The story of the ten lepers is a testimony to the healing power of Jesus Christ. But it’s more than that. It’s a witness of gratitude from a condemned man who was brought from death to life.
This is what sets the story of the ten lepers apart from all the other healing stories of the New Testament, for of all those Jesus healed and raised from the dead, only this poor leper came back to say thank you. In this way, he serves as a paradigm for how we ought to live each day in gratitude for God’s redeeming love. And that’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning.
First, let’s look more closely at the story. As we all know, leprosy was a dreaded disease in Jesus’ day, mostly because it was not clearly understood. In his weekly commentary, Richard Donovan says,
“Their leprosy was not necessarily Hansen’s disease, the terrible wasting disease that we think of today as leprosy. Biblical leprosy includes skin diseases such as ringworm, psoriasis, leucoderma, and vitiligo.” (Johnson, Interpreter’s Bible, 338).
The upshot of this is that, while some skin diseases are potentially fatal, others are harmless. Yet, lacking precise medical knowledge, 1st Century Jews lumped them all into one category and declared the infected person spiritually unclean and socially unfit.
For many, it was a death sentence. It was assumed they were being punished for something they’d done wrong. So they were banished – not to be associated with, but avoided, lest they spread their contamination – and, get this, their condemnation – to others.
Some things never change, do they? We still tend to ostracize those we don’t understand. We judge other cultures as odd; other customs, as peculiar. For example, have you ever thought about how we call citizens of others countries “foreigners” and non-citizens in this country “aliens”? What is a foreign country, except a country that’s not our own? And alien? That sounds E.T., someone from outer space.
I’ll never forget the advice one of my deacons in Odessa gave me before I took a group to Israel and Egypt. “Watch your backside,” he said, “You know you can’t trust those A-rabs.”
To this day, I have friends who actually equate being a Muslim with being a terrorist, never mind the fact that 99 percent of Muslims in this country are God-fearing, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. And yet, because they practice a different faith we draw a line between us and them. We ostracize that which we don’t understand.
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As for lepers in the first century, the Law of Moses was clear: “put out of the camp every leper, and everyone who has an issue, and whoever is unclean by the dead.” (Num. 5:2) For the Hebrews, it was a matter of life and death. An infectious disease could wipe out a whole village.
And so, once declared to be a leper, the individual was banished as a primitive means of quarantine. Cast out the afflicted, lest they afflict others. Lepers were forced to live in the wilderness. They were to dress distinctively, and, if approached by others, they were to shout out a clear warning, “Unclean! Unclean!” This comes right out of the Book of Leviticus:
“The leper in whom the plague is
shall wear torn clothes,
and the hair of his head shall hang loose.
He shall cover his upper lip,
and shall cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!'” (Leviticus 13:45)
In his commentary, Donovan says: “The suffering of the leper of biblical times was due, in many cases, not so much to the severity of the disease as to the way that the leper was treated by religious society” (Tannehill, 104).
You’ll have to admit we have better methods of treating skin disease today, but I wonder: Do we still isolate and quarantine those we judge to be unclean? What do you think the world feels like to the School of Hope clients or to those temporarily staying at Hope in Action?
The poor and mentally challenged certainly experience the world differently than you or I. I had a friend in Bryan who used to point out how I used a different tone of voice when speaking to someone asking for a handout and how my body language was different when I was trying to make conversation with, say, someone with spinal bifida.
What’s that all about? Are we afraid that whatever it is about them will rub off on us? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s sad … and contrary to the image of God in which we are created. God is love, and the nature of love is to seek out loving relationships with others, no matter how foreign or different or displeasing they may be to us.
Back to biblical times, once excluded from family and friends, lepers sought out the company of other lepers … which bears witness to an innate longing of the human spirit for community, love and support. And so, lepers congregated in the wilderness to comfort and care for each other, as they suffered and died in exile.
It was a small leper colony such as this that Jesus encountered on his way through the Samaritan wilderness: Ten lepers, dressed in tattered rags, their bodies covered with lesions, crying at the top of their lungs. For some reason, when Jesus approached they did not cry out, “Unclean!”, as they were supposed to; instead, they cried, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
How did they know who Jesus was? Why did they not warn him of the danger of their presence? Luke doesn’t say. He only says that, in answer to their plea, Jesus responded with mercy. After all, this is the nature of Jesus: To love the unlovable, to touch the untouchable, to seek out the least, the last and the lost.
