Text Study for Luke 17:11-19 (Part Three)

The skin is the largest organ “in” the human body. It is also our most important physical boundary. Skin marks where we stop, and the world starts. It holds “me” together and protects me from illness and infection. My skin marks me as an individual person – or at least it should. In social terms, however, skin also broadcasts to the world messages about who I am. If I am outside the ranks of the privileged, my skin may in fact hide my identity and relegate me to the status of a category or class.

Yet, how often do I – a White American man – actually think about my skin? Not very often, because my white skin remains the cultural norm and center of Western culture. That blithe lack of consciousness is only one symptom of my White-skin privilege. Those without such privilege must think about their skin all the time. Just do a search on a book by a Black author, for example. In Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, “skin” shows up ninety-seven times. For those in America who are not White, “skin” matters.

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White Westerners use the reality of skin tone differences to construct the fiction and mythology of racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that race is the child of racism, not the father (page 7). Superficial differences in appearance get reified into real distinctions between persons. These distinctions are then used as the justification for differences in the valuation and treatment of persons. These distinctions are used to erase individual identities and to create limiting labels.

I imagine that “skin” was a regular subject of conversation, attention, and awareness in the leper community in our text. Those ten men must have talked about the ways they had found to manage their skin conditions. They likely compared blemishes, scars, and the lack thereof. I assume that they helped one another monitor changes in their skin conditions – especially in places they could not see themselves. Skin was a central part of their shared reality.

I have some second-hand acquaintance with such concerns about skin. If one has or has had some variety of melanoma, the condition of one’s skin becomes a heightened concern. SPF becomes a very important number when considering a variety of products. I have learned that even hats can have an SPF rating. Regular monitoring of moles and blemishes becomes very important. Sometimes those offending spots must be surgically removed. Ignoring one’s skin is a luxury for the few, not the norm for the many.

The ten lepers didn’t choose this shared reality. Nor did they seek out skin focus as a way of life. Nor did they construct leprosy’s social and religious meaning. They shared a superficial resemblance and ceased to be individuals. They became a category of people, subject to rules and regulations regardless of their individual identities. While these ten knew intimately how they were alike and different, the world around them only saw “lepers.” Not even the distinctions between Jew and Samaritan could transcend the erasure of individual identities imposed by the label of “leper.”

The very vagueness of the biblical understanding of “leprosy” means it is also a constructed category. A superficial skin difference that might remind viewers of a corpse becomes the basis for a label, legislation, and loss of status. Whatever the degree of isolation those labelled as lepers suffered, there was sufficient ostracism for the condition to be one that cried out for healing.

I recently finished Jessica Nordell’s excellent book, The End of Bias, A Beginning: How We Eliminate Unconscious Bias and Create a More Just World. I would strongly recommend this book for your consideration. Nordell examines all sorts of unconscious bias, but she offers deep insights into race-based bias and discrimination.

“Discrimination on the basis of skin color arrives around age five or six,” Nordell reports, “though recent research suggests that White children may form biases at the intersection of race and gender as early as four, reacting more negatively to Black boys than to Black girls, White girls, or White boys” (Nordell, page 45). I wonder if discrimination against “lepers” began as early and was as deeply entrenched in first-century Mediterranean culture. I suspect it was.

Gabor Mate’ would ask a “penetrating” question of this text, I think. To what degree is biblical leprosy a symptom rather a disease itself? What if the disease is more social than personal, as much psychic as physical? Does this concatenation of skin conditions represent and express deeper psychosocial illnesses in the culture? Are the lepers merely the identified patients in a psychosocial system that suffers from violated boundaries?

“The suppression of individual authenticity plays havoc with biology, breeding illness,” Mate’ writes, “even greater mayhem will ensue for bodies belonging to groups whose self-suppression has been systemically imposed, often with great violence” (page 318). Mate’ outlines in excruciating detail the ways in which racism, for example, causes the gap in health outcomes directly correlated with race.

Mate’ quotes the German physician, Rudolf Virchow. Virchow is now known as the father of modern pathology. He “disdained any separation of health from social conditions and culture,” Mate’ writes. When Virchow was challenged with the critique that his views were more political than medical, Virchow replied, “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale” (Mate’, page 324).

Perhaps we could say that even more for a religious faith. What social and political traumas do those lepers wear on their scaly skins? I don’t know. But I imagine that their ostracism made things worse for them, not better. They lived in a place and time where boundaries of all kinds were assaulted (as do we). The place between the world and them (to nod toward Ta-Nehisi Coates) – their skin – carried the signs of assaults on the self. Those assaults were perhaps on their own selves, but surely on the selves around them as well.

