All He Had (The Tenth Leper)
Luke 17:11-19, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, November 19, 2017
The story of the ten lepers is often read as meaning that nine out of ten people have bad manners. When someone helps you, you ought to say thank you. But there’s a lot more than that going on in this story. For one thing, there is the sentence that Luke drops like a rock in the middle of the story: “And he was a Samaritan.” So the one who came back to thank Jesus was a double outcast, leper and foreigner, praising a God he didn’t define in quite the same way as Jesus. Why was he the one to come back?
Think about this group if ten people living near a village on the border between Jesus’ home region of Galilee and the country of Samaria which most Jews tried to avoid. They kept their distance from Jesus, we are told, but they have to keep their distance from everybody. That was the law. If they were tagged as lepers, they had to stay away from “normal” people and shout out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people away. It wasn’t that these lepers were contagious. It wasn’t seen as a physical ailment as much as a spiritual problem. It was more like not wanting to get their “cooties”—as irrational as people used to be about being in church with HIV-positive people, as irrational as some people are these days about being in church with persons with mental illness.
These ten people would not have lived in the village, because their status made them homeless. They are more like a group of hobos on the edge of town in The Grapes of Wrath. My image of leprosy was formed by the movie Ben Hur, which I first saw as a kid—the first “Christian” movie I ever saw and the Best Picture of 1959, winner of 11 Oscars. Judah Ben Hur is carried off as a galley slave by the Romans, leaving his mother and sister in Jerusalem. When he returns, he finds them living in the “valley of the lepers,” separated from society and desperately poor. It’s heartrending, and that valley scene might well be like the little community Luke has in mind, but Ben Hur reinforced a lot of false ideas about leprosy in the Bible that had been around a long time.
Scholars today say that “leprosy” is not a good translation of the condition the Jews called tsara’at. Some Bibles translate it as “skin disease,” but that’s not really adequate either. There is a disease we call leprosy—or more properly Hansen’s disease—in which people lose all sense of pain in their extremities so that their hands and feet get infected and even fall off. That disease did not exist in the world of the Bible, according to historical and archeological evidence. Besides that, the symptoms of tsara’at were different—mostly white patches and flaking of the skin, so that some say it was psoriasis or vitiligo, the loss of color in patches of skin. But some even say that the word described mold, because even garments and houses could have the condition. Real leprosy is contagious and chronic, but the condition in the Bible of tsara’at was not contagious and victims were expected to recover.
The reason for keeping these people separate was not medical necessity; the issue was that people with this condition were considered spiritually unclean. Some rabbis taught that this skin condition was a punishment for specific sins, going back to the story of Miriam being struck with it when she rebelled against her brother Moses. But there were lots of things that could make you unclean. Women were unclean during certain times of the month and had to stay away from men and the temple, and any discharge from the body could make you unclean. If you touched a dead body or certain dead animals you were declared unclean. To get labeled “clean” again, you had to go to a priest, not a doctor.
Jesus made a point of touching unclean people in his ministry—including lepers, the woman with a discharge of blood, and the dead. However valid the system may have been in Leviticus for regions of hygiene or keeping Israel different from its neighbors, Jesus seemed to think that it had outlived its usefulness and led people to withhold mercy from their neighbors.
People who were unclean were not allowed to go to worship. I find that even today some of our neighbors think they can’t come to church because they are unclean. They have to clean up their lives before it would be appropriate to worship God. No doubt some of our neighbors think that we believe they are unclean and look down on them. Do you remember the story of clean and unclean animals being lowered down to Peter in a dream; the meaning of the dream, as Peter understood it, was that no people are unclean. God accepts everyone.
The ten lepers in our story are a small and temporary community of rejects. They are so far down at the bottom of the human pile that even ethnic distinctions no longer matter. You may remember from other stories that Jews and Samaritans weren’t supposed to talk to each other. But in the leper’s club, they were so far down that it didn’t matter anymore. We’re all rejects here. I’ve heard that in earlier times on Block Island the prejudice of white people united the Native Americans and the Blacks. The people of color couldn’t live among the whites, so they found themselves living in one area of the island and eventually marrying each other. Mistreatment can unite people.
