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The REAL "L" word, now that the election is over. Not Liberal. Leprosy. Both what we now know as Hansen's Disease, which destroys the nerves in the fingers and toes making them insensitive to pain and finally leads the victims to wear their limbs down through repeated injuries, but also any one of a number of other skin diseases. Unclean. The Hebrew people had a thing about skin diseases. Even sacrificial animals - goats or sheep or doves - that happened to have a mottled or blemished coat were routinely rejected from the Temple rituals (good thing for the animals, I guess - it saved them from the slaughter!). But human beings whose body's outer "coat," as it were, happened to be blotched or mottled or visibly birthmarked were often equally rejected. Their condition was seen as a mark of divine judgment. They were shunted off to the fringes, out of sight, if not out of mind. They were encouraged, when they did draw close to an inhabited town, to cover their faces with hoods and veils. Some of this was because their diseases were thought to be highly contagious - although, truth be told, it was just as much because they simply looked different. No wonder that lepers, in Jesus' time, tended to travel in packs - it was for their own protection. It was a pretty miserable life.
Now, here comes Jesus. By this point, his fame had begun to spread. After all, word of someone who can routinely do the miraculous things that Jesus did was bound to get around. Three days before, Jesus had healed a leper. Whether these ten had heard about that and were thinking that this might be their lucky day is a matter of conjecture, but, from the appropriate distance, they cry out, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" Perhaps they were just looking for a hand-out. Who knows? "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"
And he did. But not in the way we might have expected. He did not go over to these sad sufferers, did not lay hands on them or offer a kind blessing. He just yells back - "Go, show yourselves to the priests." Standard operating procedure according to the book of Leviticus.(2) Once you have been declared ritually unclean on account of a skin disease, the only road back to polite society - in the unlikely event of a healing - is to go to a priest. He will examine your skin, then put you through a ritual of religious purification, and voilá, you are back again. So, all ten lepers, simply on Jesus' say-so, head off down the road, in search of a priest. No indication of any hesitancy on their part. Off they go...even before they are healed. Amazing. And as we know, their step of faith was certainly rewarded. As Luke recounts it, "as they went, they were cleansed." NOW we have those Leaping Lepers!!!
Hallelujah! Head 'em up, move 'em out. Off they ran as fast as they could go. To see a husband, a wife, a son or daughter, a father or mother, a grandfather or grandmother they had not seen for who knows how long. Off they ran to see their fields, their fishing boat, their friends. As fast as they could go. No longer yelling "unclean," now CLEAN! Ten Lepers Leaping, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
But wait. One of them is coming back. And he is yelling something. What's that? As the text says, he was "praising God in a loud voice." He comes right up to Jesus, throws himself at the Master's feet...and says Thank You. Nice touch. But now the zinger - he was a Samaritan.
Aw, Luke, why do you have to go and mess up a nice healing story with that little detail. A Samaritan. Now, as you Bible scholars know, during an ancient Israelite war, most of those citizens living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few of them, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left there. History says that the conquering king forced people from five foreign cities to settle in Samaria.(3) These foreigners inter-married with the natives and they brought in the worship of their own gods. By Jesus' time, Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the "true" Israelites. The Samaritans had perverted the race. They had perverted the religion. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. In our day, it could be the Bosnians and Serbs in the Balkans, Hindus and Muslims in India, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Sadly, it is becoming more and more true of Christians and Muslims in all too many places around the world.
Now, we have this Samaritan cluttering up our story. If this were Survivor, he would have been the first to be voted off the island. Has it occurred to anyone that it would have made no sense for this man to go to Jerusalem for ritual cleansing? Samaritans worship on Mt. Gerazim, and besides, he would not have been welcome in Jerusalem anyway. As one of my friends notes, this would be like a Buddhist walking into a Catholic confessional and asking how many "Hail Marys" he ought to say.(4) One way or another, the man interrupts his journey and comes back to Jesus with his Thank You. And ever since, the other nine have been beaten up by preachers through the centuries as incredible, ungrateful wretches. "Remember how, when you were a kid, your mother made you sit down and write a thank-you note to that elderly aunt who sent you a hand-knit sweater for Christmas? From the way some interpreters have handled this passage, you would think that was the nine former lepers' chief offense: they forgot to send a thank-you. Emily Post would be horrified: just horrified!"(5) So there!