Jesus cleanses their blemishes. He does that for all ten. But the one who acknowledges and accepts the depth of his healing – the Samaritan – that one was saved. Perhaps a sermon title for this text might be, “Salvation is More Than Skin Deep.” Ten were cleansed. One was rescued. Ten were invited into a required transaction. One was personally transformed. The Samaritan could embrace his full humanity, worshipping and praising at Jesus’ feet. That one received transformation rather than mere transaction. Trauma was transmuted and transformed.

It strikes me that Jesus transforms the whole “system” in this story. The prescribed response following such a healing was to “go, show yourselves to the priests.” After a thorough examination, the former leper was pronounced “clean” and could return home. The Samaritan “returns” to Jesus and praises God. John Swinton declares that “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society, Rather,” Swinton argues, “he moved the margins” (page 49, Swinton’s emphasis).

The Samaritan’s skin condition could be remedied and removed. However, his social status, vis a vis, Judaism, could not be remedied and removed. The Samaritan’s ethnicity could be embraced or rejected, but not altered. “The social location of Jesus reveals the proper social location of the church,” Swinton concludes, “and the primary orientation of the theological journey” (pages 49-50).

That “proper social location” of the church is not inside our church communities and institutions. The Lukan documents emphasize “going” more than “receiving.” Even when Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, Jesus goes to the homes of those sinners. He doesn’t wait for them to come to him. The forgiving father goes to meet the prodigal son. Jesus comes to the home of Zacchaeus, and in that way, salvation comes to that house.

It’s too easy for us White Christians, heirs and inhabitants of colonizing imperial denominations, to think that when we go, we are the only ones who bring something to the table. That’s part of the wonder of our little story this week. Jesus brings cleansing and saving with him. But the Samaritan brings insight, trust, worship, praise, and gratitude – responses the “insiders” apparently didn’t bring to the table. When the church “goes out,” our first posture is that of listening learner, not that of White savior.

And the Samaritan becomes once again a “person,” when his leprosy is removed. That is certainly the case in cultural terms. Jesus recognizes him as an “other-born” person. But more than that, the Samaritan embraces what it means to be fully human. He praises God with joyful worship. He thanks God for the fullness of life restored to him. He has stepped out of the shadows of prejudice and despair. He walks in the light of love and hope. That’s what being saved looks like – a fully human being joyfully embracing their own, God-given skin.

References and Resources

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Myrick C. Shinall Jr. “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 4 (2018): 915–34. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1372.2018.454556.

Mate’, Gabor, and Mate’, Daniel. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. New York: Avery, 2022. Nordell, Jessica. The End of Bias: A Beginning. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 17:11-19 (Part Two)

Levine and Witherington footnoted a 2018 Journal of Biblical Literature article by Myrick C. Shinall, Jr., titled “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” It’s available for reading at www.jstor.org. If you don’t take advantage of the resources at this site, I’d encourage you to do so. I register through my Google account. The search function is useful, and I almost always find something interesting and insightful to assist with my weekly interpretation. If you’re a regular here, you know that I try to curate what I find. But there’s no substitute for first-person reading.

Shinall is assistant professor of surgery and medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is also a member of Vanderbilt’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. Thus, he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the psychosocial realities of illness and exclusion.

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I’ll share some of the high points of Shinall’s article, because it tends to contradict some of the consensus views of lepers and leprosy in the gospel accounts. These consensus views include the notion that lepers were socially ostracized and isolated in the first-century Mediterranean world. Lepers were treated thus by Jews because they were regarded as ritually impure. Contact with ritually impure persons rendered others ritually impure. Contact with lepers was avoided. Thus, Jesus was a moral hero and courageous boundary-breaker when he healed lepers.

“I challenge this consensus,” Shinall writes, “and argue that neither the gospel texts nor available background information on Second Temple Judaism demands that we read the leprous characters of the gospels as outcasts” (page 916). Just as a reminder, what the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament label as “leprosy” is any disfiguring skin condition that might render the sufferer as corpse-like in appearance.

We need not assume that the sufferer had contracted Hansen’s disease, nor that we are talking about any one type of skin disfigurement. “Leprosy” is a catch-all term in both testaments and beyond.

