I’m intrigued by John Carroll’s insight on Luke 17:11-19, in which he identifies the story as taking place in a ‘liminal space.’ Luke tells us that this story takes place while Jesus is in the region between Samaria and Galilee. And so Luke drops this story right in the middle of the DMZ: we are not in Samaria, and we are not in Galilee. We’re in no-man’s-land.
The concept of liminality as laid out by preeminent anthropologist Victor Turner—and then drawn on by a myriad of sociologists, liturgists, and theologians—is a concept which helps us realize that there are times when we are neither-here-nor-there, but somewhere in between. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limnus, which of course means “doorway.” When we are under the limnus, we aren’t in THIS room, and we aren’t in THAT room, but rather we are in transition. We are betwixt.
There is danger here—because the uncertain nature of being beneath the limnus can produce much anxiety and stress. There are countless moments in people’s lives where we know this to be true in our bones. During the time of adolescence a person is in transition from becoming a child to a young adult. And yet, during adolescence they are neither. They aren’t children – and they will buck at being treated as such at every turn. AND YET, they aren’t adults, as much as they would like to be.
Is there really any doubt that adolescence is a time of great anxiety and pressure?
As people make the transition from education to the workforce, there is a similar time of anxiety and pressure. The same goes for couples who are engaged, and waiting to be married—they aren’t a “married couple” yet, and yet they aren’t “just dating” anymore. The period of engagement can be very stressful to a couple’s relationship.
And, the stressful experiences of the ‘mid-life crisis,’ approaching retirement, and deciding whether nursing care is needed – are all experiences of liminality.
We’re moving somewhere else, but we’re not there yet. Maybe we can’t wait to get there. Maybe we’re dreading it.
My guess is that our ancestors who traveled across the ocean by boat understood this concept keenly. Their voyage wasn’t 8 hours of leisure by on-board entertainment systems. It was months. It was rocky seas. It was wondering if they’d ever lay eyes on dry ground again.
Now that’s liminality.
The Scriptures are chock full of people in transition. The people of the Bible were wandering people. The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness. They spent a generation in Babylon. Paul moved from place to place, and then had to wonder if the gentile Christians he was converting would have a place at the table.
And here, in the 17th chapter of Luke, Jesus takes his disciples to a place that is in-between. They aren’t in the land of the Samaritans. And they aren’t home either.
Where are they? They’re nowhere. They’re everywhere.
As much as liminal periods are opportunities for danger, they are also opportunities for growth. Liminal periods are places where we can grow, where we can ‘find ourselves,’ and where we can orient our lives to shape what the next room we’ll inhabit will look like.
Where are we going? Where is God taking our lives? When we’re beneath the limnus we can take the opportunity to find out. To ask God. To make it happen.
The people of God would never have come into their own without that experience of being in the wilderness with Moses. Being slaves in Babylon shaped them again, and brought them to the love of the Scriptures and the search for their identity. The disciple’s experience in the Upper Room after Jesus’ death forged the church from being a rag tag bunch of rebels, lovers and poets into a force to be reckoned with.
Those three days in the tomb changed the world.
The liminal story of “the healing of the ten lepers” (or sometimes known as “the one grateful leper”) is a story which explores the concepts of the mercy, gratitude, healing, and faith. Ten people, beloved of God, are in distress and anguish looking for a miracle. Danger abounds – they may sicken Jesus and his cohort. They may remain sick and ostracized forever. But, the situation is also one where incredible potential resides. There is the hope of healing, and the promise of gratitude.
Under the limnus they may find nothing. Or they can be touched by God.
The tension between those two potential outcomes is so hot it’s like trying to contain onto nuclear fusion.
And in the end, healing abounds. Gratitude… not so much.
When you come through the wilderness, the yoke of slavery, the impending reality of graduation, marriage, or retirement – the potential for the grace of God is rich. And the potential for us to miss the holy significance of it is also rife.
(Resource cited above: Carroll John T., “Between Text & Sermon, Luke 17:11-19,” Interpretation, 1999.)