again that transforms you into an agent of the spirit.

Experience the Living Christ. The lepers were not interested in a faith, a doctrine or a set of beliefs; they want help from a person. We need to enrich our knowledge of the Jesus of history with our experience of the Living Christ. It is not only true that Christians need Jesus, but Jesus needs Christians for his energy to continue in this world.

All of us possess the energy of the Holy Spirit. Its intensity and strength vary in each person. Our daily practice is what increases the strength of that power. There are a variety of practices that can help us. We need to make sure we have our own. Practice is the path. We learn by making mistakes. We practice to increase our opportunity to learn. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes possible.

The Practice of Giving

One practice that can help us experience the living Christ is giving. Initially I picked this Sunday because of the Samaritan thank you. As I worked with this story, this act of gratitude brought Christ to life for me again. It is the willingness of an outsider to give thanks that transforms a healing event into a saving experience. The power of giving is in its capacity to provide a personal encounter with the Living Christ.

The greatest gift we can give is thanksgiving. In giving thanks we give ourselves. One who says "Thank you" to another really says, "We belong together." Usually we give thanks after something good has happened to us; consider the possibility that giving thanks can make something good happen to us. When we experiment with giving and thanks we enhance the likelihood we will experience Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Surprise is one key to the practice of giving. No matter how dull we are, it is close at hand. Even when our life lacks extraordinary events, the ordinary always wants to surprise us afresh. Someone wrote from Minnesota on a winter morning, "I got up before dawn and caught God painting all the trees white. He’s been doing much of His best work while we sleep to surprise us when we get up." A fresh look at the ordinary often surprises. We can cultivate our taste for surprise. An inch of surprise can lead to miles of gratitude. Surprise is the spark that ignites and rekindles of the flame of our relationship with Jesus.

Vision is a second key to the practice of giving. We do a lot of looking these days; we see less and less. Looking and seeing both start with sense perception. When I "look" at the world and label its phenomena, I make immediate choices. I accept or reject what I look at, according to its usefulness to "Me". The purpose of looking is to survive, to cope, to manipulate. This we are trained to do from our first day. When, on the other hand, I see — suddenly I am all eyes, I forget this "Me," and dive into the reality of what confronts me, become part of it, participate in it. Seeing uses sacred eyes. Then we recognize gift. The truth is everything is gift, but we have trouble seeing this. Some things look like they can be taken for granted. Some we think we earn. Some look like we own them. When we see deeply however giver, receiver and gift are all simply the universe rearranging itself. When we are able to see life as a gift, we experience gratitude.

Attitude is a third key. An attitude of gratitude is a posture, a way of positioning not only our body but our selves. Standing, sitting, and lying down are attitudes, each of which makes something possible. When I stand, I can see farther, I can walk, I can run; when I sit, I can lean back, relax, read; when I lie down, I can doze or sleep. And when I am grateful, I can receive .

I want to thank Seekers the way the Samaritan thanked Jesus. You have given me a place to grow. I’ve taken inspiration, patience, and challenges in abundance from you. I’ve received an appreciation of silence, prayer, and journalizing from you. you have given me money from the Growing Edge fund to experiment with, and moments of intimacy and kindness beyond merit. Whatever else you hear me say today, I want to be sure you hear me say Thank you. You often rekindle the flame of my first hand faith.

The experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is a gift. Surprise, vision and attention may help us receive them. We can not produce the gift on demand. A woman came to the Maggid of Koznitz asking him to pray for her that she have a child. "My Mother too was unhappy as you are," said the Maggid. "Then one day she met the Baal Shem Tov and presented him with a beautiful cape. One year later I was born." The woman’s eyes brightened. we will make you the most beautiful cape in the worlds" she said. The Maggid smiled and shook his head. "I am afraid that will not work," he said. "You see, my mother did not know this story." Like the Samaritan thank you, our gratitude involves an act of faith. Grace blesses us generously when it gives us the experience of the Living Christ.

