Learning from the Leper
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
In our Gospel reading this morning, we find our Lord making his way towards Jerusalem, traveling south; walking, as he always did. He is passing through the area between Galilee and Samaria – a sort of no man's land if you will, in very much the same way as is the area today between the modern Israeli border and the West Bank. This was not a particularly pleasant area by any means any more than it is today. Galileans and Samarita
ns did not care for each other, and certainly would not associate with each other, in the same way as modern day Palestinians have a disdain for Israelis and vice versa. Ironically this is very same geographical region – almost identical – as in our Lord's day.
As Jesus nears a village in this region, ten lepers meet him at the outskirts. We don't know much about the lepers or why they were even there. But their role in our Gospel lesson is paramount.
Leprosy is a chronic, progressive bacterial infection that can severely affect the nerves of the extremities, the lining of the nose, and the upper respiratory tract. It produces skin lesions, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. If left untreated, it can cause severe disfigurement and disability, including loss of the use of hands and feet. Leprosy is also contagious, spread by contact with the mucus of an infected person – most commonly by coughing or sneezing.
This is of course the modern definition of leprosy. In our Lord's day, leprosy was more prevalent than it is today and there was little known about it – much less a cure. It was known, however, that leprosy was contagious. Rabbinical law forbade lepers from associating in Jewish society. They were considered unclean sinners who had been cursed by God for something terrible they had done. Their leprosy was an outward sign of God's judgment against them – forever suffering for their misconduct. They were not allowed to enter the village, much less go to the market or the synagogue. They were outcasts – doomed to a life of isolated misery with no hope of reconciliation. A person with prolonged leprosy was indeed grotesque and not welcome.
So here we have 10 lepers who meet our Lord as He was about to enter the village. Luke also tells us that one of them was a Samaritan. We are not sure about the background of the other 9 but it doesn't matter. Most likely they were either Galileans or Samaritans; perhaps even Judeans – even though our Lord was a still a bit north of Judea proper at this point. Their common denominator was their condition. They were outcasts who had nowhere else to go; nothing much to live for – and certainly no prospect of ever getting better. Indeed, misery loves company as the old saying goes.
I would like to think that something deep within these lepers told them to go out onto the road to meet Jesus and beg for mercy. After all, EVERYONE had heard of Jesus and the miracles He had done. Many had seen with their own eyes the sick healed, the lame made to walk, and even the dead raised.
No doubt these lepers believed an encounter with Jesus might benefit them. Like Bob Dylan wrote, “When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose.”
Also keep in mind that these 10 most likely came from different backgrounds. We don't know for sure, but it is a good bet that they were bitter rivals and hated neighbors, who, under normal circumstances would not tolerate each other. Yet their condition brings them together, as it so often does with disparity in our modern world. This is how sin can take us over and separate us from God. We can easily become bogged down and hopeless in the very same way as these 10 lepers were – who were at perhaps their wit's end. This is indeed the devil's work. He wants us to feel hopeless and cut off from the things that make us whole again. The world is full of desperate people and ever will be. But as we know, the devil is no match for God Incarnate and our Lord will soon prove that yet again.
Faith and doing God's will for us is the key to our Salvation. The lepers stood at a distance from Jesus and cried out in their weak, squeaky, leprosy-frayed voices, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Just imagine how a TB patient might sound when trying to shout at the top of his weakened voice. Our Lord does not require anything from the lepers, nor does He ask of them anything. He knows they have suffered and He does have mercy on them because He loves them, as He loves all men. He commands them to go show themselves to the priests. This is a very simple command, yet it is profound because it requires faith – faith upon the lepers' part that they would be healed simply by being in our Lord's Presence. But what a requirement – to go into the village, to the synagogue no less, and show themselves to the priests – in front of everyone. They knew they were not allowed to go near the synagogue. They could not get around all those people. That was off-limits to them, who were considered unclean and a defilement to the village. Nevertheless they obeyed Jesus and went their way. As they went, they were miraculously cleansed and healed of their disease. We are not told if they questioned Jesus in their hearts on their way to the synagogue, but because of their desperation, they did as they were told. They had faith in Jesus and were willing to risk being ridiculed by the villagers and the priests.
Along the way, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, praised God with his now repaired strong voice. He turned back, went, and fell on his face at Jesus' feet to give Him thanks. He was grateful to God for His Blessing and sudden bonanza. He thanked our Lord for what He did to him. And this man was a hated Samaritan, considered a second-class outcast; a loser. In reality though, he was the winner. We, in the same way, must thank God constantly for who we are, and for the many Blessings He has bestowed upon us. We have nothing and are nothing without God. Without faith in God's will for us, we are cut off just like the lepers and held captive by sin and sin's separation from God.
Jesus asked the Samaritan, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The Samaritan is an example for all of us, who are bogged down by the world and the leprosy of an ever-more Godless society that is moving farther and farther away from God's will. Those who are separated from God need the faith, which is itself a gift from God, and buried deep within themselves – that the lepers had – to be able to turn to our Lord and ask for mercy, guidance, and love. It is never too late to thank God.
Jesus says to the Samaritan, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” What an indescribable feeling this must have given the Samaritan when he heard these words. He got it. He understood that giving thanks to God was essential to nurturing his own faith. It was that faith and God's grace that made him well. It made him complete. It healed him. WE must keep that faith and praise God. Our Lord is there for us waiting for us to thank Him for His many blessings and opportunities He gives us, and do His will. We must make the attempt to get close to our Lord, as the lepers did, and beg Him for His mercy. It is only then that we can go our way and be healed.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen