Except This Foreigner (Luke 17:11-19)
By Eric D. Barreto
If Jesus's words never strike me as strange, if Jesus's words never cause me some sense of unrest, if Jesus's words never trouble me, then I can be sure of one thing: I can be sure that I am missing something important.
In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus heals ten lepers who beg for his mercy. Having healed them, Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests. As they go and discover that they have been delivered from a malady that is as spiritual as it is physical, only one of the ten returns to express thanks. The one who returns is a Samaritan. A foreigner. An "other." The one we would least expect to do the right thing.
Such an imagination is sorely lacking and much needed in this political season. What if what we need most is to expect the unexpected, to anticipate that people and communities we would typically dismiss will be the ones to show us a path to faithfulness?
But this story is also a shock in a different way. In the story, Jesus wonders, "Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Except this foreigner? What does this mean?
The only one that returns to give thanks is a Samaritan, a foreigner, but it seems that Jesus's statement is more than a mere observation of fact. Jesus's words also seem to have an edge of condemnation and dismissal. As I heard Anna Carter Florence once observe, Jesus does not even speak to this healed leper but over him. "This foreigner" is barely present in this scene though he only of the ten who were healed has acted faithfully.
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Why does Jesus seem to dismiss this act of thanksgiving? Why does he seem surprised that an outsider would comprehend the enormity of his healing but nine insiders would misunderstand?
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" The experience of the foreigner is unenviable. Familiarity is fleeting. On the one hand, one's new home is never quite home. Many will dream of returning to the land of their birth, to a place that no longer really exists. For most, returning home is a dream; it is pure nostalgia. Their new home is their true home though it may never feel that way. In the end, a return home can be both promise and threat.
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" In Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, the prophet exhorts his fellow Israelites to embrace lives as foreigners in Babylon. He tells them to seek the welfare of the city and help contribute to its thriving. Build homes, for the homes to which you hope to return are no longer. Create new family links, for your kin are with you and are not to be found back in the land you once called home. Seek the welfare of the city of your exile, for it is now your city too. And yet, at the very same time, Jeremiah evokes God's promises to God's people, declaring that their return to Israel was assured by God. These are the incredible tensions of living as a foreigner in another land. A hope of eventual return tempered by the reality that this is home now and perhaps for as long as we live.
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" For a nation of so many immigrants, we tend to hear "foreigner" deployed as an epithet too often. Yet we decry the presence of foreigners in our midst only if we neglect our own exilic ancestry. Whether as immigrants seeking something better or natives displaced from their land or individuals enslaved, the stories of American families share something in the experience of exile. Moreover, decrying the presence of foreigners in our midst will lead to a theological blindspot. The so-called foreigner can approach the word of God in a particularly insightful way, a path of insight that may now be lost to many of us. After all, the foreigner understands the sting of oppression. She understands the usually unavailing nostalgia that accompanies exile. She understands the rootlessness that characterizes the foreigner's life. These are all experiences that shaped the story of Israel and its Messiah. Without them and their stories, the narratives of God's intercessions in this world are incomplete, even nonsensical.
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" What is particularly striking about our current political moment is that the "foreigner" is not just "over there." So-called foreigners are our neighbors and colleagues and friends and family. But not only that. Many of us feel like "foreigners" in our own communities and even in our own nation. Some of us feel left behind by a rapidly changing world, deserted in a wave of economic disruption. Some of us feel as if a nation that has enslaved and segregated our ancestors never counted us as anything but interlopers. Some of us know too well that our accents will always mark us as other, no matter how long we have lived in a particular place. Even the word "foreigner" is tinged with opprobrium. I hesitated using it throughout this reflection because in Christ there is no foreigner really. In Christ, all of us are kin. And yet we know too well our human tendency-even sinfulness-to isolate one group, to exclude "those" people, to make an "other" of our sisters and brothers.
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" The foreigner is a vital presence among us. The foreigner is a reminder of the pain of displacement many of us have felt. The foreigner is a reminder that God's promises know no boundaries or borders, that God's grace will not abide by the arbitrary lines we draw between one another, that God consistently finds the most unlikely proclaimers of the good news to be the best choice of all to announce God's will.
"Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" If Jesus's words never strike me as strange, if Jesus's words never cause me some sense of unrest, if Jesus's words never trouble me, then I can be sure of one thing: I can be sure that I have stopped hearing his word.
And so I pray for us, and I pray for me, especially as we turn to a critical election. May the God of all people, bless us and keep us. May the God of the exiled and displaced, grant us peace. May the God of the foreigner, bring us all safely home, wherever that home may be.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What can the "foreigner" teach us about our faith today?
2. Tell a story about a time when a stranger, an "other," a "foreigner" taught you something new.
3. The recent political season has included a number of instances of "othering," that is, a caricaturing of others that is characterized by stridency not generosity. What might a faithful response to such "othering" look like as we head toward the November election?
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