On the Border with Jesus - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21C (Proper 23)
I was taken immediately by this phrase: “Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee” (vs. 11 CEB). I know something of borders, living now on the border with Canada, and having lived close to the border with Mexico for a good portion of my life. Borders are not necessarily geographical boundaries, but artificial ones that are negotiated and fought over. Many living in the Southwest, including California, forget that there was a time when those regions belonged to Mexico. After the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, many citizens of Mexico woke up to a new reality – they were residing in a new nation with a different language, different customs, and different expectations. The current upheavals in the Middle East have in part something to do with artificial boundaries imposed by colonial powers who were less concerned about languages, customs, and religions, than governing efficiencies that benefitted them rather than the people. As we encounter these borders, we can also encounter resentment and prejudice. Miguel De La Torre writes that borderlands “symbolize the existential reality of the majority of U.S. Latinas/os. Most Hispanics, regardless of where they are or how they or their ancestors found themselves in the United States, live on the borders” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 423.]
For those who form ethnic majorities, borders are less existential, and designed to keep at bay those who threaten our own sense of identity. Consider the land disputes that keep peace from occurring in Israel/Palestine. Israel is an occupying power that builds walls and defies recognized borders. For Palestinians, whether living on one side of a wall or another, there is a sense of landlessness. Kurds feel the same way, as their homeland is divided across several nations, none of which want to relinquish control so the Kurds can have their own nation. I could go on, but his seems sufficient.
The United States has long struggled with the question of borders and immigration. Attempts have been made to control the southern border with walls and fences and border patrols, but it’s more than 1800 miles of terrain. How do you control such a border? And what do we do with those who traverse the borders, which are artificial in nature? Although it is being overshadowed at the moment by debates over government funding and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, there is a plan before the United States House of Representatives, already passed through the Senate, that implement comprehensive immigration reform that includes border security (if that’s really possible) and a pathway to citizenship for those already in the country but with documentation. Although most business experts believe that this reform would be good for America, and many religious groups from across the theological spectrum support such a move, there remains significant resistance. The United States has been a haven for immigrants from the early days of the republic, but we’ve also harbored many with strong nativist sentiments that contribute to the current impasse. For some reason, there is in our minds and hearts a certain phobia about the foreigner – the one who is different from us whether in ethnicity, social class, culture, or religion. It’s not new. It’s been with us since the dawn of time, as human beings drew borders and built walls.
In the Gospels, as well as the Book of Acts, the Samaritans are seen as despised foreigners. Although we tend to miss the scandal present in stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan, those who heard Jesus speak kindly of Samaritans would have been confused if not angered. The Samaritan was theologically suspect and ethnically despised (in part because of suspected ethnic mixing). When Jesus speaks of the Samaritans in Luke, one might want to envision a certain revulsion creeping into the hearts and minds of the listener. They were the ones who lived on the other side of the border, the ones one should keep out of the country. No path to citizenship for these folks.
In this story from the Gospel of Luke, which follows upon Jesus dissertation about the proper behavior expected of slaves, Jesus is traveling along the southern border of Galilee – near Samaria. Since it’s a border region it wouldn’t surprise us to find a bit if social/ethnic mixing. As he’s walking along the pathway, heading, one would assume to Jerusalem, he encounters a group of ten lepers. These ten lepers all cry out to Jesus, begging him to have mercy on them. They don’t dare to come too close. They know the rules. Leprosy like ethnicity has its own set of boundary issues. Jesus hears their cry and tells them to go and show themselves to the priest. Remember that the priest’s weren’t just religious figures; they were also public health officials. And the lepers do as they’re told. They don’t expect Jesus to touch them, and in this case he doesn’t touch them. He just tells them to go to the priests. Acting out of faith (trusting that Jesus’ word is true), they find that they are now clean.
One of the ten, a Samaritan, upon recognizing that he is now clean, doesn’t continue on his way to the priests. He returns to Jesus, prostrates himself before Jesus and praises God with a loud voice. Jesus points to this act of faith and commends the man, for alone among the ten he had recognized the source of his healing. But, I wonder if there’s not another reason. This Samaritan could have gone to the priests, but would they have received him – for he was a stranger. Perhaps the Samaritan recognized in Jesus a person who would welcome him though he was a Samaritan. This isn’t to condemn the Jewish people or its priests, but simply to point out that being the stranger can be difficult. Recognizing the source of his healing to be found in Jesus, he returned to that source, and offered words of praise.
Jesus commends the man, and points out that it is a foreigner who recognizes the work of God in Jesus. Luke tells this story in part to draw contrasts between those who should have been at the forefront of recognizing presence in Jesus, and those who actually did. Whether they recognized it or not all had been liberated from the borders that had kept them separated – whether by disease of ethnicity – from the whole people of God. De La Torre writes that the Samaritan is the one who truly recognized his liberation – liberation from marginalization.
He was no longer forced to live in the borderlands. In this passage we discover a Jesus who saves all living on the borders between what is defined as clean and unclean, between native and foreign. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 424].
As I read this passage I hear in it not just the story of healing a body. I hear in it an invitation to allow Jesus to transcend our borders, to liberate us from our cells, so that we can enjoy the fullness of God’s realm. For many of us, it’s difficult to imagine this border situation, but in what way does Jesus liberate all of us from living beyond the borders of separation? How might we participate in God’s work of healing rifts within the world community? What does Jesus have to say to us about this matter?