Touching the untouchable in you and me

Acknowleding our brokenness and need is the path to wholeness. (Listen.)

When I was fourteen, our family moved to Washington, DC. I will never forget the day we arrived. We drove downtown, and everywhere I looked, I saw tents and tarpaulins, refrigerator boxes and flapping plastic sheets. ‘What’s happening?’ I asked, ‘I mean, what’s with all the tents?’ I had never seen a homeless person before, and I didn’t understand that this is how many people live. And I never became accustomed to it: that, in the capital city of the richest country in the world, thousands of people live on the streets.

But I did learn self-protection: and that meant learning not to look. Ignoring the man defecating on the pavement; letting my eyes slide past the face of the woman shaking a coin cup; holding my breath at the retch-making stench as I walked past one encampment, then another.

It is into a world such as this that Jesus comes. Ten lepers are wandering the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee. Ten invisible people. Ten human beings relegated to nothingness. According to custom, they must live apart from everyone else. They must keep their distance; wear torn clothes and messy hair; and call a warning to anyone who comes near, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As if anyone needs a warning: nobody looks at these people; nobody even comes close.

Except Jesus. Jesus sees them, and he doesn’t look away. Instead, he draws near and offers them a gift. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests,’ he says, and in that suggestion is the promise of a cure. So they head off, and as they go, they are made clean. That is, their skin is healed; they can be certified as clean; they can re-engage with society. They can go back to their families, and back to their work, and back to the marketplace, and back to religious gatherings and festivals: back to everything which gives them a sense of identity and belonging.

That’s exactly what nine of them do. And no doubt this leads to their greater happiness and resilience, better sleep, and all that good stuff; but when they re-enter society, they again become part of the problem: they become part of a world which forces people who threaten the norm to the margins.

People who are very poor, or homeless, or who seek asylum; people who suffer from disabilities or mental illness; people who align themselves with the LGBTIQA+ community; people who question patriarchal power or capitalism: in our world, these people rarely have full access to employment or good health or social systems. Such people are often mocked and blamed for their own exclusion; such people are made scapegoats for our society’s fears and failings. And nine go back to this world.

The tenth is different. He never goes to the priests. Instead, when he sees that he is clean, he ‘turns back’ to Jesus. In Greek, this word, ‘turn back’, echoes the word for conversion, or ‘turning around’. And as this man turns back to Jesus, he shouts glory to God at the top of his voice; then he falls flat on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. And Jesus tells him that this turning and praising and thanking are signs of the faith which makes him whole.

Most of us here are straight, white and middle class. For the most part, we are fundamentally acceptable to our society. People don’t avert their eyes when they see us in the street. We are the clean ones; we are the helpers; we model ourselves on Jesus in this story. We assume that we can walk into any church; they’d be lucky to have us. Religious and community groups are wide open to us. Our experience of social barriers and social shunning is next to non-existent.

The Samaritan, on the other hand, was a nobody. He was shunned as a leper; he was shunned as a Samaritan; he was shunned as a human being. No doors were open to him, but Jesus searched him out, and offered him a path back to communal life.

I suspect it is hard for us to inhabit what this feels like, because communal life has never really been closed to us. We’re more likely to be offering someone else the path into it. And if it’s hard for us inhabit what this feels like, then it’s probably very hard for us to know the power of praise and thanksgiving that welled up in this man, and led him to throw himself down at the feet of Jesus.

It seems to me that real gratitude, the gratitude which loosens people’s tongues, and leads them to shout praises to God and throw themselves down at Jesus’ feet, the gratitude which leads to wholeness, arises out of desperation. So if we let this story touch only the surface of our straight white middle class lives, we will miss out.

But if we let this story touch our dark and dangerous depths, then it might do some good. For there it will reach all that we keep hidden: our desires and our histories which wound us and damage us and make us feel unfit for human society. Those things we keep hidden because we are afraid that, if people knew about them, we would be rejected. The scars from abuse. The struggles with mental illness. The harsh voices from our past. Our rapacious greed. Our crippling anxiety. The violence we show to our partners and children. Our self-loathing. Our doubt. How little we like people. The leprous scaly scabby nastiness with which we congratulate ourselves for our comfortable lives, and blame victims for their suffering, and turn away from people in need. But it is these parts of ourselves which we need to own, and which we need to open up to this story: for it is these parts of our lives which need healing.

Most of us most of the time let Jesus make us nice enough for polite society. Being a Christian is a pleasant, if slightly eccentric, gloss on our comfortable lives. We cheerfully remain in cultural captivity as we maintain middle class morality, encounter people of different values and social classes only as clients, avoid real conflict, and suppress the dark and dangerous depths of ourselves.

But sometimes some of us are willing to face the depths. Sometimes some of us are prepared to acknowledge our brokenness and how much we need God. Sometimes some of us are willing to be humble, and to thank Jesus for the way he knows and accepts not only our nice polite selves but our demons, fears and failings. And it is this honesty, this recognition of our leprous scabby scaly selves, this willingness to be vulnerable and entrust not just the nice parts but our entire lives to Jesus, which will make us whole.

So why not be like the Samaritan? Why not recognize and name your brokenness, your sinfulness, your wounds; and all the ways you benefit from and participate in our toxic society? Why not admit how you refuse to be vulnerable and shore up your defences, even as you turn away from others’ suffering and pain? Why not confess, repent, turn back?

For Jesus Christ loves the unlovable, touches the untouchable, accepts the unacceptable in you and me! And when we entrust our whole selves to him, we are reborn in his image. Together we become a new community, vulnerable, wounded, and formed in his image; together we discover a culture and a way of life shot through with forgiveness and acceptance and gratitude and love.

So why not entrust yourself to him: the good, the bad, and the ugly? Why not be made whole? Ω

A reflection on Luke 17:11-19 given to Sanctuary, 13 October 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Image found here.

Hello, friend

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