May 24, 2020
There is a huge difference between being cured, and being made whole. Lots of people experience a cure, but not everyone is made whole. All ten of the lepers in our passage today got just exactly what they were looking for from Jesus. Only one of them, however, gained the added blessing of being made whole. To be cured of our diseases, to have our bodies made well, is indeed a wonderful thing. I really miss the prayer times in our worship services. I know that God hears about our needs when we pray by email, but there’s something special, and intimate, when we can sit in a sanctuary, surrounded by people who love us; and we know in our hearts that all hearts present are turned toward God, on our behalf. That’s when we know beyond all doubt that God is present with us. And over the years we have witnessed some amazing and mighty acts of God in our own lives and in the lives of others.
In the Bible, leprosy is something of a mysterious disease. It isn’t always Hanson’s disease, or true leprosy. It can include any abnormality of the skin that doesn’t resolve itself in a short amount of time. But however it evidenced itself, a diagnosis of leprosy was a true disaster. When a person showed signs of having contracted leprosy, they were immediately exiled. They could not live at home with their families. They were banned from synagogue services. And, they were forbidden to enter the market places. In short, when a person was discovered to be leprous, they received a sentence of social, spiritual and physical death.
Frequently, as is true of all exiles and outcasts, lepers found comfort and support in each other. They formed colonies apart from the rest of society, and they lived out their days in the company of one another. When these colonies formed, family members and other well-meaning and compassionate people often left food and clothing for the lepers on the outskirts of their territories. Already, things should be sounding a bit familiar in terms of our own recent experience.
In our passage today, it is more than likely that Jesus has come near to one of these colonies, situated on the outskirts of this unnamed village. Luke makes it clear to us that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And Luke does that for a very good reason. Like the lepers who come out to greet him, Jesus is also on a journey that will ultimately lead to his death. Jesus, and all ten of these lepers have an appointment with death. When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he will celebrate his last Passover with his disciples, and then he will die. Ironically, as Jesus nears the end of his own life, he still finds himself doing the work of the Kingdom. He still finds himself giving the gift of life to the dying.
As Jesus nears this village, the dying lepers come out to greet him. And they know their place. They have heard that Jesus is coming. There is never any secret when it comes to Jesus’ whereabouts. And so being exiles, and knowing that they were never allowed any social interaction with people who were well, they cry out, from a safe distance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
The manner in which Jesus cures these lepers is unusual, but wholly intentional. Jesus was never one to trouble himself with ritual or physical defilement. Most often, when Jesus cures someone, he holds them, or embraces them, or simply touches them. He is unafraid to demonstrate the healing power of human touch and contact. But in this instance, he does not touch any of the ten lepers. There is no physical contact. Has Jesus suddenly become conventional in his treatment of these lepers? Has he all at once decided to observe the rules of social distancing? Not at all. Instead Jesus is inviting these lepers to engage in an act of faith that has the potential to lead to salvation and wholeness. Jesus is inviting these lepers into relationship with him. And so, without touching them, and even without announcing a cure, Jesus sends them on their way, telling them to go and show themselves to the priests. I wonder if they were disappointed that Jesus did not touch them? I wonder if they were disappointed that they were not cured right there, on the spot? I wonder these things because sometimes I wonder about my own expectations of Jesus. And I especially wonder when I do not get my own way with Jesus. How often do I look for an immediate response from Jesus, not realizing that Jesus is providing me with an opportunity to move forward and to actively begin a journey of faith.
And so Jesus sends ten lepers, who are still very much lepers, to go and to show themselves to the priests. But along the way, they experienced a miracle. As they journeyed along, they discovered that they had been made clean; they discovered that they had been cured. I can hardly begin to imagine the excitement and the joy that must have overtaken them. They are clean! They are no longer exiles and outcasts! They can return to their homes and to their families. They can start life all over again! What unmitigated joy! What ecstasy! The death sentence has been erased. They are alive! And now their need to get to the priests is even more pressing. The priests are the only ones who can declare that these lepers are clean. Only the priests can give them a clean bill of health. And so, let us run to the priests! Let us get a move on! Please try to imagine these lepers running and jumping and singing and praising God! Please imagine the newly found freedom of these lepers, greeting people along the way, no longer keeping social distance, no longer shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” To warn others away, but rather shouting “We are clean! We are clean! Rejoice with us!” Oh, the joy!
But there are only nine of them now. One of them has left their company. He’s clean, too, but he doesn’t sense the same urgency to get himself hence to the priests. He’s got just one stop to make before he accomplishes that errand. He is going to go back to find Jesus. And he’s going to go back because his heart is filled with gratitude. He wants to thank the man who has made him whole. Perhaps he understands the difference between being cured and being made whole. In all of their excitement about being cured, the other nine are missing out on something that hasn’t even crossed their minds. It is something that is far more important than their cure. They are missing out on having a relationship with Jesus. We cannot deny their joy, we cannot deny that their lives have been wonderfully and dramatically changed, but the most important thing has apparently escaped the notice of their hearts. That’s a dangerous place to be in life, even if all is well, and all is well and all manner of things is well.*
When the one leper returns, we suddenly discover something new about him. He is a Samaritan. Because of his race, he is already an exile and an outcast. Even without his leprosy, he would have been shunned. Good people would have kept their distance. Good people would have avoided social contact with him. But in a leper colony, all distinctions between human beings, including those of race, become completely irrelevant. Lepers are drawn together by their common affliction. A leper colony is a perfect example of what the Christian church ought to look like. Sinfulness is our common affliction, salvation is our common hope.
Only one leper found that hope. When the one leper returned, to express his gratitude, Jesus expressed, at least out loud, some surprise that only one had returned. Let us not miss the disappointment in Jesus’ voice. All ten went out in faith, and all ten received a tremendous blessing. All ten received a brand new lease on life. But only one became whole. Only one found salvation. Only one discovered the joy of having a relationship with Jesus, because he came back to take care of the most important thing. It is my prayer that we will one day be cured of all of our afflictions, for we, like the lepers, are afflicted in many ways. And when we are cured, and when life begins to return to normal, let us not allow the most important thing to escape the notice of our hearts. Let us also seek healing. Let us also seek wholeness. And “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
* Apologies to Julian of Norwich who actually said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”