The Curved Out Kingdom

Luke 17:11-19

Britt Carlson

By the time we get to chapter seventeen in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been all over Israel. He’s been teaching about the kingdom of heaven, he’s been healing the sick and he’s been subverting the social order in all sorts of ways. Now Jesus has begun to head back toward Jerusalem and is skirting the area between Samaria and Galilee when he and his disciples stumble across a group of ten lepers. They desperately want to be healed—apparently they’re calling out to whatever prophet seems to be walking by. But in this case what they get is something they’ve never encountered before. Jesus doesn’t immediately heal them but says, “Go to the temple and show yourself to the priests.” The ten head off and even before they arrive at the temple, they look down and to their shock their leprosy is gone. Immediately, one of the lepers turns around and runs back to Jesus and falls to at his feet in praise.

Now for a Jewish reader this would have been a fairly conventional story so far. Prophet travels along. Prophet sees people in need of healing. Prophet heals.

But this is where things get interesting. See, the leper falls at Jesus feet, thanks Jesus, and then Luke says: And this leper…by the way… he was a Samaritan.

Now to us: Samaritan, Pfaritan. No big deal. But not so to a pious Jew. In Jesus’ time, there was a bitter religious divide between Jews and Samaritans. The fastest way to get from Jerusalem—down south—to Galilee—up north—was through Samaria, but Jews would take a huge detour around it just to avoid having anything to do with the Samaritans. Maybe a little how Beaver fans are feeling about Eugene this morning.

Now a lot of the rancor between Jews and Samaritans came from a long-standing disagreement over where to worship. For Jews, the Jerusalem temple on Mount Zion was THE place God had chosen, THE place God resided, where God’s real presence was. But the Samaritans said “not so.” God didn’t dwell on Mount Zion! God dwelt on Mount Gerizim, in Samaria!

The closest analogy I have for how Jews would have felt about Samaritans is how many Christians today feel about Mormon belief. 99% percent of Mormon belief might be the exact same as mainstream Christianity, but that other 1% makes it incredibly suspicious.

When out of all the ten lepers, it’s the Samaritan that turns back in gratitude, it’s the Samaritan that Jesus commends, it’s as if out of a group Methodists, evangelicals, Presbyterians and Catholics, Jesus picks out the sole Mormon as the one getting it right.

Now I want us to pause here for a minute to think about the other nine lepers. These Methodists and evangelicals and Presbyterians and Catholics if you will. See, it’s a little strange that these nine lepers aren’t commended by Jesus. Just think. They are doing exactly what Jesus commanded. They’re heading toward the temple exactly as Jesus ordered them. And yet, Jesus is implicitly suggesting they haven’t quite figured out life in God’s kingdom. They’re not getting it wrong per se, but they’re not getting it fully right either.

So what are they missing? What are they not getting about the kingdom of heaven? They’re missing the fact that when you’re living in God’s kingdom, Jesus always asks more of us than simply to obey orders. Jesus asks us to really see what’s going on. The nine are like a kid who’s been told to straighten up the living room for guests and you come in to a completely straightened room…with muddy footprints across the carpet. The nine have done what they’ve been told to do but they’ve missed the heart of the instructions. They’re missing the heart of Jesus’ commands. They aren’t seeing what Jesus is hoping that their healing will lead them to see.

And what didn’t they see? They didn’t see Jesus.

They didn’t see that while Jesus told them to go to the temple, Jesus IS the temple. Jesus is the walking, talking, breathing presence of God in their very midst. What does it matter if you go to the Gerizim temple or the Zion temple to worship God, if you can’t recognize when God is right before you, healing you. The Samaritan leper is commended because the Samaritan sees that Jesus is the presence of God with us. When he’s healed, he immediately understands that healing like that can only come from God. He understands that God’s favor and presence and glory has broken out of the confines of the temple and has stood before them. Out of the ten, only the Samaritan sees reality.

Now, I wonder. I would bet that most of us here don’t think that “not seeing” is that big of a deal. In the list of sins in the world, murder is the big bad, then there’s greed, adultery, violence, false witness and a whole host of others to round out the top slots.

But Jesus as he is going about his ministry, thinks that what is happening here is important enough to human life and flourishing that this encounter between Samaria and Galilee is what needs to be written down for us to learn what the kingdom of God is like.

You know, not seeing actually turns out to be the very definition of sin. It might be a peculiar definition to some of us who think of sin solely in terms of “missing the mark.” Yes, sin is missing the mark. But sin is even more so missing the bigger picture. Sin is being blind to reality because you can’t see outside of yourself. Sin is being self-centered. As church fathers, St. Augustine and Martin Luther, put it sin is defined as, “being curved in on yourself.” Having your vision always circling around the big “I.” Turned inward to your own thoughts and on your own self.

Think about this for a minute. If sin is being curved in on yourself. If sin is being fundamentally self-centered, self-occupied, self-limited, then sin doesn’t necessarily have to be malicious.

In fact, if it’s true that the nine lepers are missing the mark of what the kingdom of God looks like, it might be true that sin could be at it’s most insidious not when it’s venomous but when it’s oblivious—when it can’t see what it should be seeing, what it needs to be seeing, what it ought to be seeing.

