This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a very familiar story. Ten lepers, who were social outcasts because of their affliction, came to Jesus. They begged his help, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” (Luke 17:13)
Jesus took pity on them, and they were healed. Strangely, only one bothered to thank Jesus for the miraculous healing. The Gospel says that “one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.” (Luke 17:15-16)
Upon seeing this Samaritan give thanks for the healing, Jesus said, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:19) Jesus ascribed faith to a Samaritan, someone whom good Jews would have considered incapable of faith, under any circumstances. It’s worth our paying attention to how shocking and surprising this claim by Jesus would have been.
For Jesus’ contemporaries, the idea that a Samaritan might have faith would be similar to us entertaining the idea that there might be a Democratic Senator who doesn’t want to increase spending tax money on government programs, or a Republican Representative who doesn’t want to reduce the size of government or any cable news commentator who doesn’t want to argue about everything.
It would have been a shocking notion for the disciples to hear that Jesus thought a Samaritan had faith. It would have been insulting, as well. Jesus has just scolded them for having so little faith that it would not have filled even a mustard seed. Immediately afterward, Jesus ascribed faith to a Samaritan. The disciples would have been embarrassed that Jesus thought more highly of a Samaritan than them.
Jesus shamed the disciples intentionally. By praising a Samaritan in front of them, for something that he had told them they lacked, he intended them to feel some shame for their lack of faith. If it’s difficult for us to conceive of Jesus as shaming the disciples intentionally, it may be that we lack an appropriate appreciation for shame.
Shame is not always a bad thing, even though our culture makes us think that it is. There are some very strong cultural trends in this country that tell us to look at shame, embarrassment, disgust and other so-called ‘negative emotions’ as undesirable. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that our culture does not have a flawless track record of discerning right from wrong.
Think, for a moment, of the kinds of messages that come to us daily from popular culture. Advertising tells us that conspicuous consumption can make us appear sophisticated and irresistible to the opposite sex. Television entertainment tells us that living shallow, narcissistic lives can be fulfilling. Politics tells us to be petty, demanding and unforgiving. The prevalent economic model makes it seem acceptable that a few live very well and many struggle for life’s necessities.
If we look at these cultural values with reasonableness the size of a grain of mustard seed, we can see how foolish and empty these notions are. If we look at the extent to which these cultural values influence our thoughts and actions, we can see that we have need of a little shame.
Shame can be a very helpful experience. It can indicate the presence of something very powerful in our lives. It can guide us away from destructive and self-centered behavior. Shame can indicate that we’ve taken a wrong turn on our life’s journey.
Shame is something that we should respect and appreciate for its capacity to call us to conversion, and it is something that we should honor as a normal and necessary part of life.
Obviously, shame is uncomfortable and unpleasant. The disciples could not have been happy that Jesus was more pleased with a Samaritan than with them, but it was a necessary experience for them. Although it took them quite a while to learn what constituted a real faith, their failure in Jesus’ estimation was a necessary part of their coming to faith.
The benefit of shame in our lives is the same benefit that the disciples experienced: eventually, it led them out of their unbelief. We should not get stuck in our shame any more than we should ignore it. The function of shame is to move us toward change, toward repentance and toward the capacity to accept God’s forgiveness.
As a beginning to our journey toward repentance, it might be enough today for us to cultivate and welcome shame, even if it’s no larger than a grain of mustard seed. A little bit of inspiration can cause great results. A little desire for change can lead to a completely renewed heart. A little shame or regret might lead us to find forgiveness and salvation.