Were lepers socially isolated in Second Temple Judaism? Not necessarily, Shinall argues. The evidence outside the New Testament is inconsistent in its testimony regarding the exclusion of lepers and taboos against touching them. The gospel texts don’t describe the lepers as excluded from society or suffer such taboos. In fact, the witness of the gospel texts offers some evidence that lepers were included in normal social intercourse. For example, Jesus dines at the home of “Simon, the leper.” That story doesn’t reek of exclusion and taboo.

“Reading such exclusion into the gospel stories,” Shinall writes, “creates a number of problems, not the least of which is insidious anti-Judaism” (page 917). This is one of the reasons his article shows up in the Levine and Witherington footnotes. Stories of Jesus healing lepers are often interpreted in such a way as to make Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. These stories, especially in the Lukan account, contrast Jesus (and often his disciples) with the Pharisees and the scribes. But the content of that contrast matters. And it is not, Shinall argues, that Jesus crosses purity and taboo boundaries while others do not.

Shinall examines the Torah regulations regarding leprosy. He also reads closely the works of Josephus, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in this regard, as well as the Mishnah. “In summary,” he writes, “the available evidence provides an inconsistent picture of the degree of the leper’s social stigma in Jesus’ time” (page 924). Josephus and the Dead Sea scrolls have some brief notes that might lead to exclusion of lepers. However, rabbinic reflections tend more toward some degree of inclusion.

“Although the sources describe some level of ostracism for the leprous in some places,” Shinall summarizes, “the weight of the sources does not warrant the assumption that Second Temple Jews made a consistent effort to avoid social and physical contact with lepers” (page 924-925). That inconsistent picture is reflected in the gospel accounts as well. He writes that “social isolation [of lepers] figures only sporadically in these stories, further evidence that the segregation of leprous people varied over time and location” (page 925). Closer reading is required.

Shinall looks at the actual meaning of leprosy in biblical texts. In Numbers 12, Miriam – the sister of Moses – is afflicted with leprosy as punishment for grumbling against God. Miriam is excluded from the wilderness camp for seven days. That is not on the basis of Levitical purity rules, but rather on the basis of her shame at grumbling against God. Most important in this instance, I think, is the connection between leprosy and some offense against God. We’ll return to that in a future post.

Of course, Jesus refers directly to the story of Naaman, the Syrian leper (the story is in 2 Kings 5). Jesus makes this reference in Luke 4, as part of his inaugural sermon in Nazareth. Naaman was not socially excluded in his Syrian context. Elisha at first declines to meet with Naaman face to face, but this cannot be due to purity concerns. After all, he sends his servant for a physical meeting, and the servant returns to Elisha for a physical meeting. “In the story of Naaman, leprosy, both through its remedy and its infliction,” Shinall writes, “manifests Elisha’s connection to God. The story,” he continues, “contains no evidence of social exclusion attached to the affliction” (page 926).

Shinall notes that in the Lukan account, the Naaman story is used to illustrate the inclusion of outsiders rather than the breaking of purity boundaries. I would add that the Naaman story also portrays the praise of that outsider for the God of Israel. Naaman confesses the power of Israel’s God and takes home some Israelite dirt in order to bring some of that power and blessing with him physically back to Syria. This connection is worth remembering as well as we interpret our text.

Shinall reviews the gospel accounts involving lepers. The story of Jesus healing a leper in Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 5, does not indicate or require the social and/or physical isolation of that leper. That isolation must be read into the story rather than read out of it. “All three evangelists,” Shinall argues, “set the story in ways that challenge the notion that the leprous were excluded from Galilean society” (page 930). In addition, in all three accounts, Jesus touches the leper. The accounts record no reluctance on Jesus’ part and no shock in this regard from the spectators.

The consensus interpretation of the social exclusion of lepers in the gospel accounts requires what Shinall calls the “Heads I win, tails you lose” strategy of exegesis. On the one hand, Jesus’ contact with lepers shows a bold rejection of Jewish ritual laws. On the other hand, keeping one’s distance shows the power of these laws to exclude. Jesus looks good by making Jews look bad (see page 931). Yet, as soon as Jesus “flouts” the law in our text, he then orders the ten to obey that same law by showing themselves to the priest.

“None of these gospel stories demands that we envision the leprous characters as being excluded from any aspect of society,” Shinall argues. “In fact, many of the stories provide indirect evidence for the participation of lepers in the society of Jesus’ time. Without bringing to the gospels the dubious assumption that leprosy in Jesus’s time meant ostracism,” Shinall continues, “interpreters would not find social isolation in the texts themselves” (page 932).

