October 13, 2019
PROPER 23 / C
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’s a good prayer to know. Indeed, if you’re only going to learn one prayer or memorize one scripture verse, this is a good one to know by heart.
You may be surprised to learn that there are several resurrection stories in the Bible, this morning’s Gospel being one of them. The story of Jesus and the ten lepers is really a resurrection story about life - and death - and then, invitation into a new life. It is really a story about our lives, about our deaths, and about our prospects for new life. It is about the choices we have, and the choices we make. It’s a simple story, very familiar. But don’t be fooled by its simplicity, for it is easy to miss what is really going on, miss the opportunity to see ourselves in the story, and therefore, miss the deeper meaning of the tale.
To begin, we need to remember what it meant to be a leper in Jesus’ day and culture. First, the diagnosis of “leprosy” was not confined only to what we now call Hanson’s Disease; but any skin disease could result in a person being branded as a “leper.” Suffer from eczema or psoriasis?; born with or develop blotchy or strangely pigmented skin?; you could be branded as a leper. And being a leper was, in many ways, worse than being dead, for it was truly a living death. Lepers were considered evil and unclean; their disease seen as God’s punishment and retribution for a sinful life. Lepers were excluded from every part of family and communal life. They could not live, worship, eat, work, walk, or talk among “normal” people. They had to keep their faces covered; stay at a distance from all the normal routines of life; and be forced to survive, as best they could, on the leavings and the charity of others. And the horrible progress of their disease was probably far from the worst thing they suffered. They had nothing; and no one, other than other lepers; and there was no hope of a cure. And yet, they could - from forty paces - watch the real world, and real life, happen just beyond their reach.
In Luke’s story, a group of ten lepers, these outcasts from society, meet Jesus along the road. They stand at a distance from him – forty paces, as was required by law - and shouted for mercy: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Doubtless they had shouted the same thing to every passing rabbi, to every holy man and hustler with a reputation for healing who had wandered within earshot.
It is a simple and heartfelt request: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” A good prayer, a very good prayer. And Jesus, unlike all the others they had encountered, answered their request. Jesus granted them the mercy they begged for. Why? No reason is given or needed; he just did. Jesus heard their prayer - and showed them mercy. And in that merciful answer, he gave them their lives back. He told them to go and present themselves to the priests; for only the Temple priests could certify that the lepers were cured and allowed to reenter and rejoin the world.
They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so off they go -toward the city, and toward the priests. The healing does not happen immediately, but as they went, as Jesus stood there and watched them leave, their leprosy began to disappear; their skin was gradually cleared; they were cured – and in their cure, they are given new life. He resurrected them from the death that had defined and confined them. To these ten who had been dead to the world, he gave new lives. And he put no conditions on the gift. He just stood there, and watched, and waited, while nine of the ten just kept going.
I know of no clearer picture of what our culture is often like, and of what our lives are often like, than this picture of Jesus standing there, waiting for us to turn to him, but watching as people run away just as fast as they can.
Now, despite what you may have assumed or even been told before, the text does not say that the lepers are ungrateful. That is an assumption that is often read into the story, but I don’t believe that to be true. There is no way anyone could have such a marvelous thing happen to them and not be grateful. Those nine who showed Jesus their backs were doubtless thrilled, ecstatic. In my imagination, it is easy to see them, as they gradually begin to realize that they are cured, being thrilled beyond belief, laughing, making new plans, feeling awestruck and wonderful, leaping and jumping and dancing and running just as fast as they could, in a terribly big hurry to get to the priests, in order to return to their families and friends, and begin to live their new lives.
I’m quite sure that if someone could have stopped them and asked them, they might have slowed down long enough to say that God was truly amazing to do this for them, and that Jesus was the most wonderful person in the whole world. But it would have been hard to catch them. After all, there was so much to do - and so little time to catch up on all they had missed.
No, the issue with these nine wasn’t a lack of gratitude. The issue wasn’t about their not feeling thankful for God’s mercy, not being in awe of Jesus, or anything like that. The real issue is that those who had received so much were running so hard and so fast in the wrong direction.
They were so full of what they had received, so full of their great gift, their new life, that there was just no room left in their hearts for the giver, the source of the gift. They weren’t ungrateful, they were just busy. That’s all - they were just terribly, terribly, incredibly busy. And in their busy-ness there was just no room left for anything else.
