Pentecost 20 Luke 17:11-19
Ever had a bee buzzing in your big toe? I know, it sounds ridiculous. But once I did know someone who did. He didn’t find it odd, only annoying. In most ways he seemed quite normal, but that bee kept him in a mental hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia literally means broken heart or mind. I think of it as broken boundaries. He didn’t know where the boundaries of his self began and ended and where the world began and ended. In his illness it did not seem contradictory that he might have a bee in his toe.
It has been thirty years since I worked with him during my clinical training, but he came to mind as I thought about the ten lepers Jesus encounters in Luke’s gospel. The story raises for me how confusing and complex the boundaries in our lives are. When should they be honoured? When should they be crossed? When do they bless us and when do they curse us? Could it be that where boundaries are concerned, we all suffer from schizophrenia, at least a little bit?
As Jesus crosses the border between Galilee and Samaria, his disciples may be remembering the Samaritan town that refused him entry. After all no Samaritan has reason to trust their Jewish cousins who judge, reject and scorn them. Making his way to Jerusalem, unperturbed by past rejection he approaches another Samaritan village. Before he gets there, however, he encounters ten lepers, a little band united by their suffering and exclusion from the community. Both he and they respect the religiously imposed boundaries between the ritually clean and unclean. They don’t come close, and he doesn’t touch them. But he penetrates the boundary with just a word, a command, sending them on their way. They leave full of anticipation of what will happen on the road – for it was a word of healing! When it occurs, nine of them, who are presumably Jews, rush to the priests, as the Law requires and Jesus commands, to be confirmed as ritually clean. They are restored to the community. They are not heard from again.
But one of the ten comes back to say thank you and to praise God. Ironically, he's an outsider, a Samaritan, a "them" who is seized by a gratitude that turns him around to make his way back to the one who healed him. That the healer is a Jew is no concern to him. But I wonder if there is more to the story. The nine who did not return did nothing wrong. They did what they had been told. They knew that the Law would open the boundary between them and their people to be received back. I’m sure they were just as grateful as the tenth leper. Why not? They could resume their lives again and have some control over them. They no longer had to beg and depend on the kindness of strangers. They were no longer outcasts. They were no longer “them.” I wonder if they ever thought of or tried to keep in touch with their former mate to whom they were once bonded in suffering? His was a different fate. The priests would never certify him as ritually clean. There is no cure for being a Samaritan. With no community to return to he had nowhere else to turn but to God. In his case the boundary that excludes him frees him to be made whole, or as Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
I don’t find this story to be about proper manners and sending “thank you” notes. I don’t think it is even about the tenth leper. What intrigues me about this moment is where it takes place. It is in an in-between place – the border between Samaria and Judea. It is outside the boundaries of both. It is neither one nor the other. Perhaps its only inhabitant is that whom we call God. Having been on that road I can tell you it is desolate enough to wonder why even God would be there. It also makes me wonder what the divine is doing outside the boundaries of where we would put such power? It’s a little unsettling. We prefer God in a box than roaming about God knows where.
We know that boundaries are good things or so we think along with Robert Frost’s antagonist in his poem Mending Wall. “Good fences make good neighbors” he remarks repeatedly with the thoughtless confidence of carelessly gathered wisdom.
The therapeutic community would agree, encouraging us to maintain a healthy sense of self. Keep mending the wall that defines you they tell us. And I can’t argue with that advice. Spiritual directors and Shakespeare remind us that “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Their understanding that all journeys begin with knowing who we are and are not is essential to health, be it mental, physical or spiritual. Almost all the professions these days are reminded to respect boundaries in the workplace. Workshops are often required to maintain that wall always on the edge of collapse. Respecting the boundaries of others is essential to healthy, safe relationships. And again I laud the wisdom. We all know stories of damaged lives caused by those who violated boundaries in the workplace.
One cannot argue that boundaries, walls, borders; lines in the sand, have their purpose. They give us confidence in whom we are and protect us from real or imagined fear. They preserve us from chaos and provide order. We come to think of them as sacrosanct, for we frequently see the consequences when they are violated or breached.
We saw it this week when Paul Henry allowed what can only be described as his crude racism to embarrass a large portion of an entire nation in suggesting our New Zealand born Govenour-General, Sir Anand, of Fijian Indian descent doesn’t represent what a New Zealander should look or sound like. Such racial attitudes may have once been considered an acceptable wall in our culture to define us, but no longer. Mr. Henry apparently did not get the memo that it had been torn down to build a wall that includes a much more diverse and colourful citizenry. As a nation we resented memory of that former wall we would like to forget being brought back to mind by his hateful question. And we squirmed all the more when our Prime Minister did not immediately and firmly stand up to the implication behind the question. That is perhaps a good thing. It is good to remember that boundaries change. And they change for good reason. But to do that we must remember from whence we came.
Boundaries clearly have their uses but again I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall:
“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.”
I do confess that at first I felt some uncomfortable empathy for Mr. Henry as someone who has also been assaulted in the media for violating a boundary. In my case it was with a billboard. But upon quick reflection I realized a fundamental difference. He was trying to rebuild a wall constructed of stone-hard hate that had fallen into disrepair. Our billboard sought to breach a wall of rigid doctrine and dogma that impedes the church from fulfilling her mission in the 21st century.
These episodes, perhaps, give us a guideline as to when a boundary is no longer or was never helpful and needs to be breached. When boundaries no longer allow us to be true to ourselves, it is time to move beyond them. When a boundary has been imposed upon us against our will it may be time to challenge it. We begin to learn this as two-year olds when we first used the word “no.” We further develop this important skill when we took our first tentative steps at rebellion as teenagers. At these times in our lives those boundaries are often imposed out of love to protect and discipline us, but at some point we must be allowed to define our own boundaries. Ideally, we reach a point when our boundaries are formed by mutual respect and care, and a confidence in our oneness with divine love.
As an example, where Lynette and I live, we have a fence on one property line and none on the other. The neighbour on the fenced side never returns our greetings or speaks to us. Our only interaction is their throwing their green waste over the fence into our garden. Lynette takes perverse pleasure in returning it to them promptly. Where her garden is concerned she does not find it easy to turn the other cheek. The neighbours on the side without a fence are neighbourly in all ways. Baked goods are exchanged. Drinks are shared. Mutual support is given. We serve as surrogate grandparents for their small children – a mutually beneficial arrangement. Clearly in this case, it is not a good fence that makes a good neighbour, but love, kindness and respect.
Tearing down walls, broaching boundaries is not a comfortable undertaking. It leaves us uncertain and uneasy in an in-between reality. The landmarks we rely on to guide us are often absent. It is a place we have to go to in faith with no guarantees. We go because we will never be more than who and what we are if we do not move beyond the boundaries that wall us in. Whatever our reluctance, once we realize that that which we call God resides outside the boundaries we have set or have had imposed upon us, we are free to move on. We go thankfully that we might be healed. But in the meantime, I suspect that that annoying bee is still buzzing in our toe.