While I was preparing this sermon I came across a fictionalized account of the parable of Jesus Cleansing the Ten Lepers by Ralph Wilson called “A Leper’s Thanksgiving” and I would like to begin by sharing it with you.
Ten men silhouetted along the low ridge called to the leader of a small band below:
“Master, have mercy on us.”
Bartholomew glanced up. Lepers, he thought. Ragged, pitiable lepers. From the time
their skin disease was diagnosed, they were cut off from society, forced to live on their
own in caves or huts away from towns. A fortunate few had relatives who would leave
food for them, but many had no one. They weren’t allowed close enough to beg for a
living. Ragged, thin, rejected. Lepers. Just thinking the word felt dirty.
“Have mercy on us!”
Their pleading cut through Bartholemew’s thoughts. Jesus was cupping his hands
now, and calling across the low valley which lay between the road and the ridge where the
lepers stood. His voice rang out sharp and compelling in the stillness of the morning.
“Go! Show yourselves to the priests!”
The lepers looked at each other. You only went to the priests if your leprosy was gone.
Only the priests could issue a clean bill of health so you could return to your family.
As they held up their decayed limbs, they were asking, “Why go unless we’re healed?”
They looked over to Jesus again, but he was conversing with Peter and John, and they
didn’t catch his eyes so they went on their way.
But then Bart heard a shout, a cry of exaltation, a loud call that filled the valley: “I’m
healed! My leprosy is gone! It’s gone!”
Bart looked around in time to catch a smile at the corners of Jesus’ mouth. The healing
hadn’t occurred as the lepers pleaded for mercy. As they went they were healed.
Suddenly a lone figure broke from the group of rejoicing ex-lepers. He bounded over
the little creek and raced towards them, rags fluttering behind him. He sped toward Jesus.
He spoke just a phrase — “Thank you” — in a sort of broken accent, the accent of
Jesus spoke now, not really to the leper, but beyond him somehow. “Were not all tencleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Bart’s mind spun. He thought of the countless times God had answered his prayers,provided for his family, given him work, healed his sickly daughter. How often had he really said “Thanks”? Too often he had taken these blessings for granted, rejoicing in his good fortune, but seldom racing back to the Giver with a word of heartfelt thanks on his lips.
As the man knelt in front of him, Jesus’ hand lovingly rested on his head, blessing him. Bart looked up. The leper band was heading off towards the priests’ village. They had received physical healing, indeed, but the man at Jesus’ feet had received a healing of his whole person. As Jesus helped him up, he said, “Rise and go. Your faith has made you whole.”
The newly-whole Samaritan embraced Jesus. Then they stood there for a moment looking at one another — smile meeting smile. The gift of healing had sent him the message of God’s love, but thanks had brought him home.
Here ends the story.
This account is a kind of enacted parable. Jesus is traveling with his disciples. He has been moving his ministry south from Galilee, getting closer to the final confrontation in Jerusalem. Here Jesus is crossing the border area of the province of Galilee where Samaritans lived. In the story it is revealed that the man who turned back to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. In this parable we see again that Jesus cares for the outcast and the foreigner. He doesn’t choose only those who are part of the “in crowd.” Compassion and healing are offered to all.
This group of people was especially in need of healing. We can imagine how difficult life must have been for them. In biblical times leprosy was a horrible condition. We can’t say for certain what Biblical leprosy was. We believe it is what has become known as “Hansen’s Disease,” and most likely included other skin diseases as well. Skin lesions were the main sign. Due to lack of understanding about the disease, once a person caught it, it was considered incurable, and those diagnosed with leprosy were banned from society. In
Leviticus the rules are laid out as this: “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.” It would have been quite a miserable existence.
The loathing directed at lepers was not merely fear of a disease. There was a perception that leprosy was a sign of a person’s sinfulness and God’s anger with them. Leprosy also made a person ritually unclean. Touching a leper defiled a Jew almost as much as touching a dead person. A clean person was not allowed to get within 6 feet of a leper. It wasn’t uncommon for lepers to group together.
