Mercy & Compassion

October 9, 2022 — Rev. Brent Gundlah

One of the things I like most about living in here Utah it is that there’s not as much poison ivy here as there is in other places I’ve lived. This might sound like a strange thing to say, but I am highly susceptible to the unspeakable evil that this plant inflicts. I was generally good for three cases a year back in Ohio, where I’m pretty sure poison ivy is the state flower (and if it’s not it should be).  

The bout of poison ivy I had in August 2019 was particularly awful. It was so bad, in fact, that I ended up at urgent care late one night because the rash had spread over my entire left leg below the knee, causing my ankle to swell up to twice its normal size; it looked really gross.

Thankfully, I was on vacation for the worst of it (though it did make for much of a vacation); and, since it was summer, I could wear shorts around the clock. This was good because walking around in long pants all day in that heat and humidity would have been excruciating. The downside of wearing shorts, however, was that everyone could see my grotesque lower leg.

During that particular case of poison ivy, I found myself feeling really self-conscious. I noticed that people would glance at me (specifically, at my leg) and then quickly turn away; they were hardly able to conceal their troubled expressions, which were generally a mixture of disgust and fear.

At some level, I kind of understood their reactions — like I said, my leg was pretty gross. And, being kind of a germ freak myself, I appreciated their concern; they must have been worried that they would catch whatever I had. They had no way of knowing that my affliction wasn’t contagious; I mean I wasn’t walking around wearing a t-shirt that said, “Don’t Worry, It’s Just Poison Ivy” (though that probably would have been a good idea). 

I remember sitting in the waiting room at urgent care that night and being miserable — not only because my left leg felt like it was on fire, but also because I felt like a pariah. As I looked around, it seemed as though the other patients had created a multi-seat buffer zone between them and me so as not to risk coming in contact with the bearer of a horrible pestilence, and this, as the saying goes, added insult to injury. I had never experienced anything like that before and I hope never to do so again; it was absolutely awful.

I kept telling myself that I would probably never see any of these people again (which was true); I kept telling myself that my poison ivy would eventually go away (which was also true). But what do you think those ten lepers in today’s story from Luke’s Gospel might have been telling themselves?

Just for the record, they probably didn’t have leprosy — what’s known today as Hansen’s Disease. Way back in Jesus’s time the term “leprosy” was used to describe any number of terrible skin conditions, and Hansen’s Disease was pretty rare in that part of the world then. But that would have been no consolation to these folks.

Whatever they had was apparently not something they could simply cover up and hide, because if they could have done so then they probably would have done so. Their illness was one that people could always readily see — maybe on their hands or perhaps, literally, written all over their faces.

It also likely wasn’t an affliction that would just go away on its own. And there weren’t an awful lot of dermatologists dispensing antibiotics and hydrocortisone at that time; heck, in our day and age even Hansen’s Disease is pretty easily cured — back then, not so much. Absent some kind of miracle, these ten people were going to have to endure their disease for a while — perhaps even for the rest of their lives.

I’m sure they got some really judgmental looks out there on the mean streets of Israel, as the people they passed by every single day steered clear of them for fear of catching whatever they had, but the social implications of their illness were greater than that.

Because they would have been seen as ritually unclean, they would have been banished from the Temple; they would have been unable to participate in the basic practices of their faith; they would have been effectively removed from their community.

Alone, abandoned and desperate, these ten folks were left to live on their own in the barren region between Samaria and Galilee — literally, in the middle of nowhere. And this is where they find Jesus, who’s passing through on his way to Jerusalem.

When they hear that Jesus is coming near, they approach him but keep their distance — by this point, they’d grown accustomed to keeping their distance; they shout out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They want mercy, they want a cure, and they want it now. You can’t really blame them for that.

And so Jesus cures them, no questions asked. As Luke describes it, “When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.” They are free to walk into the Temple once again, to rejoin the society that had shunned them — well, most of them are anyway.

You see, as nine of them head off to Jerusalem, one remains. Luke tells us that, “When he saw that he was healed, [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.”

Now, the fact that the Samaritan is the only one who returns to thank Jesus is would have been really provocative to Luke’s first audience. Remember, for them, Samaritans were understood to be the absolute worst people on earth.

Sermons on this text tend to focus on the Samaritan’s gratitude for the mercy Jesus shows him, and that’s fine. The Samaritan, the foreigner, the very last person that Luke’s readers would have believed could do the right thing, does the right thing; he pauses to give thanks to God for his miraculous healing while the others take off for Jerusalem. The message, in this case, is pretty obvious: Go and do likewise; be like the Samaritan, not like those guys. Yeah, kay.

But today I want to linger there with the Samaritan for a bit — in part, because those nine others were no longer willing to do so. Yeah, he was perfectly fine for them to hang around with when they were all lepers despised by the rest of the world — when no one else wanted to be around any of them — but things were different now. It’s funny how fickle we humans can be; come to think of, it’s not really funny at all.

I say this because, when Jesus tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests, the Samaritan can’t do that with the others because, as a Samaritan, he wasn’t welcome in their Temple.

Sure, it wasn’t like it had been when they all had their skin disease, when what made them different from others (and brought them all together) was manifestly obvious. People couldn’t tell just by looking at the Samaritan that he wasn’t like the rest. And I doubt that he was wearing a t-shirt that said “Kiss Me, I’m a Samaritan” or anything like that.

But the fact of the matter was that he could no longer be with those who were, just moments earlier, his brethren because of something else about him that set him apart and thus excluded him; suddenly, he was no longer welcome among those by whom he was accepted; That had to hurt.

Our constant need to perceive difference among us and to use it as a means of keeping us apart is an insidious thing, I dare say it’s our greatest sin. Why must we classify and categorize one another — and even ourselves — so ruthlessly and mercilessly? 

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” the ten lepers cried when they saw Jesus.

“Mercy.” It’s evolved into such a loaded word.

As theologian Marcus Borg explains it, these days “mercy” implies a power differential between the dispenser and the recipient of mercy that the Bible didn’t necessarily intend. In a modern religious framework, the implication is often that, “We have offended God through our disobedience and deserve to be punished, so we appeal to God for mercy… Mercy is connected with forgiveness.”

And so Borg seeks to reclaim the meaning of the ancient word, to reframe it in terms of how God acts, by rendering it in English not as “mercy,” but rather as “compassion” —  from the Latin root that means “to feel with” — and this changes everything.

When we encounter someone who’s suffering, our thoughts shouldn’t be about mercy and forgiveness (What’s wrong with them that needs fixing? What did they do to deserve this?); they should be about compassion and care (How can we accompany them and love them in the midst of what they’re enduring?).

Ten approach Jesus on the road seeking healing. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” they cry. And they are cured.

Nine believe they have received all the healing they needed and go on their way to rejoin the community that ostracized them.

But one remains an outcast. And in the continuing suffering of his exclusion he experiences the compassionate presence of Jesus, through whom and with whom he comes to learn that he is part of something far bigger than himself.

Go and do likewise;

be like Jesus, not like those guys.