He told the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This is significant in two ways: One, he treated the lepers the same way he treated everyone else. In other words, he didn’t criticize them or question whether or not they were worthy of his time and attention. This is one of the hallmarks of his kingdom. Peter said it best:
“Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism;
but in every nation he who fears him
and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34)
The only prerequisite to receiving God’s grace and love is your need of him. This is precisely what Jesus had told the Pharisees:
“Those who are healthy have no need for a physician,
but those who are sick do…
I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:12)
So, Jesus told the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
The second reason this is significant is that Jesus did not seek to circumvent the authority of the church. If it was the priest’s responsibility to declare an individual unclean in the first place, it was up to the priest to determine whether or not the individual had been healed.
Again, this was in accordance with the Law, and Jesus didn’t challenge that. In the Sermon on the Mount, he told his disciples,
“Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets.
I didn’t come to destroy,
but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
And so he told the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They turned in obedience to Jesus’ word, and in that instant, they were healed.
Now, we can imagine that when they saw what had happened, they leaped for joy and ran as fast as they could to the Temple. Well, why not? They had been as good as dead; now they were alive. They had been separated from their loved ones, now they were to be reunited. This was a miracle of unimaginable proportions. We would’ve been ecstatic, and so would they.
But, according to Luke, one of the lepers, seeing that he was healed, turned back to Jesus and praised God in a loud voice. Luke says:
“He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” (17:16)
Jesus asked, “Weren’t the ten cleansed? But where are the nine?” Some commentators believe this was the early church speaking here, not Jesus … that this part of the story was added later. And, in a way, that makes sense. After all, Jesus had just told the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. In leaving, they were doing exactly what he had commanded them to do. It’s what he would have expected.
What’s unusual is not that the other nine were well on their way to the Temple, but that one turned back to say thank you. Why did he not do as he was told?
What was it about this one leper that caused him to return to the scene of the miracle to say, “Thanks?” Was he more grateful than the rest? Was he more righteous? One of the strong parental injunctions of my childhood was the message, “Don’t forget to say thank you!” Do you think this leper had had better parenting than the others?
I have a theory, and I’ll tell you up front, you won’t find it in the commentaries, at least in the ones I’ve read. It has to do with who this leper was. Luke tells us, almost tongue-in-cheek: “Oh, by the way,” he says, “he was a Samaritan.”
Imagine that you’re part of the Jewish audience to whom Jesus was speaking. This would’ve been a slap in the face. You would’ve been highly insulted. It’s the same offense that we find in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a Samaritan proves to be the model of a good neighbor … or the Samaritan woman Jesus met at Jacob’s well (John 4), who not only accepted Jesus as the Christ, but went back to village and convinced the others, as well.
But that’s beside the point. There’s another dimension here that intrigues me. Look closer. Jesus told the lepers to go show themselves to a priest, who could confirm that they had been healed. Could it be that the Samaritan didn’t rush off because he had no priest to go to? After all, being a Samaritan, he wouldn’t have been allowed to set foot in the Temple. There may as well have been a big sign over the front door saying: “No Samaritans allowed.”
It’s just a theory, but if I’m right, here’s the irony: Being unrestrained from other moral obligations, he was free to live a life of gratitude to God. He was free to linger in the company of Jesus and say, “Thank you,” because he wasn’t weighted down by the expectations of fulfilling the Law.
And this is why I think this is important: Sometimes the church itself stands in the way of our experiencing the fullness of God’s grace and love. We get into such a routine of going to Sunday School and church that, without realizing it, we fail to appreciate the miracles of life popping out all around us.
We get so caught up in the form of worship and the established patterns of church life that we fail to experience the awe and wonder of Almighty God. Like the nine lepers were so intent on fulfilling the requirements of the Law, we fail to recognize the One who has come to give us life in all its abundance because we are too busy doing what’s expected of us.
“Don’t forget to say thank you!” It’s a word we ought to be shouting to the other nine lepers. It’s also a word we need to hear ourselves: Don’t get so caught up in the day-to-day busyness of life that you fail to honor the one who has made possible for you the promise of eternal life.
When Henri Mancini turned sixty-five, his daughter, Felice, composed a little musical birthday card and sang it in tribute to her father. It goes like this:
“Sometimes – not often enough – we reflect upon the good things, and our thoughts always center around those we love. And I think about those people who mean so much to me; who, for so many years have made me so very happy. And I think about the times I have forgotten to say, ‘Thank You!’, and just how much I love them.”
So, before you rush off to see the priest; that is, before you become absorbed in trying to fulfill all of the expectations others have of you – including the church – take a moment to marvel at the beauty of God’s creation and bask in the warmth of God’s love, and be grateful.
The Good News is Jesus died for you. He has brought you from death to life. Don’t forget to say thank you!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.