by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Old St. Pat’s Chicago
Broadway luminaries Rogers and Hammerstein
included in The King and I the famous line
“If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
That wisdom has been realized in my life frequently.
One student taught me about Krister Stendahl’s “holy envy.”
Another led me deep into the richness of appreciative inquiry
A third (Richie North), in preparing a homily that needed to be
both accessible and theologically sound, wrote:
“Simplicity is complex. It’s never simple to keep things simple.
Simple solutions require the most advanced thinking.”
That is true when politicians call for free college tuition
or health care for all
or bringing troops home from Northern Syria.
Simplicity is complex.
Which is also true of today’s readings
that could give the impression that the underlying message is
simply “be thankful”!
A favorite blogger jests that
that this could be her mother’s favorite gospel
because it seems to be about cultivating good manners.
My mother was big on thank you notes. She said you could tell a lot about a person depending on whether or not they bothered to write them. She told of a friend who, whenever a bride did not have the good manners to write a thank-you note for a wedding gift, would write:
Thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding. I am writing to make sure that you received our gift. If you didn’t, can you let me know and I’ll arrange for a duplicate to be sent to you? Wishing you every happiness in your marriage, Jeannie & John Audacious
Noting the passive aggressive nature of the note,
the author does not suggest some fawning or groveling response,
but instead offers this possible reply:
Dear Jeannie and John, I did receive your gift, and many others that were even more lovely. I have decided not to write thank you notes since I am very busy and they are very time consuming. You may, if you wish, send me a duplicate gift. Hope your marriage lasts – Amanda
The blogger concludes by suggesting that today’s readings
are not simply an instruction from Divine Miss Manners
about being grateful –
but point to more profound realities,
One celebrated homiletician believes the essential move in preaching
is to find the discrepancies or the “oops” in the readings.
Doing so creates sufficient intrigue for unfolding
what he calls the homiletical plot.
(Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: Expanded Edition, 2001)
An usual number of discrepancies abound in today’s readings,
starting with that opening readings from the Book of Kings
which gives a snippet about Naaman’s conversion.
Much is missing, including the first part of this chapter
describing Naaman as a military officer of Israel’s enemy
whom the God of Israel had given many victories.
So Israel’s enemy has the backing of Israel’s God.
Sure the story ends with the conversion of the outsider.
But it also ends with the punishment of the prophet’s servant.
So, not just a gratitude tale
But one of unexpected reversals through the stranger.
Then, of course, there is that not so simple Gospel.
The mother of our edgy exegete
could conclude that the story is about
9 smug Jews and 1 grateful Samaritan.
Great way to shame the regulars
into being more grateful …
Then, again, “simplicity is complex”
A signal that there is more going on than ingratitude
is the geographic location for this Jesus encounter
in the region between Samaria & Galilee.
Seems contradictory; like a region between Chicago & the burbs
which many of you prove doesn’t exist
by your Sunday commute here.
However the region between the U.S. & Mexico
or North and South Korea does seem to exist,
a kind of no-man’s-land
or political DMZ.
In this gospel, no-man’s-land complications abound.
Like there is pretty compelling evidence
that these 10 did not have leprosy.
Both biblical scholars and medical scientists agree
true leprosy almost certainly did not exist
in ancient Palestine.
(John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, p. 148)
True, they had some kind of scaly skin disorder.
But it did not make them contagious, it made them unclean.
Biblical leprosy is not “catchy,” it is “dirty.” (So Pilch.)
Second, Samaritans and Jews hated each other,
but sharing the status of being unclean
erased the ethnic and racial divisions between these groups.
They became a band of brothers
scavenging for food together, maybe caring for each other,
certainly calling out in one voice to Jesus for pity.
But by healing them, Jesus in effect
reinstated their ethnic and religious rivalry.
They were now well enough to hate each other again.
Problem no. 3:
Jesus sends the 10 off to show themselves to the priests
so they can be declared clean and socially restored.
But the Samaritan could not go with the other 9,
for he was a heretic and an outlander.
He would have been stoned if he went near the temple
Maybe he came back to Jesus and expressed his gratitude
because he could not do it in the Jerusalem temple.
Problem no. 4:
The Samaritan was polite.
But we do not know if he was virtuous or even good.
Was he “saved” simply because he was courteous?
Similarly we don’t know if the other 9 were unvirtuous.
They were doing exactly what Jesus told them to do.
