Learning from foreigners

“So Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?’” (Luke 17:17-18 NKJV).

Sometimes it is difficult to keep up with one’s identity, especially when traveling frequently far from home. Most of us recognize a certain negative connotation to the word foreigner. In many languages and cultures, the term denoting “one from somewhere else” is definitely and intensely prejudicial. It is an expression of disdain, dislike, and contempt.

We instinctively identify foreigners as those who are different from ourselves, or from somewhere other than the place where we live. Upon reflection though, we should understand that the true meaning is those whose origin or permanent residence is somewhere other than where they are located at the present time. When in Nepal, I am a foreigner. When I am at home (i.e., in the United States), a visiting Nepali is the foreigner.

The mere fact of location should not define one’s worth or character. One should not be held in contempt because he or she did not have the privilege of being born in the same location as I, nor should they despise me because I was not born where they live. But the fact is that such judgment is common.

In the story of Luke 17 Jesus seems to find it surprising that it is the foreigner who shows a more godly spirit than the native Jews who received the identical blessing. He himself was a Jew, serving his own people. They were worshipers of God, according to his law. Everything seemed to suggest that the nine would be more aware and more grateful than the Samaritan who lacked their background. But it was the foreigner who glorified God and gave thanks, even delaying his own return to health and freedom to do so.

This story suggests several important lessons. First, problems and blessings are common to all mankind. Leprosy did not select the Jews because they were Jews, or the Samaritan because of his nationality. Nor did Jesus restrict healing only to those of his own nation. Both groups suffered, both were blessed. God does not offer good things only to those of one race or nationality. Nor does Satan afflict only certain portions of the earth. Sin and salvation (i.e. problems and blessings) are both universal.

Second, neither gratitude nor ingratitude are limited to one people. Every human makes that choice for himself. One is self-centered, another is outwardly perceptive, not because of where they were born but because they themselves chose such actions. The story of the lepers even demonstrates that one’s environment does not always determine character. The Jews lived in circumstances where glorifying God and giving thanks were more expected and came more naturally, yet they did not respond that way.

Finally this story reminds us that all are equally accountable to God, wherever we may be. There are many who have one character at home among their friends and family and another when far away among strangers. The motto “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is unfortunately not limited to one city, but has become the philosophy of many travelers worldwide.

A contrasting morality is expressed in this saying: “Character is what one does when no one is watching.” Perhaps we should add, “no one who knows us.” The Samaritan could have stayed with his companions and done what everyone else was doing, then returned to his home where no one would be aware of how he had received his healing. But that was not his nature. He demonstrated his faith, thus obtaining Jesus’ admiration. In so doing he demonstrated that perhaps it was the nine Jews who were the true foreigners, that is, by behaving in a way inappropriate to their location.

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