A Relationship that Defies Easy Definition

The ten lepers learned first hand that this relationship defies easy definition. They called out to Jesus for help. He told them to submit to the purity laws. It is curious Jesus would ask a Samaritan to do this. The purity laws did not apply to foreigners. Jews considered them a gift from God to Israel. In addition, Jesus reproaches the nine lepers who follow the rules. They were healed because they were obedient. But Jesus reprimands them. Then he says to the Samaritan, "Your faith has made you whole." This too is an unusual statement since all ten are healed. The lepers must have found their relationship to Jesus far from simple.

Recommitment is about relationship. It is about asking for help at times. It is about being told to follow the rules. It is about trusting enough to heal. It is about including outsiders even though that breaks the rules. It is about being reprimanded. It is about saying thank you. It is all these and much more. It is a relationship that defies easy definition.

Recommitment isn’t a unit of measure. It involves degrees of practice. It isn’t about comparisons. It is about challenges. Some may think of it as a kind of pregnancy. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you are not committed. I find it much more like sex. There are many different ways to practice it and some are more satisfying than others. It is not a one time choice, but a daily decision that continues to challenge me on an ongoing basis.

One of the phrases I’ve found provocative, stimulating and helpful is that there is a difference between avoiding temptation and achieving freedom. If we look at recommitment as a way to avoid temptation it becomes a control mechanism: a fence that protects privileges, a secret password that opens the club door, the ordination of a privileged few, a credential to grasp. When we understand it as the pursuit of freedom it invites all of us to strive for the unattainable, dare the difficult and grow a soul. It is doing what you truly want to do instead of trying to please important and significant others. It is a way of being present to and interested in lifers mysteries. Then it is a springboard we can use to dive into important activities that command our participation.

Recommitment replaces the altar of sacrifice with the table of celebration. Participants take the place of priests. The spirit of compassion takes precedence over the spirit of justice. This is a call to grow up. There is no one else to blame. Our source of authority comes from within. Each of us is challenged to engage the invisible, make direct contact with the Sacred and experience the Spirit.

Some see recommitment as a test and think of it in terms of rules and limits. I prefer to see it as a best choice. It is about choosing your company, knowing full well we all are imperfect. It is easy to see it as a symbol of the few and proud. I prefer to think of it as a magnet that attracts people no longer satisfied with a comfortable mediocrity. It is not about obedience; it is about integrity. It is not about the least we can do to be in good standing; it is about being clear where I stand regardless of the cost. It is not about how far we can push the rules; it is about how far we can push ourselves. It is a laboratory for the human spirit.


This story put me on the spot with these three questions:

  1. Have I experienced the Living Christ?
  2. Can the practice of giving help me do that?
  3. Am I willing to work at a relationship that defies easy definition?

Henri Nouwen in his Latin American journal appropriately entitled Gracious shares words from a Third World Bishop that eloquently respond to these concerns,

Help us discover our riches;
don’t judge us poor because we lack what you have.
Help us discover our chains;
don’t judge us slaves by the type of shackles you wear.
Be patient with us as a people;
don’t judge us backward simply because we don’t follow your stride
Be patient with our pace;
don’t judge us lazy simply because we can’t follow your tempo.
Be patient with our symbols;
don’t judge us ignorant because we can’t read your signs.
Be with us and proclaim
the richness of your life which you can share with us.
Be with us and be open to what we can give.
Be with us as a companion who walks with us,
neither behind or in front, in our search for life and ultimately for God.

When we are with each other in this spirit our act of faith may evoke a gift of grace for which we can again say Thank You! Like the Samaritan Thank You, our gratitude will allow us to experience the Living Christ. Filled with the energy of the Holy Spirit we can enjoy a relationship that defies easy definition. Together then we can transform this community into a practice center that uses giving as well as other experiences to receive a first hand faith.

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