Reflecting on the "foreigner" in Luke 17

While serving with the ELCA in Cairo Egypt from 1999-2007 I had the privilege of serving as the pastor at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo for four years.  St. Andrew’s is an international congregation that provided a worship home for people from all around the world.

The largest ministry of the congregation, however, was to African refugees; those primarily from Sudan, Ethiopia or Somalia who had come to Cairo to seek the assistance of the United Nations. St. Andrew’s provided both relief services, as well as educational opportunities for about 1,000 refugees a week. Because these African refugees were not citizens or recognized members of the Arab League, they did not have access to support or education in Egypt, St. Andrew’s did what it could.

One day, one very long day, after working with the refugees I was on my way out of the gate of the church when a very tall Dinka from South Sudan asked if he could speak with me.  I was exhausted and emotionally spent and wanted to go home, but he insisted.

His name was John.  John told me his story.  He and his wife, and four month old baby had recently arrived from Khartoum and they were now living in a stairwell of an apartment building.  The Egyptian owner of the building graciously allowed them to stay there.  But they had no money. John was not asking for me to take them in.  He was not asking me to solve their problems.  He just wanted some money so he could buy milk for his daughter.

Well, you can imagine that my heart broke.  Our offices were closed and I did not have access to any money in the safe.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out the only money I had - 5 Egyptian pounds - about $1.20.  I apologized profusely.  But John put his hand on my shoulder and smiled, and said, “No pastor, thank you.  This is very helpful.  I am grateful.” With that John left.

That encounter haunted me for years.  I never heard about John or his family.  I assumed that they were forced to go back home to Sudan or worse. That is until one day six years later when at that same church compound I saw his indomitable smile through the crowd of Sudanese.  He greeted me, but he was no where near as glad to see me as I was to see him.  I was ecstatic! John told me that they were fine, now living in an apartment with several other families, and that his wife was working that his six and half year old daughter was fine.  He was grateful. “God is gracious,” he said to me.

Here was this Sudanese refugee, living as a foreigner in a strange land  - dirt poor, struggling to survive, but grateful - he was a whole person. 

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In the Gospel reading for 21st Sunday After Pentecost (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem for the holy celebration of Passover.  He, and his disciples are walking, from their home district of the Galilee, south toward Judea.  In order for them to get there, they have to pass through the country of Samaria - the place of the Samaritans.  As they journey along, they approach ten lepers along the roadside who are all looking for alms.  I would imagine, that they were a lot I was the day I met John, tired and exhausted.

Levitical law stated that a person with “leprosy” was unclean (Lev. 13:1-17).  Leprosy was simply a “catch-all” word for some kind of skin disease.  It was publicly visible.  And thus, someone who was not physically “whole” - was “unclean.” These “unclean” lepers were forced to live on the edge of town, away from everyone else.  They were not to contaminate the rest of society.  So, they were forced to live on the meager existence of “alms” from either family members, or those so inclined to provide assistance.

Along comes Jesus.  He stops, and instead of pulling out a load of shekels or Egyptian pounds for “alms”, or even something “in kind” - like a packet of pita bread - he says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” (v. 14)

Perhaps, they were thinking to themselves, “What?!”  “We don’t want to go and show ourselves to the priests!  We are unclean people.  The priests will not even look at us.  What, are you trying to make us feel bad about our already desperate existence?  You want us to humiliate ourselves by having the priests yell at us for going into the village and breaking the Law!

But they go.  “And as they went, they were made clean.” (v. 14).

Their lives were changed forever - in ways that they never could have imagined.  They would no longer be required to live as outcastes, struggling to survive in finding their “daily bread”.  Perhaps, they could go back to their families, perhaps they could go back to their old jobs.  They had the opportunity to make a new life for themselves! What a gift!