Why do modern interpreters engage in such eisegesis? Shinall argues that this view minimizes Jesus as miracle worker and maximizes him “as an advocate for inclusivity” (page 934). I don’t find this particular argument all that compelling, but we need to at least hear it. “The lack of evidence for readings that presuppose the wholesale exclusion of lepers should be reason enough for exegetes of the gospels to drop this line of interpretation,” Shinall concludes. “That such readings involve slandering Judaism for the sake of a relevant Christianity make it all the more imperative that we find better ways to approach these texts” (page 934).

What, then, are those “better ways” to approach our text? Let’s set aside the exclusion/inclusion lens. Instead, let’s take our cue from Jesus in Luke 4. Who recognizes the presence of the kingdom of God when that kingdom is embodied in front of them? Not the Pharisees, apparently. Not the other nine lepers, apparently. Instead, it is “this foreigner.” Perhaps not quite as foreign as Naaman the Syrian, but certainly close enough. Will we recognize the presence of the kingdom of God among us when it/he is close enough to reach out and touch us?

And will we allow “foreigners who are enemies” to show us the way? “Sometimes our enemies are our persecutors (Luke 1:71, 74), and sometimes we love them “expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35),” Ira Brent Diggers writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “But in other cases, our enemies are not really our enemies—they are neighbors from whom we can learn and with whom we may be reconciled…Maybe we are the self-assured disciple who needs to hear Jesus’ praise of the Samaritan leper, or maybe we are the Samaritan leper who can only praise God and thank Jesus!”

References and Resources Myrick C. Shinall Jr. “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 4 (2018): 915–34. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1372.2018.454556.

Text Study for Luke 17:11-19 (Part One)

18 Pentecost C

I would extend the reading through verse twenty-one. Some editions of the text lump Luke 17:19-20 into the following section and title it something like “The Coming of the Kingdom” or “Signs of the End.” However, there is a clear rhetorical break between verses twenty-one and twenty-two. In the story of the cleansing of the lepers, no audience is specified. However, the audience in verses twenty and twenty-one is the Pharisees. Beginning in verse twenty-two, the audience is once again the disciples.

This is a familiar tactic on the part of the Lukan author. The author presents an anecdote or parable. Then the author gives two levels of commentary. One level is for the “outsiders,” often represented by the Pharisees and the scribes. A second and deeper level is represented by the disciples. That second level contains the more nuanced instruction and calls to faithful following.

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Since the punch line of our text has to do with “this foreigner,” aka the Samaritan leper, it seems to me that verses twenty and twenty-one are a clear commentary on the preceding text. They serve as a bridge to the extended discussion that follows, but these verses are not directly part of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse to the disciples in Luke 17. So, let’s look at these two verses before we dive into the “official” text for the day.

“But having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, [Jesus] replied to them and said, ‘Neither is the kingdom of God coming with observing, nor shall they say, “Look here!” or “There!” For, behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst’” (Luke 17:20-21, my translation).

This small text deserves some close reading to aid our interpretation of the previous verses. We get an adversative “but” to begin the passage. We’re taking a detour or turn from the previous verses. The Pharisees are inquiring of Jesus in an ongoing way, not a one-off sort of way. And this inquiry is in the form of an investigation. There’s nothing overtly hostile in the inquiry. The Lukan author tends to say clearly when the Pharisees are seeking to entrap Jesus.

Inquiring minds want to know. When is the Kingdom of God coming?

The Lukan author has a real love for puns and double entendre. This marks the Lukan author as an accomplished Greek stylist. Greek writers delighted in the twists and turns of words and phrases. Here we find the word paratehrehsis. I transliterate it without a definition because it can mean two things. On the one hand, the word can mean “observations.” It can refer to things which can be seen. On the other hand, the word can mean “observances,” that is, the keeping of rules and laws. Some of that ambiguity is preserved in the English terms as well.

So, Lukan author, which is it? Is it observations or observances? I think the Lukan author would answer “Yes” (my kind of teacher!). Neither will the kingdom of God come in ways that can be publicly observed, nor will it come by means of particular observances of the rules. In both ways, Jesus tells the Pharisaic investigators, you are looking in the wrong place. The idea of “seeing” is an important part of the previous passage – our text. That’s one reason why I think these verses matter to our interpretation.

The final phrase of verse twenty-one has a similar ambiguity. The Lukan author uses the word “entos” to describe the location of the kingdom of God. This can mean “inside” someone or something. It can also mean “among” members of a group. The “your” in the sentence is plural, not singular. The kingdom of God is in the midst of “you all,” not in the midst of “you singular.”

