I am sure we are all familiar with the concept of ‘No Man’s Land’, land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties or warring factions who leave it unoccupied to establish a zone of neutrality and control. I have some very close friends in Germany, and as a result of the creation of the inner German border on 1st July 1945 (which was the boundary between the Western and Soviet occupation zones of former Nazi Germany), they suddenly found that their wider family and relatives were divided.
Some of the family lived in West Germany. Some of the family lived in East Germany. For many years, due to restrictions in contact and before the availability of mobile phones, the only way the respective family members could communicate was by visiting the border fences, separated by ‘No Man’s Land’, and taking along a pair of binoculars and waving at each other.
It’s hard to imagine isn’t it? What made this even more horrific was that one of the family from East Germany was visiting relatives in West Germany at the time the border control was established. Her family back in East Germany told her to stay, since she would be safer and have better opportunities.
I often visited my friends in Germany as a child, and one holiday they took me to the border, to the exact place where they used to go to have such limited contact with the rest of the family. I could see the guards with rifles on the border patrol towers, I could see the guard dogs, and as I gazed out over ‘No Man’s Land’ I could even see a minefield. It was very distressing; I felt overwhelmed with so many emotions. I remember standing there with tears running down my face. I am sure you can imagine how emotional it was when the border finally came down and West and East Germany were reunified in 1990.
‘No Man’s Land’ is an interesting place. It’s a place of transition, a place of change, a place of potential, a place of division, a place of sadness and a place of hope. So imagine this. In our Gospel account we are told Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem, but he chose to travel along the border between Samaria and Galilee. Galilee was Jewish; Samaria was occupied by Samaritans, who were despised by the Jews. The antipathy between them would have been clear. Jesus was effectively travelling through ‘No Man’s Land’.
He came across a village, where by virtue of its location the residents will have been without clear identity, and outcast from society. As he was going into the village, he was met by ten men who had leprosy, and as we are later told one of the men was a Samaritan. So here in this area lived both Jews and Samaritans alike. Since they suffered from leprosy these men will have been doubly outcast firstly because of Jew and Samaritan being together and secondly, they were considered unclean, and unable to come into contact with other people or attend the temple to worship. It is in ‘No Man’s Land’ that we see these ten men united not by some noble common aim or purpose, but united instead by the brokenness of their condition. A test of our character is how well we maintain our integrity and friendships not only as we journey through those places, but also when we emerge from brokenness.
Out of respect, and reflecting the nature of their condition, the lepers called out to Jesus. They clearly knew who Jesus was – even in ‘No Man’s Land’, Jesus is known. They had a hope of restoration and healing. If a leper thought his leprosy had gone away, the leper was supposed to present himself to a priest, who could declare him clean (Leviticus 14). Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priest even before they were healed; we are told that their leprosy disappeared “as they went”. Jesus did not touch these men or even speak words of healing as he had done for most of his healings. This time he simply gave them the command to go…to the priests. If I had been a leper and been told to go to the priests before I was even healed, I am not sure how I might have responded. Jesus was asking these men to respond in faith knowing that by their obedience and through the power of Jesus, what they desired would happen. All the men responded in faith, and Jesus healed them on the way. Is our faith so strong that we act on what God says even before we see evidence that it will work?
The healing of these 10 men was of huge significance. No longer will they have been outcast and ostracised by society. No longer will they have needed to wander in ‘No Man’s Land’. Yet only one of them – the Samaritan, hated by Jews – came back praising God and thanked Jesus. It is so tragic that the other 9 men received such a blessing with an ungrateful heart. No wonder Jesus said “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It’s not simply about the lack of gratitude. Yes, the other nine men were healed from leprosy, but they also had an opportunity to know salvation and enter into a deeper relationship with God. It was an opportunity that they wasted.
Jesus said to the Samaritan, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” He not only had a restored body, he had come out of ‘No Man’s Land’ to that deep place of faith.
I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking an attitude of gratitude in our lives; we should never take people for granted. We should never take God for granted or the many blessings we have. It is quite likely that on the edges of our lives, at a distance, and not too far a distance we may find needy people whom Jesus loves. I see and know that often in our local communities. People who through circumstances in life find themselves in the ‘No Man’s Land’ of society. People who need an invitation to ‘come home’.
So Lord, soften our hearts and open our eyes to see your wonders and the many blessings you have given us. Give us a heart for the lost and all who journey in dark places. May we carry the Christ light and shine a way leading people home. Amen