Their gratitude was in their obedience, fulfilling the law.
Weren’t they saved as well?
Maybe, after their temple sojourn,
they did try to come back and offer thanks to Jesus.
But Jesus was infamously peripatetic.
Who knows where he had wandered if they had returned?
There are plenty of “oops” in these readings.
Yet, even more challenging is the “so what,”
the holy resolution to these problematic revelations.
So we return to the spiritual terrain between Samaria and Galilee,
to the itinerant no-man’s-land we call Jesus,
to the sacred DMZ we call Christ.
Jesus of the gospels is consistently intolerant of hard boundaries
between the pious and the polluted,
clean and unclean,
insiders and outsiders.
To paraphrase Hemmingway,
Jesus is not only a moveable feast;
he is the divinely sanctioned moveable boundary,
a roving DMZ, who demilitarizes every person or group
who dare enter his ambit.
He’d undoubtedly make a terrible diplomat,
for if asked about the proper boundary
between North Syria and Turkey,
or between Kashmir and India,
like Ayn Rand’s Atlas (Atlas Shrugged, 1957),
I presume he would just shrug,
asking not where to put the boundaries,
but why they are there in the first place.
Few contemporary writes have spilled more ink
over the instinct to divide the world between us and them
than Robert Sapolsky, scientist and author of the bestseller
Behave: The Biology of Humans at our best and worst.
In a recent article entitled “Why your Brain Hates other People: and how to make it think differently,” he writes:
Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on… it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex … classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing.
A professed atheist, Sapolsky does believe there is hope.
For him that hope rises when we individuate,
when we meet a “them,”
experience their uniqueness,
honor their humanity.
Jesus was not only the King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
but the original prince of individuation,
a roving boundary smasher,
the divine opponent of all “them-ing.”
Journalist Leslie Guttman was visiting a bookstore one day.
The bookstore was packed …. A woman with long, black hair about five feet away …was leafing through [a book]. I glanced up …in time to see her slip a book into her satchel and walk off. I hesitated and then walked after her. “Pssst,” I said, pointing at the satchel. Up close, I saw that she was about thirty … probably homeless. Her khaki parka was filthy, her hair matted. The satchel was bursting with her belongings. She gave me a sorrowful look … handed me the book and ran off.
The book was a journal designed for someone who was grieving. Someone like me… beautifully bound, the paper creamy and heavy. It had space to write the answers to statements like: … “It’s hard for me to be without you when I . . .”
“She’s been wanting that book,” said the manager who .., watched the whole thing. “She comes in all the time and looks at it. Sometimes, she puts it on hold, but then she never gets it.”
Dammit! … Why did I have to be such a Goody Twoshoes? Why didn’t I just let her steal it? I ran out of the store and caught up with her a block away. “Did you just lose someone?” I said.
“My grandmother,” she [replied]… “I miss her so much I can’t stand it.” I told her about my stepdad, who had just passed away. His kindness had knit our family together for eighteen years.
I … handed her the book, we both stood on the curb and wept.
For the first time since my stepdad died, I felt understood—as only a stranger can understand you, without inadequacy or regret. Up until then, I had felt alone in my grief … reluctant to turn to my family because they were grieving, too.
But because the grieving thief and I didn’t know each other, I had no expectations of whether I would be understood in my grief and no fear of being disappointed if I wasn’t.
This encounter made me want to stay open to the chance meeting with an important stranger, the possibility of unplanned symmetry that is luminous and magical.Leslie Guttman, “Important Strangers.”
Unplanned symmetry out there in some unexpected DMZ –
maybe that is what happened to Jesus
when the one leper returned.
Maybe the stranger’s unexpected gesture to Jesus
in the Lord’s journey to Jerusalem and imminent death
was a startling yet fortuitous gift back to the Son of God.
Not just a “thank you,”
but an affirmation that he was on the right path
even though it would cost him his life.
Jesus proclaimed that the stranger was saved,
maybe because the stranger helped Jesus,
reaffirm his own salvific path.
Living out in a land where boundaries are ambiguous,
where strangers abound,
and groups of “them” wait around every corner
Jesus invites us out into the DMZ of life,
and in that hazardous no-man’s-land,
to live out the faithfulness Paul demands of us
in the luminous and unplanned symmetry,
In our chance encounters with the stranger,
knowing that we are not alone,
but always accompanied by God’s brooding Spirit
through Christ our Lord.