And right there, in the midst of their busy-ness is where we can see ourselves. There, consumed by all that busy-ness, is our world. There is our life, in one small, bitter nutshell.
Viewed this way, it's impossible not to see ourselves in the actions and attitudes of the nine who run away. It’s impossible not to ask ourselves questions such as: What direction am I running? What am I running toward in such haste? And what am I turning my back on and leaving behind? How often do we stop, or even slow down, long enough to pay some attention, not only to our gifts, not only to all that we have, but also to the giver, to the source of it all? How many of us are so busy running, so busy doing and using what we have been given, that we can see no farther? Have no room left to acknowledge and thank and worship the giver of our good gifts and good life . . .
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Only one of the ten came back. Only one did not run away. Only one was actually drawn back toward Jesus, and not drawn away from him, by the wonderful gift he received. Only one. And in drawing nearer to Jesus, this one alone received the fullness of all that Jesus had to give.
Our English translation makes it harder to see this. All ten lepers were ‘cured’ - the Greek verb used is a medical term, and it means their disease ‘disappeared’, ‘went away.’ Not a temporary alleviation of their symptoms, but a true and lasting cure. And all ten stayed cured, whether they came back or not – for what God gives, God gives freely, without conditions. But to the one who came back, to the one who saw most clearly what was going on, to him and to him only something more was given. To him, Jesus says, “Rise up and go your way, for your faith has made you well.” The Greek for “made you well” is a different word than the one used for the cure. It is not a medical term, but a theological word; meaning “to be made whole,” or “to be made complete.” It also means “to be saved.” Go on your way, Jesus tells this one, your faith has not just cured you, like the other nine, but you, my child, are made whole, made complete. In turning and returning to me, you are saved.
All ten were healed, all ten were given new lives, but Jesus had still more to give. That’s why he watched and waited; that’s why coming back was so important - because Jesus had more to give. But you had to come to him, draw near to him to receive the fullness of God’s mercy. Only one of the ten did, so only one was made truly and completely whole, only one was fully made well. All ten were given their lives back; but only this one was given the fullness of life.
And, as Luke tells us, this one who came back was a Samaritan, a foreigner, someone who didn’t quite belong there. That’s an important detail. The one who came back, the one who actually gave thanks, who actually changed the direction he was going and did something different, the one who focused not only on the gift, but also on the giver, this man was an outsider.
I doubt this is an accident or a coincidence, for the author Luke has deliberately noted this fact in the telling. And perhaps it is in this small, easily overlooked detail that we find the real heart, the real point of the story. For I think that the really hard part of this story is the realization that if we are ever to discover fully what that tenth leper discovered; if we are ever to know fully what it means for the Lord to say to us, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well”; if we are to know that, then we too must also discover what it means to be a foreigner, an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite fully belong in and of and to this world. We must come to know and understand what it means to belong somewhere else, for our first loyalties to lie elsewhere, in another kingdom, to know what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
The one who made his way back to Jesus didn’t fit in quite as well as the other nine. The one who closed the forty paces gap didn’t belong to the world quite as much as the others; he didn’t have quite as much to run to, or quite as much to gain. And not being blinded by the world meant that he, and he alone, could see the situation more clearly. He, and he alone, could see beyond the marvelous gift he had been given, could see beyond all that there was to do, could see beyond the busy-ness of this life, and so could see and appreciate the wonder of the Lord’s mercy. Everyone else, all the others, ran in the wrong direction; and so missed out on what more Jesus had to offer. The nine ran away, but this one turned and returned; and in those few steps toward Jesus, this one found the way to wholeness.
This is hard stuff. Each one of us has long been established and conformed to the world; and we are very busy; and we have a lot to lose. It’s hard to imagine what it might mean to be an alien to this world, to stand one step removed from everything in this world that makes us run so fast and so hard in the wrong direction.
But remember that only the foreigner looked back; only the outsider was able to see beyond the gift and give thanks to the one who freely gave it. And only he received all that Jesus had to give. The rest were just too busy, the rest had too much going on, the rest believed they had too much to regain of their former life to embrace the fullness of a new life, the whole gift that is Jesus.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”