Seeking Along the Borders

Max-Wilkins-Bio

Wilkins

By Rev. Max Wilkins-

Where are the other nine?

Each year at Thanksgiving I hear messages preached on the story of the ungrateful lepers (Luke 17). Gratitude is an important part of a healthy spiritual life, and this passage seems to be the “go to” text. Inevitably the point is that we are called to live grateful lives, and, like the nine lepers who failed to return to give thanks for their healing, we ought to be ashamed of our lack of gratitude. The scolding messages typically encourage us to do better. And though I do believe I could do better in the area of gratitude, I also believe these messages largely miss the point Jesus is trying to make, a point that is still remarkably relevant to those of us who want to join Jesus in His mission today.

Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem along the border between Samaria and Galilee. Like so many frontier areas, this road was dangerous and chaotic, often filled with criminals, outcasts, and misfits. Devout Jews of Jesus’ day avoided this road altogether, taking the much longer Jordan River route instead. But Jesus is intentional in his actions, and he leads His disciples into the margins of society.

It is in this no man’s land that Jesus encounters the ten lepers. Socially, this group was outcast, forbidden to associate with the healthy citizens of Samaria or Galilee. Yet it was made up of both Jews and Samaritans. Living on the edges, the lepers had found a sort of makeshift community, born of necessity and shared adversity, which enabled them to overcome the cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions that separated their people. And when they saw Jesus, they somehow knew that he was for them. They ask for mercy, likely expecting alms or some food. Jesus saw them and encouraged them to go show themselves to the priest. They responded faithfully and experienced cleansing as they acted in obedience. Yet, according to the story, only one – a Samaritan – returned to give thanks. Thus Jesus’ question: “Where are the other nine?”

It is here that many of us shake our heads in wonder. Was only one of the lepers grateful? But I wonder if that was what prompted Jesus’ question. Was Jesus’ intentional outreach intended solely to win people’s gratitude? Was Jesus upset that people who had long been cursed, stigmatized, impoverished, and traumatized were not instantly transformed into trusting, loving, and grateful people? Did he expect that one touch from him could overcome all the years of abuse? The greatest miracle of the story is that one touch from Jesus was all it took for the one Samaritan who returned. He experienced the fullness of grace and Jesus pronounced him not only cleansed but also saved or “made whole.” But what of the other nine…

I wonder what would have happened if Jesus had encountered any of the nine again. Would he have been upset? Would he have shamed them? Would he have criticized them for their lack of gratitude? I doubt it. He received Peter, post denial, with open arms of love. He met Thomas’ doubt head on. He continued in relationship with Nicodemus. He touched the blind man who was only partially healed a second time. Jesus seems to understand that for many broken, hurting people, coming to saving grace is a process. Some, like the Samaritan, may be poised to receive salvation upon a momentary encounter with Jesus. But others require pursuit and wooing, and repeated encounters. Fortunately we have a God who loves to pursue us. That is the point of prevenient grace. God is going before us, all around us, pursuing us repeatedly with his love.

So when Jesus asks about the other nine, is it possible the question was for his disciples? Is he suggesting that there is still a mission along the borders and among the outcasts for them to take up? In the same way that he encourages them to rejoice over the 99 but also to keep seeking the one who is lost, is Jesus saying, “Somewhere out there are the other nine…cleansed, but still in need of a saving touch of grace. And those nine are still My mission … still your mission … still God’s mission. Go after them!”

Where are the other nine? Often they are still among the hurting, broken, outcast, those along the margins of our world. They are in need of another touch of grace. And they are still the mission of Jesus. And they are still our mission. And I, for one, am grateful that Jesus allows us to share in that mission. Where are the other nine? They are all around us!

The Rev. Max Wilkins is the president and CEO of The Mission Society (www.themissionsociety.org). 

Comments

  1. Thanks Max. I am not sure if I have a mission to the partly healed, or if I am one of them, actually both.

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