It’s interesting to think of systematic sins in light of sin as being curved in on yourself. Racism and sexism sometimes are very much malicious and overt. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that you can, in some ways, “get rid of” the overt hatred of African Americans and women and the LGBTQ community and still racism and sexism and queerphobia can persist. They can persist in part because sin doesn’t have to be malicious to be sin. Sin is simply not seeing what God is inviting you to see. Sin is a self-centeredness that prevents you seeing the other clearly. A self-absorption that is incapable of seeing how your actions—your gated communities, your refusals to bake cakes, your domination of conversations—are affecting other people.

You know, sin affects systematically but it also affects us on the most basic of levels as well. I’ve been thinking about the personal side to self-centeredness with Thanksgiving this last week. Most of you here haven’t gotten to meet my mom, but my mom, she’s a hardworker. She also hates being called a hardworker because every time we say it she feels like it lets us off the hook of working hard ourselves. Like “Oh mom you’re such a hardworker. Look at how you got the meal all cleaned up after Thanksgiving while we sat here and chatted over celery with peanut butter.” We girls aren’t purposefully trying to put all the work on mom. But we also aren’t watching out for her.

Also just so you know, we were very good at helping this year.

The sin of not seeing is all around us. It’s there when we study the history of our denominations and overlook the Hispanic or Native or Japanese developments and contributions. We do it when we don’t take into account the needs of people in our church with physical limitations.

But you know, if seeing clearly still sometimes is hard for us, we’re in good company.

Seeing outside of themselves was hard for Jesus’ closest disciples too. The beloved community that Jesus was trying to grow wasn’t always easy for the disciples to take in either.

Jesus talks about the first being last…and the disciples negotiate for which side of Jesus they’ll sit at in heaven. Jesus teaches about divine fairness and the generosity of God to all and to the bitter end—five verses before the gospels end, even after Jesus’ dramatic crucifixion and resurrection—at least one disciple is still trying to make sure no one else is getting more than their fair share.

Being a disciple, hanging around Jesus, coming to our good orthodox Christian church on Sunday, doesn’t stop us from being self-centered. It doesn’t stop us from trying to negotiate the inside track and the privileged position.

It is the definition of sin to not see beyond yourself, but the good news is we can in fact start to see. We can begin to curve out.

We begin our repair work, we begin our repentance, by beginning to see. By beginning to pay attention to people and issues and systems outside of ourselves. By taking tours of Portland that walk us through our racist history. By beginning to listen to the voices of women. By reading the testimonies of brother and sisters with different gender identities from us.  

We can start to see because Jesus wants us to see. Jesus wants us to be a part of this kingdom that is curved out in grace to the whole world. The story of the ten lepers is in Scripture not because Jesus wants to condemn us forever to be the nine lepers, but because he wants us to see the example of the Samaritan leper and do likewise. In fact, Jesus, after the Samaritan leper comes back in praise, turns to the disciples and asks, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus asks this because he wants his disciples to learn. He wants them to reflect on what they’ve just heard and self-evaluate.

Jesus extends to us the same invitation that he extended to the disciples. Jesus wants us to hear the story of the nine and the one and to reflect.

So where is Jesus inviting you right now to reflect?

Where do you need to open your eyes, look beyond yourself and see clearly?

What have you, well-intended as we all are, been doing that has unintentionally separated you from the ones whom Jesus is seeking out and saving?

How has your curved inwardness, your self-centeredness kept you from entering the joyful kingdom?

Jesus is offering us an invitation. An invitation to join a kingdom that is curved out, opened up, seeing the reality that is bursting with color outside of itself. An invitation to self-reflection, but also an invitation to releasing our need to secure our position. We don’t have to be afraid anymore of our status in the kingdom of God because our status was never ours to gain in the first place. Our status is God’s gift to us and to everyone. In the kingdom of God, we can’t be surprised if Mormons make it in ahead of Methodists and Mennonites. We can’t be surprised if all of our jockeying for position ends up coming up for naught. Because every time we try to secure our position, our true position with God gets farther and farther away. Every time we jockey for position our vision turns inward and we become less and less able to see the God standing right in front of us.

Let’s set our jockeying aside. And take the example of the one leper who came back to Jesus, seeing that this one was truly God and giving thanks for the healing and new life he had been given.

The leper was grateful. And gratitude is a trademark of God’s curved out kingdom. Gratitude is the opposite of selfishness. Gratitude is seeing outside yourself. It’s seeing the people who are working for your good. It’s about seeing the waitress who’s brought the food to your table. It’s about seeing the janitors who keep your church clean. It’s about sitting down at the Thanksgiving table and recognizing all of the people who cooked and baked and decorated and cleaned and planted and harvested and picked for our good.

So my Thanksgiving invitation to you is just this: open your eyes. Curve yourself outward. And give thanks. For the temple isn’t confined to Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion or Mount Portland Mennonite or Mount Grant Park. The temple is alive and among us. In front of us. Inside of us. Open your eyes and see him.