Anyone Turning Toward God Will Be Exalted – October 23

A sermon based on Luke 17:11-19

Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 23, 2022 *

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Some Christians are taught to think of the Gospels as inerrant factual stories– and sort of like affidavits that God personally caused to be written and notarized just by their presence in the Bible. I am not sure what such folks would do about our lesson where Luke is 100% mistaken, there is no region between Samaria and Galilee. I suspect that doubting the existence of that non-existent place is a heresy and a sin – geography, history and common sense notwithstanding.

Precision on geography may seem like a small matter . . . and maybe it is, but what about doubting that Jesus literally cured ten lepers of  physical ailments by just uttering words? To literalists I’m pretty sure that’d be  heretical and sinful– science, medicine and common sense notwithstanding.  I have that particular doubt about today’s lesson. I don’t accept the Bible as inerrant, or stamped as accurate by God, or that its stories are always factually accurate –or even meant to be. In fact, I do not believe that Jesus had supernatural powers to cure diseases with simple words or a touch.

I say that rather bluntly because I want to make it clear that in progressive Christian churches like this one, you can be a good person,  you can be a Spirit-filled person, you can be a Christian and you can even be a pastor and not believe the Bible is inerrant and literal.  It’s okay to rely on reason, to have doubts and to be religious too. There is no sin in that.  Indeed, from a modern standpoint those who doubt the Bible is inerrant or intended to be literal are on solid ground.

If you look in the Bible you won’t find God’s notary stamp or a single verse that claims the Bible is inerrant, dictated by God or filled only with literal facts.  Even if a verse claimed all that about the Gospels, we don’t even have originals of the Gospels, only bits and pieces of hand copies of hand copies of hand copies of oral statements of recollections of stories translated from ancient languages and times. All of which in modern jurisprudence would be highly unreliable evidence, a form of hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay. On a witness stand Luke and anyone relying on his Gospel would be discredited if the stories’ “facts” accuracy was at issue.

It’s not just courtroom standards that create issues. The Gospels are fraught with problems when the application of modern reasoning is used to explore them as inerrant history. Many Americans were raised to employ critical reasoning in their thinking, a lot of us don’t accept things without proof.  I suspect one reason attendance at churches has dropped off is because of a perception that all churches demand a belief that the Bible is inerrant and literal. Many find that unacceptable and unfortunately think all Christians support the inerrant and literal view of the Bible when many of us do not hold that view.

Here’s the thing, the Bible was not written to be used as like a history book or a science book. I personally do not believe it was written without errors, nor do I think or believe it is all literally true.   And we don’t have to see the Bible as inerrant or as about literal facts – we can choose to, but, we don’t have to. Such teachings are not Biblical, are not from Jesus are not from Paul.  They are actually relatively new. They arose in response to The Age of Reason’s use of empirical evidence and reason to prove things.  Worried about challenges to faith, fundamentalists started claiming the Bible was written by God making its words override any other proof. This is a relatively new modern manmade doctrine. Not all churches accept that doctrine, many do not.

I am not saying anything new or radical in a mainline church. Mainline biblical scholars have long asserted and taught seminarians that the books of the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, were not intended by their authors to be a strictly historical account of what literally happened. The Gospels were intended to reflect the community’s experiences of God. They were not aimed at historical truths, but rather theological truths.  This means that while the Bible may not set out inerrant factual accounts of events,  it nonetheless contains truth.

Some may scratch their heads and ask “Can a document with untrue facts speak truth?”  The answer is “Yes!” First of all, no one is claiming the Bible is void of historical information. The claim is that the Bible was not meant to be taken as a word for word historic account of historic events.  Scholars, can and do, comb through the Bible to find echoes of history. For example, the text in today’s story is stuffed full of useful historical information we can reason out. Like Luke’s unfamiliarity with the geography of Palestine indicates he was probably not from Palestine, and the writing style itself suggests the author was educated and aware of the make-me-clean-leper story in Mark Chapter 1 (40-45) as well as the Old Testament story about Naaman the foreign leper that Elisha heals.  We can also find in the text the Ancient Near East custom restricting lepers to the outskirt of town and requiring them to call out to others a warning. We can see they were required to go to priests for an official okay to return to the community. We can also see that Jesus was known to travel between Galilee and Jerusalem.

And this is very interesting – one of the things I love about the story– we learn Jesus was known and remembered as a healer.  I note, though, that our modern ears generally hear Biblical healing stories as asking us to believe Jesus performed supernatural events, miracles which are otherwise unbelievable. This seems to give us three basic choices with the healing stories (1) believe WHAT is unbelievable (2) disbelieve WHAT is unbelievable or (3) believe the stories have metaphoric, that is symbolic, truth. I choose the metaphoric symbolic meaning option. I believe – based on reasons I will explain in moment– that metaphoric meanings were intended by the Gospels authors.

