Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Ten Lepers, Immigration and the Affordable Health Care Act

This morning's Bible study at the home of Ross and Gloria Kinsler focused on Luke 17:11, the story of the ten lepers who begged Jesus for healing. Ross and Gloria are a remarkable Presbyterian couple who served as missionaries in Central America and are deeply committed to  Jubilee justice and liberation theology. They have written several books, including The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life: An Invitation to Personal, Ecclesial, and Social Transformation ( 1999) and Diversified Theological Education: Equipping All God's People  with a foreword by Desmond Tutu.

I could wax eloquent about their amazing achievements helping and empowering the poor in Latin America and Africa, but Gloria would be very displeased. She is quite humble and doesn't like to be "puffed up." Nonetheless, I must give them credit for opening me up to seeing the Bible as a radical call for justice for the poor and the "least of these."

Reflecting on the story of the ten men with leprosy, I wonder how many preachers will see the parallels between this story and what is happening in America today? If you are looking for a sermon topic, please feel free to borrow ideas or plagiarize!

Jesus Heals Ten Men With Leprosy

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[a] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Given the current debate in America over whether health care should be affordable, one can't help noticing that Jesus heals the lepers for free (unlike most pagan faith healers who charged for their healing). Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus ever ask for payment, and neither did early Christians. In fact, when Simon the Magician (another word for healer) offers money to receive the Holy Spirit (a perfectly reasonable request since spiritual healers usually had to pay for training), Peter shocks him by threatening to curse him for making such a crass request. "Freely ye have received, freely give." That was the motto of Christians when it came to healing. Free health care is the distinguishing characteristic of  Christ and early Christian communities. What does that say about America, the only wealthy country that doesn't provide free health care for all its citizens?

When Jesus healed the lepers, he sent them back to the priest to be certified as cured. This ritual was important since lepers were ostracized from Jewish society. It was also lengthy, requiring over a week, and expensive (Leviticus 14). Birds and two male lambs had to be sacrificed, and this was not cheap. But the Jews did make allowances for the poor. They could be certified as cured at a reduced rate:

"But if he is poor and cannot afford it, then he shall take one male lamb as a trespass offering to be waived, to make atonement for him, one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, a log of oil, and two turtledoves or two young pigeons, such as he is able to afford: one shall be a sin offering and the other a burnt offering."

Nothing is said about the poor who couldn't afford even one male lamb or two young pigeons, except that he is required to give only what he is able to afford. This sounds a lot like Obamacare.

Jesus didn't require a costly or even low-cost ritual to certify a cure. Once the leper returns and expresses thanks to God, Jesus says: "You are well." (The Greek word is "salvus," from which we get the word "saved."). Furthermore, Jesus gives the leper credit for being part of the cure: "Your faith has made you whole" (salvus).

This shows how sensitive Jesus was to the condition of the poor. The ten lepers felt excluded and stigmatized, which is why they did not approach Jesus but instead petitioned him "from a distance." Jesus didn't make the leper feel unworthy for not being able to afford to pay anything for his cure; instead, Jesus affirms him for giving thanks. Gratitude is payment enough. Jesus says:  "Rise and go." By telling him to rise and "go his own way" (rather than become his follower), Jesus treats him as a co-partner in the cure: "Your faith has made you whole."

It is also important to note that Jesus didn't distinguish between his own tribe and others. In fact, the point of this story is that the non-Jew, the Samaritan,  was more grateful, and more godly, than the Jewish lepers.

Jesus uses an interesting word to describe the Samaritan: allogenis. This literally means "someone who is born different." The usual word for "foreigner" is the Greek word "xenos," which can mean either "stranger" or "guest." Xenos has a positive as well as negative meaning, but "allogenis" is purely negative.

Yet it is this "born different" person who offers thanks to God and to Jesus and receives complete healing--both physical and spiritual.

Who are today's lepers? Who is "born different"? Blacks, Latinos, gays? Who is being stigmatized, excluded, or in any way denied  health care and full participation in American society? Those are the ones that Jesus came to heal, and his followers are supposed to do likewise.

The current debate over health care and immigration in America shows how far we have strayed from the teachings and example of Jesus. Jesus healed for free. Our health system is for profit and extremely costly. Even the ACA excludes many of the most needy, the "lepers" who are black or brown or low income whites and live in Republican states that have refused to go along with Medicaid expansion.

Conservatives, most of whom describe themselves as Christian, required that the ACA excludes the undocumented, the "allogenis." This is not only contrary to what Jesus practice, it is also worth noting that Great Britain and Europe treat foreigners who need health care far better than does the United States.

This story of the Ten Lepers shows quite clearly that free health care for all, including non-citizens, is what a society based on the teachings of Jesus would provide.  When it comes to being a nation modeling the life and teachings of Jesus, America has a long, long way to go.

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