They can’t have much social contact with the “clean” members of society, so they formed their own society of the “unclean”
In all Biblical history only two people had been cured of leprosy – Miriam and Naaman. By the time this story occurred a leper had not been healed in Israel for 700 years. This healing was considered a sign that the Messiah had come and that Jesus was that long awaited savior.
When Jesus and his band of disciples draw near the lepers, they call out to him and ask for pity. They must have been very used to asking for pity because they relied on the generosity of others for their survival. The phrase “have pity” is a translation of the Greek verb eleeo, “to be greatly concerned about someone in need, ‘have compassion for someone.” They don’t ask for healing but for pity, for whatever Jesus might give them. They may have been thinking that he would give them some food, coins or clothing but his response was to say: “’Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” What did Jesus mean by this? Jewish law stated that only priests could declare a person healed of leprosy, clean, and fit to be part of their community again. Jesus didn’t tell them that they were healed. He simply told them to go see the priests.
We’re not told how they discover that they are indeed healed. We can imagine that as they’re walking away they catch a glimpse of a companion and notice something has drastically changed. One of them could have said something like, “What happened to you? Look at your skin! It’s soft and even.” Then all of them begin to examine themselves and, sure enough, they discover that they are healed.
Some scholars say that the lepers heard what Jesus said about going to the priests and believed him without question and so they went to do what he asked right away. They say that it was the lepers’ unquestioning obedience that caused them to be healed and we should use this as a lesson to remind us of how we must be obedient to God. That is a significant point but I can’t help but wonder if the lepers were just annoyed that Jesus didn’t give them the answer they wanted so they started walking away. The story doesn’t tell us where they were headed so we don’t know for certain that they were in fact on going to do what Jesus told them to do.
I have heard other sermons where ministers have shared this parable as an example of how Christians should have an unquestioning faith that leads them to do what Jesus asks them to do without hesitation. That makes sense as one of the possible readings of this story, but I found that there were other aspects of this parable that intrigued me more. I read this and saw that God was at work healing the lepers even though they didn’t ask for it. They asked for mercy, not healing but God still healed them. I believe that God is at work healing all of us even when we ask or don’t ask for it. God sees our needs and responds but sometimes we don’t notice.
At some point all ten lepers realize they are healed, but only one comes all the way back to Jesus, praising God for his mercy. “Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ “ I find it amazing that even though they were ungrateful, they were still healed. Jesus could have reacted harshly to their lack of gratitude but he did not. Jesus didn’t inflict them with leprosy again because of their ingratitude. He simply noted it and continued to bless the man who was appreciative.
The account ends with Jesus’ departing blessing: “Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’ “ The phrase “made you well” can also be translated “made you whole.” What does it mean to be healed or made whole? We can feel fragmented within ourselves, isolated and disconnected from God. God heals us and saves us by eternally offering us love and grace. Do you ever find yourself ignoring the presence of that love and grace in your lives? The ten lepers were cleansed and healed but only one responded to that healing. Notice that the others were still healed. How often do we go about our daily
lives without acknowledging the greater power at work in the world? We are invited to turn around to see God face to face, to give thanks and find wholeness. I want to make another point that I think is important. I think there is a difference between being cured and being healed. Often we pray for healing and we want to be cured. We want whatever afflicts us to disappear. I have found that healing can happen even when you are not cured. I have told you before that I have early onset of macular degeneration and that I am losing my central
vision. When I was first diagnosed several years ago, I prayed that I would be cured but that has not happened. What I have found instead is healing and wholeness. My disability made me feel at war within myself. I felt angry at my body for being defective and for letting me down. I also felt angry and separated from God. Over time I have forgiven myself and forgiven God and found a sense of connection within myself and in my relationship with God. That is how I have experienced healing and wholeness even though I have not been cured
We are all invited to turn from a fear-filled faith to a hope-filled faith. We can turn around to discover a new way of seeing what God has done, is doing and
will do in our lives because I truly believe that God wants all of us to be well and is moving in our lives to help make that happen.
Let us pray. God grant that we will on occasion be thankful enough to be boisterously thankful. Thankful enough to stop what we’re doing and praise you. Thankful enough to help those who will not give thanks. And thankful enough to voice Jesus’ question as our own, “Where are the other nine?” and help them find their way home, too.”