That might settle the matter, but I’m not sure. The NRSV translates it as “among you.” This rendering tends to opt for the presence of the kingdom in the midst of the community. The NRSV has a footnote that reminds us it could also be “within you.” The KJV translates it as “within you” and tends to opt for a more “personal” presence of the kingdom, perhaps in the hearts of the believers. The NIV has “in your midst” and footnotes it “or is within you.” The CEV has “already among you.”

I opt for “in your midst” in order to preserve the ambiguity of the word. Once again, I think the Lukan author wants to keep that double meaning And I think the Lukan author wants to keep that double meaning because both are true. The kingdom of God is both within and among us when we come face to face with Jesus. But it will not be in the places (or people) available to casual observation. Nor will it be in the places or people connected to established channels of observance.

This helps me to think more clearly about those troubling words in Luke 17:7-10 as well. The work of the disciples is not to be found in extraordinary events or unusual social arrangements. We’re not going to see any mulberry trees going for a swim as a result of our own faith. Nor do disciples wait for existing social arrangements to be turned upside down before living lives of obedient service. Instead, the kingdom comes in the midst of the mundane. It’s not what we see that matters. Instead, it is how we do the seeing that matters.

Marcel Proust has been misquoted many times in this regard. I’ve done that myself, especially in presentations on Appreciative Inquiry. I think it would be better to attribute the quote to Pico Iyer, the source of the most often used paraphrase. With that disclaimer, here is the quote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” I think this quote captures some of the flavor of what Jesus seeks to convey to the Pharisees (and to the disciples in the earlier verses). Again, the whole idea of “seeing” is central to our text.

In addition, the Lukan author once again uses comedy to help make the point. Just imagine a bunch of eager seekers and searchers. As they look for the kingdom, they cry out to one another in enthusiasm. “Look, here!” And “No, there!” Imagine the group sprinting from one place to another as members point to various and sundry locations for the kingdom. It is sheer burlesque that works best when we see it rather than just say it.

I’m thinking of a game my spouse has played repeatedly with some of our grandchildren. We have a little wooden treasure chest. She hides it, sometimes with real coins inside and sometimes with play money inside. The contents of the chest don’t really matter that much to the kids. What really matters is the game. As they search, she calls out “warmer!” when they get close and “colder!” when they move away. The real fun is when she describes with great energy that they are “boiling hot” or “freezing cold.” That’s the kind of fun I think Jesus is having (or the Lukan author is having, or whatever) in this description.

If that fun is part of Luke 17:20-21, then I want to bring that back into the preceding verses. “Were none to be found having returned to give glory to God except for this ‘foreigner’?” (Luke 17:18, my translation). We can’t read Jesus’ tone from this or any other text. Sometimes the Lukan author gives us information that can help to determine that tone, but not always. We could read this question with Jesus being irritated. Jesus could roll his eyes in astonishment or disappointment. Jesus could be genuinely surprised or nonplussed by this turn of events. All those performances of the line are possible.

What if, however, we were to perform this line with a bemused smile? Could it be that Jesus finds this turn of events funny more than he finds it frustrating or disappointing? Here we are again, perhaps Jesus muses. At least the people who don’t really get it aren’t preparing to throw me over a cliff the way the home folks in Nazareth did! And isn’t it surprising who is equipped with the eyes to see, the heart to be changed, and the desire to fall at Jesus’ feet, glorifying God!

Today, I’m imagining people running to and fro, pointing here and there, and completely missing the presence of the kingdom of God both within themselves and among them. Yet, there it is, “hidden in plain sight.” The kingdom is present in and to “this foreigner.” What a remarkable surprise! I guess the joke is on us, the people who thought we knew where the kingdom is “supposed to” show up. As Jesus reflects on this in the Lukan account, I can imagine a chuckle that starts low and slow and then bursts out in full guffaw.

This conversation is going to take an even more ironic turn in the verses that follow. People pointing here and there at the kingdom will get it wrong, and the disciples should not pay attention to them. I think we should keep a wry comedic eye on the “Lot’s wife” and “left behind” verses that follow. Don’t pay attention to where the fools are pointing, Jesus says. “Where the body is,” Jesus notes in Luke 17:37 (my translation), “there also the vultures will gather.”

Soon, his body will hang on a cross. The vultures, both human and avian, gather and circle. That’s the last place people will look for the kingdom. And that’s where disciples will find it.