In John 4:20-21, Jesus has a discussion with the woman at the well about the proper place of worship. The woman says to him, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (NRSV). And Jesus responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”
The Samaritans worshipped at Mount Geriziim, whereas the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem. In John 4, Jesus doesn’t seem to take sides about who is right, for he says that place will soon become unimportant. As a Pentecostal Sunday school teacher told her class, “It doesn’t matter where you worship. What’s important is how you worship, and that you worship.”
In Luke 17, however, Jesus appears to tell at least one Samaritan to go to Jerusalem, not Geriziim. Jesus is travelling through the region between Samaria and Galilee, and ten lepers approach him for healing. Jesus tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they do so, they are healed. But only one turns back to thank Jesus, and he’s a Samaritan. And so Jesus was telling a Samaritan to show himself to the priests in Jerusalem.
Or was he? Here’s the weird thing: Galilee is way up north in Israel, whereas Jerusalem is in the middle, a little to the south. If I’m not mistaken, it’s quite a hike from Galilee to Jerusalem. Was Jesus sending these lepers on a big trip? No wonder most of them didn’t turn back to thank him! They had a huge journey ahead of them!
And Jesus did this for a Galilean leper before. In Mark 1:44, Jesus tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
Could there have been little outposts throughout the country where people could perform this ritual? Indeed, there were Levites who lived in cities of refuge, which were scattered throughout Israel (Numbers 35:6). Even Israelites who were faraway from the central sanctuary could learn about God’s law on a given subject from a priest who was close to them.
But is this applicable to the leprosy situation? In Leviticus 13-14, we learn that the priest who pronounces the leper clean or unclean must be an Aaronite. Not all Levites were Aaronites–only the sons of Aaron. Were Aaronites only in Jerusalem? I don’t know. They were certainly the head-honchos in the temple, I can tell you that. But they may have been able to travel to and from the city, for there’s a priest in the Parable of the Good Samaritan who goes from Jericho to Jerusalem. Could there have been Aaronites who were close to Galilee and other distant regions? I’m not sure.
But the cleansing ritual does occur at the central sanctuary, for it involves sacrifices there (see Leviticus 14). And the Torah was strict about offering sacrifices only in the place that God chose to place his name: the central sanctuary (Leviticus 17; Deuteronomy 12, 14, 16). And that was Jerusalem when Jesus was alive. Jesus told that one leper to “offer” what Moses commanded. The Galilean leper had to go to Jerusalem for that to happen. He was in for a hike!
I may be missing certain details, but, if I’m correct, Jesus sent a Samaritan leper on a long hike to Jerusalem, which was not even his own people’s sanctuary. I think there’s a homiletical lesson from this: to what length are we willing to go to be healed? In Alcoholics Anonymous, we read a line that says, “If you want what we have, and are willing to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps.” Are we willing to go any length to have love, joy, and peace? Am I?
Jesus was asking the Samaritan to put aside his cultural biases and to take a long journey. He could complain about that and disobey, but then he’d still be a leper. His flesh would continue to rot off his body, and he’d be an outcast from society. He didn’t want that. I tell you, he was willing to go any length to get healed!
But there are a few more lessons here. On some level, what all of the lepers did was admirable. They were willing to go on a long hike, after all! But only one came back to thank Jesus, and Jesus commended him. I see two lessons:
First of all, it’s possible to be into religion solely for oneself. The unthankful lepers were only concerned about being healed. They didn’t seem to care about God and Jesus. And that raises a convicting question: Am I worshipping God only for what he can give me? And that doesn’t just apply to material things. How often do evangelists ask people, “Is your life fulfilling?” It’s like they’re selling God as the key to happiness, as if he’s a consumer product. And, indeed, there are hosts of Bible passages about God blessing people and giving them happiness. But, as Hank Hanegraaff has asked, are we truly interested in the master, or only in what’s on the master’s table?
And, second, it’s possible to do the right thing and still be alienated from God. The lepers were doing what Jesus commanded. But did they have much of a relationship with him? No, for they didn’t even thank him! Doing Jesus’ commands is not the same as having a relationship with him. There’s such a thing as empty religion.
Interestingly, I went into this post expecting to write about geography. I didn’t expect to see all these spiritual lessons in the passage! God’s word is deep.