2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Trading Places is a 1983 American comedy film about an upper-crust executive Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and down-and-out street dweller Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) who are the subjects of a bet by successful brokers Mortimer and Randolph Duke. An employee of the Dukes Winthorpe is framed by the brothers for a crime he didn’t commit, and the Dukes installed the street-smart Valentine in his position.
The rich man became poor, and the poor man became rich, and in the process of a shared tragic experience, they discovered that what divided them was not their wealth, their wits, nor their good fortune, but their indifference, self-absorption, and blindness to the plight of the others. Winthorpe lived in a prison of being under the thumb of the Dukes who provided him with wealth, comfort, and even a future spouse, but the tragedy was that they controlled his life. Alternatively, Valentine lived in a prison too; a prison where he had to beg for sustenance, eek out a place to lay his head, and face the tragic circumstances of poverty that controlled his life. Eventually the two men uncover the Duke’s unethical social experiment, and Winthorpe and Valentine work together to recover and rediscover their lives.
When these two men shared their mutual circumstance, they realized that they had more in common than not, because “misery does indeed love company, and necessity does make for strange bedfellows.” (2) The two unlikely characters discovered the very essence of community; mutual interdependence. When they literally traded places; or rather, when they traded the conditions of the other’s existence, the walls that separated them began to crumble and a newfound path of brotherhood opened up for them, despite the societal maladies under which they both suffered.
Healing Deep Wounds
The gospel today is a story about the social illnesses and cultural divides that existed in first century Palestine. First, there was a widespread confusion about the sources, causes, and spread of diseases, which resulted in the separation from community, those people suffering from skin ailments (commonly called leprosy). The sick and afflicted were treated with disdain and were reviled. “Instead of intervening to help, people turned the other way and cut off all contact. The patient died a social death much sooner and far worse than physical death.” (c) Additionally, racial and ethnic differences separated people into different classes as well. Israelites and Samaritans shared a common ancestry and lineage, however because of the Samaritan religious ideologies and forbidden intermarrying with Gentiles, these two groups treated one another as “less than.” “Jews considered all Samaritans ritually unclean, and would travel miles out of their way to avoid having any contact with them.” (1)
Today’s gospel is not only a tale of the miraculous physical healing of ten lepers and their resultant full restoration to community. The story warns us about how we today still stigmatize people because of their differences (real or perceived). In Luke’s story, an unfortunate skin affliction brought ten people (one from a different ethnic group) together into a community of common suffering, where former divisions faded away. However, when they were all healed together and their skin affliction was restored, some of the group’s hearts remained untouched by their own healing. The nine Israelites grouped together and traveled to the Temple priests, so they might be restored to the former community they enjoyed, but what about that Samaritan cousin they embraced a few days before?
Scripture tells us, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” Could the Samaritan have gone to the temple with his Jewish cousins and experienced full restoration to community? Probably not, because society still afflicted him with the social illness, whereas Samaritans and Israelites would never share common connections under the sovereignty of God.
All were healed, and yet a deeper wound remained and “he was, once again, one of those estranged and marginalized others — a Samaritan.” (2) So, the Samaritan returned to the Jewish Rabbi that healed him and praised him. In so doing, the Samaritan participated in not only the healing the deeper wound, but really became well. Jesus’ own kindred went on their way, but the Samaritan approached his cousin Israelite rabbi, healed the social divide between their ethnic groups, and broke down the walls of the social malady of indifference. The Samaritan crossed the boundary of separation between Samaritan and Israelite and traded places with Jesus, and experienced a moment of common healing, dignity, peace, and restoration. When healed, we must be a part of the bigger picture of healing Jesus has in mind. We who are healed and restored, must take our place in the process of healing and restoration all of creation, which began with Jesus, and demonstrated by the Samaritan leper.
The healing story we hear speaks to our social illnesses today, and as Maggie Dawn writes in her article, The Untouchables, she asserts, “Maybe (Jesus) meant that deep-seated human divisions are a much more serious malady than even leprosy—that our souls can be far sicker than our bodies and yet most of us do nothing to heal the breach. Maybe (Jesus) wasn’t commenting on the attitude of the nine who didn’t return as much as on the system that would accept them and reject the Samaritan. (1)”
In America today, more and more people are being divided up and pigeon holed into social tribes, political cliques, anthropological divisions, and discordant associations based on a misconstrued criteria of worth. We assign worth to God’s people based on social class, educational opportunity, religious affiliation, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and by economic fortune or misfortune, and then we decide who is in our clique and who is not. We are blind to the reality that we are all God’s children and all part of the family of God, because we are blinded by our differences. We still use labels, maybe not “clean and unclean,” but some far worse, to describe our own indifference to others who are not in our clique.
Cliques can be pervasive in churches too. Webster defines a clique as “a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.” Even churches participate in dividing people into who is in and who is out. “Others” can be the newcomer who shows up to a community of faith hoping to find a family that will readily welcome them, appreciate their gifts, and work to engage them in the ministry already taking place. “Others” can be sisters and brothers in our midst whom we call “different” because of life’s struggles and yet, we fail to welcome them in as equals. “Others” can be anyone whom we are, for whatever reason, unable to call a sister or brother in Christ. These divisions have the potential to thwart our witness of the Gospel as ambassadors of Christ. These divisions will never be overcome, until we can discover shared community, purpose, and common family under the sovereignty of God. If we can change how we the church treat each other, then we can serve as a witness to the world about how the Kingdom of God can become a reality in the world today. We all need to be healed from the social malady of divisive existence, which thwarts the Kingdom of God.
Healed for a Purpose
Jesus told his Samaritan cousin who was healed, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” In other words, “faith in action” is trusting the promises and commandments of God about loving neighbor as yourself, and then leading a life of healing beyond self. We all need a little faith that God heals our hearts, so we might abandon our indifference to the plight of others. We all need a little faith that God heals our hearts, so we might be drawn into the tragic circumstances of our sisters and brothers’ lives and become the healers that first healed us, but what is spiritual healing?
“Spiritual healing compels us to search for and acknowledge the Healer, and to discern the vast cosmic scope of the reclamation initiative of which our restoration is but a small part. Having found and discerned, we are to make common cause with that saving enterprise.” (2) In other words, we all need more opportunities to “Trade Places” with each other for a few moments each day, walk in the shoes of the other for a few moments, and share the common experience of life with the other, so we can see things from the other’s perspective. The Kingdom of God into which we all are called to live today can only be possible when we all (not just those who look like, act like, dress like, or live like the so called insiders) are able to experience mutual wholeness, dignity, justice, and peace.
Jesus said, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” We who are healed are called to go and do something with that healing we have received. Maggie Dawn asserts, “We are healed not to stay the same, but to live differently, breaking down divisions in society that exclude people because of their nationality, gender, religion or education.” (1) Sisters and brothers, we need to “Get up, get on our way, because our faith has made us well. We need to get on our way and take up our ministry of healing, by embracing the common humanity we share with one another, and with everyone outside these four walls. We need to get on our way and be willing to live a life of “Trading Places” with the least, lost, and lonely, and with everyone whom we come in contact each and every day.
(1) Dawn, Maggi. “The Untouchables.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 20, Oct. 2007, p. 18.
(2) Nickle, Keith Fullerton. “Ten Lepers Cleansed.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 23, no. 3, Easter 2000, pp. 48–51.