One could do a lot with the story just as it stands to find symbolic truth. But it helps a whole bunch to understand that the term “healing” has a different meaning in Luke and Jesus’ context. Today we tend to hear “healing” as the sustained and complete cure of a bodily or mental ailment.  John Dominic Crossan, a renown Jesus Scholar asserts there is another meaning— that we need to understand there are “two aspects of sickness: disease and illness” and there is a difference between curing a disease and healing an illness.” (Ibid).  A disease is caused by an abnormality in a biological function which is best cured by a medical practitioner (Ibid.).

Healing, on the other hand, addresses the experience and meaning of being perceived or seen as diseased– ill.  How others perceive and see a person as ill is best remedied by a Spirit person (Birth,294), a Holy man or a Holy woman. Applying all this to Jesus’ healing the lepers’ stories might go like this: lepers had a skin disease (perhaps something as common as acne or psoriasis) which in Jesus’s day made them unclean and outcasts from society – think of this extreme undesirability as their illness. Since uncleanliness is a label derived from social constructs, what Jesus did was remove the labels. He deconstructs the uncleanliness and, so, it no longer exists. It’s gone. Jesus altered the perception by declaring the unclean clean and then treating them as such (Birth 293304, Jesus, 78-84).

We can see this earlier in Luke Chapter 5 (12-16) where a  leper says to Jesus “[I]f you choose you can make me clean.’[Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’” Jesus heals the leper’s illness of being seen as an untouchable-unclean-outcast. He does this by touching him, declaring him clean and making him an acceptable member of his community. As a consequence, the leper is no longer untouchable, outcast or unclean. He is healed of his outcast status– his illness– though not cured of the underlying physical disease.

Crossan calls parables “a made-up story with a powerful theological punch.” He thinks that the Gospel writers like Luke were not afraid to create parables out of Jesus’ life to make their own theological point. 2 This comports with others who think the writer of Luke expanded the Mark story and Jesus’ reputation as a “healer” to create his own lesson.  What could be the theological point of ten lepers being healed and only one, a hated and despised Samaritan–the lowest of the low– responding by thanking God and falling before Jesus in gratitude?

Another Jesus Scholar, Marcus Borg, writes that metaphors are about seeing, not believing. “Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. . . .metaphor is not less than fact but more.”3 If we see today’s story as metaphor we can see more than just facts, more than Jesus making ten lepers well and only one saying thanks. We can see Jesus being remembered as a Spirit person, a Holy man, who on one level transformed lives by in essence saying: “You are not an outcast in my community. I hereby heal you of the social declaration that you are ill by denying its validity. I do not perceive you as ill, so you are healed.”

When we see the story like this the good news is that like Jesus we are capable of the same type of healing powers: “Drug addict you are not an outcast in our community. Be healed.” “Bi-polar sufferer  you are not an outcast in our community. Be healed.”  “Alcoholic you are not an outcast in our community. Be healed.” “Anyone with a disability you are not an outcast in my community. Be healed.”  And we know that Jesus did not just limit this healing power to those who were seen as ill. He healed all outcasts.

There is a memory of this in today’s scripture. We can hear Jesus communicate,  “Samaritan you are not an outcast in my community be healed.”  We can hear similar memories elsewhere in other Jesus stories:  “Tax collector you are not an outcast in my community, be healed.” “Prostitute you are not an outcast in my community, be healed.” “Women and children you are not outcasts in my community be healed. “That’s good news!

And there is more good news. It is that we can do this type of healing too. “Non-White people you are no longer outcasts. Be healed.” “Sick and poor, you are no longer outcasts. Be healed.” People of other faiths you are no longer outcasts. Be healed.” “Women you are no longer outcasts. Be Healed.” “Strangers, you are no longer outcasts, Be Healed.” “LGBTQ+ you are no longer outcasts. Be healed.”

Seeing the story in this light Jesus’ supernatural power is transformed to a power we can all wield for good – for God– as Holy men and Holy women . That insight alone is amazing. But, there is more. Jesus tells the ten to comply with the purity laws and go to the priests. The nine who left did nothing wrong by piously following the law, but, they missed out doing the one thing that could transform not just their outcast status, but their very being.  Beyond following the rules and regulations is the power of personal response to Grace. Grace is free, it’s given with no strings. Anyone,  even the lowest of the low, even a lawyer, even a non-Christian, even a foreign Samaritan leper, even any of us can be saved from our lesser self by personally responding to God’s gift of Grace. Not because we have to–we don’t– but because turning to God makes us better, makes us well.

As metaphor this story proclaims the ultimate good news in every sense of the word. No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how low in life you or others may see you, if you turn toward God – just turn to God– you will be exalted and you will be better. You will in fact be well.  Amen.

ENDNOTES:

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2007.

The notes in the parentheses refer to two works by John Dominic Crossan: The Birth of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1998 and The Historical Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1992.

  1. Most of these ideas come from Funk, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Say? Harper San Francisco, 1998, 328-329.

     2. Crossan, John Dominic, “Sermon Delivered on December 2, 2001 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral,” from an unpublished copy     of the sermon.

  1. Borg, Marcus, Reading the Bible for the First Time, 41.

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