Is that the point of all this? If it is, I want to offer a word or two in defense of the nine. First off, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. There is no indication of any reluctance on their part. There is certainly no indication of ingratitude. Jesus says GO, they GO. Sounds like obedient faith to me.
"How about a word or two on behalf of the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks?" That is how Martin Bell begins his essay on this text in an intriguing collection entitled The Way of the Wolf.(6) "What about the others? It's simple really," Bell writes. And then he goes on to tell of the one who was so frightened that he could only look for a place to hide. He describes one of the former lepers who was offended that Jesus did not make him work harder in order to be healed. Another one discovered pretty quickly that he did not want to be healed. Bell imagines that one was a mother who did not return to give thanks because she was rushing to see her children. One was so happy he just forgot to say thanks. For one of those healed, it was going to take a long time to repair the broken dignity - there is something that happens to a person forced to beg and shunned by all and still expected to say thank you.
Bell continues on about a seventh leper who was convinced there would be a perfectly intelligible, scientific explanation for what happened. He did not return to give thanks because he believed Jesus had nothing to do with the healing event. And then leper number eight did not return precisely because he did believe Jesus had everything to do with it. To return and give thanks when the Messiah had arrived, when the Kingdom of God was at hand, well that would be unheard of - he was running to tell the news. And one last leper, the ninth, Bell invites the reader to ponder because no one really knew what happened to him or her. If you have ten, one is bound to fade away.
It is much easier to condemn the nine rather than understand them. Jesus knew about the ten and where they were and where they went and why they were and who they were, and he healed them all the same. Martin Bell concludes with the thought that perhaps the point is not in the one who returns, but in the ten who were healed.
Perhaps. Actually, I think that IS the point of Part One of the story. There is NOTHING beyond the power of God. Even something as awful as leprosy (or AIDS or cancer or heart disease; insert what you will in there). And note that there was no question asked of these ten about their faith in advance of the miracle. Forget any quid pro quo's like "If you have enough faith, this or that will happen." Nope. Jesus just did it. Almost by long distance even. "Go, show yourselves to the priests."
But then we come to Part Two. "One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him--and he was a Samaritan." A Democrat. A Republican. Insert what you will. Good guy, regardless.
Yes, this story has been used for generations at this time of the year. Thanksgiving week...the time to count your blessings, name them one by one, and thank God, just like our good guy hero. If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world. If you have money in the bank, cash in your wallet and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the earth's wealthiest people. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more fortunate than the million who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world. If you can attend this worship service, or any other religion-related meeting, without fear of harassment, arrest, torture or death, you are fortunate - billions of people in the world cannot.(7) It is not hard for us to count our blessings, is it? Most of us could easily jot down a rather lengthy list.
But the story continues. "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?"
Hmm. Despite the fact that this text has been used for years as a club to beat us into being more thankful (as if that were really possible anyway), this is not, fundamentally, a story about giving thanks. Rather it is about seeing something. When Jesus chides the other nine for not returning, it is not because he feels personally slighted because they forgot to send a thank-you note. It is because only this man - this unbeliever, according to conventional wisdom - has realized that his healing is an act of God. Jesus does not say of the nine, "Was none of them found to return and say thank you except this foreigner?" No, what he actually says is, "Was no one found to return and give praise to God...?"
To be honest, if there is anything for which to give thanks this week, this may be the most important. Being able to see what is right in front of us all the time. As one commentator has it, "Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing...Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, the action, their whole way of being in the world, has a distinctive accent and flavor." Origen of Alexandria once remarked that holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ. Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is a "beatific vision," an act of seeing.(8) The Samaritan SAW something, and it changed his life. Not only was he healed, he was made whole.
What do you see this morning? A glass half-full? Half-empty? No glass at all? William Sloan Coffin, one of our generation's truly prophetic voices, reflects thoughtfully on the issues that he now faces due to declining health. Coffin says:
I am less intentional than 'attentional.' I am more and more attentive to family and friends and to nature's beauty. Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God's gift of life. For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, 'I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.'(9)May it be for all of us. "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." Happy Thanksgiving.
1. Leviticus 13:45-46
3. II Kings 17:24
4. Carlos Wilton, "How Great Journeys Begin," sermon preached at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant, NJ, 10/10/04
6. David A. Davis, "One for Ten," sermon preached at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton, NJ, 8/24/03
7. Homiletics, "Thanks for Nothing," 11/24/02
8. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #10513, 10/3/04
9. William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p. 173