In the northeast of France there is a small sliver of land known to history as Alsace-Lorraine. Known for it industrial strength in the latter half of the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine became a coveted piece of property for the Germans who ultimately took it from France after winning the Franco-Prussian War. For 47 years, from 1871 until 1918, it was a part of the German Empire. For most of that time, Germany ruled Alsace-Lorraine with great attention, for fear of losing it back to France. After World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed its territory, but realizing that 47 years and some continued German interest during World War was enough to establish some pretty distinct habits, the French government gives Alsace-Lorraine a lot of autonomy, allowing local law to reign. Such is the messiness of a borderland.
While on his way from Galilee, where much of his teaching took place, to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed, tortured, crucified, and buried, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the unseemly territory of the Samaritans. Like Alsace-Lorraine, Samaria was something of a disputed territory. The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, but were those who had been left behind in the Babylonian Exile. They married those outside of Judaism, they adjusted their worship in light of the destruction of the Temple, and because of that, they were resoundingly hated by the Jews. That this unclean territory existed between Galilee and Judea meant that there was a wide swath of borderland to pass through as one traveled between the two.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus precisely in that messy place; en route to Judea, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria. To make matters worse, and to clarify that he really was in no man’s land, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper colony. In all of history, there might be no more an in-between place than a leper colony on the border between the Jews and the Samaritans. You might not want to waste as much time as I have on this borderland thing, but the placement of this story geographically is worth noting. The preacher might want to help her congregation see just how “out there” Jesus is in this moment because while we read this story as being about forgiveness, if we focus on Jesus, then this story is all about crossing boundaries.
With compassion, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of geography, of politics, of religion, in order to care for those who have been permanently placed in no man’s land. They have been removed from society. They no longer have an identity beyond “leper.” Note that the tenth leper who returns to give thanks isn’t identified as a Samaritan until after his healing takes place. These lepers weren’t even considered human beings. And yet, Jesus sees them. He treats them as worthy of love and care. In that place of in-betweeness, Jesus heals them, restores their humanity, and makes them whole.