But the point of the story as told by Luke here is that although all ten are physically healed - only one of them is “made well” - “swzw”: it is the same word in Greek as “to be saved”. Although the nine were physically healed, they were not made whole. It was only the one who came back, who realized that there was more to the healing than simply being physically healed.  What is important for Luke, and for us; is that this “one” was a SAMARITAN. Luke says, “Now he [the Leper] was a Samaritan” . . . This is the punch line of the story. You see, he was a “foreigner”.  This is the only reference in the New Testament to the word “foreigner” [•88@(,<°l].  Perhaps the other nine lepers were Jews, presumably: law abiding, upstanding Jews.

One would think that if the story were about Jesus’ trying to prove himself to the Jews of the time as the Messiah that he would have gained more credibility by having the lepers who were Jews go to the Temple priests to explain themselves, of how they had been returned to the community of believers, of who Jesus was and that he really was the Messiah.  Yes, that would prove his pedigree as the one to whom they were looking for.  But no, Luke says it was the “foreigner.”

In the OT, all “foreigners” were forbidden from even going near the Tabernacle of God under penalty of death (Numbers 1:51, 3:10, 38, 16:40, 18:4; Ez. 44:7, 9).  On the Temple in Jerusalem was a sign forbidding all “foreigners” from entering into the inner courtyards!  Foreigners were not welcome. This is ironic, especially given that the experience of the ancient Hebrews of old remembered the fact that Abraham, their forefather, was a foreigner in the land of Canaan; and that while they were in Egypt, they were foreigners. Because of this history and experience; they were to always remember, and welcome the foreigner.  Ex. 22:21 states: "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” How easy they forgot.  How easy WE forget.

All of us, like the ancient Hebrews, were originally foreigners in list land - unless we have a drop of native American blood in us, of course. Many of us, myself included, come from German immigrants.  And, Benjamin Franklin, had some not so nice things to say about the “swarthy” Germans coming to the New World during the 18th century who didn’t know any English, and were taking away jobs from good Americans.

It’s not easy being a “foreigner.” You don’t belong.  You don’t often speak the same language.  You don’t often eat the same food. You don’t often look the same.  People know that you are a “foreigner”. When I lived in Egypt with my family as part of our work with the ELCA, I was a “foreigner.”  My simple physical appearance told people I didn’t belong.  I was white. I dressed a bit differently, and if I were to speak Arabic, my accent gave me away.  I was a foreigner. And yet, in all my days of living in the Middle East - as a foreigner - I was always welcomed.  Hospitality, the bedrock of Arab culture, dictated that as a “foreigner” I should be welcomed. And so I was.

It’s not easy being a “foreigner” in the U.S. these days, though. “Foreigners” are now perceived as threats: if they are not illegal immigrants, then they must by terrorists.  And we know foreigners, perhaps by the way they look or by the way they speak. And yet, how we often overlook the strong references to “welcoming the foreigner”, the “stranger” in scripture.  In Hebrews 13:2 we are reminded of the story of Abraham welcoming those three strangers at his tent (in Gen. 18): the three strangers who just turned out to be messengers from God!  Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). 

The message of the Gospel from Luke 17 is that the unlikely outsider, the “foreigner”, is the one with whom God is working; but not only that, the one with whom God is trying to teach us a lesson.  Imagine if you will what those Temple Priests in Jerusalem would have said, if the heard that Jesus was demonstrating how that Samaritan Leper was the model of piety, much more than those Jews!

When WE look at “foreigners” along the road, what do we see: an illegal immigrant seeking to take advantage of America, to take our taxes, do we see a possible “terrorist”?  Or do we see a human being, a child of God, to whom God may have made whole, and may have an incredible story of God’s ability to make lives whole?! Just like John. John with his incredible smile.

Unless we stop and take the time to find out, we’ll never know.  Unless we provide hospitality to the foreigner, we’ll never know. Fortunately for those ten lepers, and especially that one Samaritan Leper, Christ did stop and take time for them.  Christ will always stop and will always take time.

Thanks be to God!


1Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.(1751).