Still, judging from what happens in our story from Luke, I don’t think this one Samaritan leper really fit in. He’s left all alone in the end. He and his friends cry out to Jesus as he passes by, “Master, have mercy on us!” They were supposed to cry “We are unclean” but instead they cried “Have mercy.” That is a kind of faith, the kind of faith that changes our lives. Jesus saw these lepers, when so many people didn’t. He skipped right over the part where he says “Poof! You’re healed!” and said to them “Go show yourselves to the priests.” That was the way the system worked. When your leprosy went away, you went to the priest to have your skin inspected and the priest would declare you clean. They you could go back to your families, back to your village, back to work. As these lepers took the first steps down the road to the temple to find a priest, their skin was healed.
The nine Jewish lepers were so excited that their lives would get back to normal that they must have run down the road to the temple as fast as they could. Who can blame them? But this one looked down at his skin and saw that he was healed. His first response was to turn around, facing Jesus, and praise God. Praise came before thanks. Maybe he just shouted in a loud voice, “Hallelujah!” He knew that it was God’s mercy that had healed him. But then the leper lay down in the dirt of the road and grabbed Jesus’ ankles with his hands, repeating, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” This is the point in the story when it is revealed to us that he is a Samaritan.
The other nine are running to the temple, but where can the Samaritan go? They would not let a Samaritan in the temple. There was no priest who would declare him clean. As far as most Jews were concerned, he was born unclean and would die unclean. He went back to Jesus because Jesus was all he had. As Peter asked Jesus in another situation, “To whom else can we go?”
Of all the outcasts, the double outcast was the most grateful. The further down on the food chain you are, the more likely you are to express thanks to God. We all know that the poor people in our society are far more generous than the rich in the percentage of their income they give to charity. I wouldn’t doubt—if you could measure gratitude—that those with the least would turn out to be more grateful than those who have a lot. Remember the story of the prostitute pouring oil on Jesus’ feet and wiping it with her hair? The respectable religious people were horrified, but Jesus recognized it as an act of faith and thanksgiving and love. “The one who is forgiven much,” he said, “loves much.” How about you, he asked by inference. Have you been forgiven? Do you respond with gratitude?
The story of the nine who don’t come back suggests that God’s people often take his help for granted. Of course he helped us, that’s his job. That’s what the romantic poet Heinrich Heine said on his deathbed: “God will forgive me. That’s his job.” (C’est son métier.) Of course God brought us out of Egypt, of course he gave us the land, of course we won the battle, that’s his job. That’s why we have to have a Thanksgiving Day, so that we are forced to remember all we have to give thanks for, and who it is we need to thank. It’s never a matter of course that we have been saved. That is why we have church on Sunday as well.
It’s hard to imagine lepers feeling entitled, but maybe they did feel entitled on the basis of their religion. Or maybe they just had better things to do: priests to see, wives to kiss. But the one leper who is the double outcast has lost any sense of entitlement he may once have had. “Whatever good comes to me is a gift. Thank you.” Maybe we haven’t been humbled severely enough to become thankful. Maybe we still hold onto the idea that we deserve the good that comes our way, or that it is simply automatic. Jesus wants us to wake up to the truth that everything is a particular act of mercy toward us as particular individuals, not because we were deserving but because we were in need.
There was an old black lady I used to visit in New Jersey. She was a proud nurse who had lost her leg at the knee to diabetes. She was homebound and could rarely get to church. When I’d come into her little house, “I’d say, “How are you, Virginia?” She’d say, “I’m grateful, Pastor, I’m grateful.”
Did you notice what happens at the end of the story? The man has come back and said “Thank you,” and Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” Not “your gratitude made you well,” but your faith. Jesus knew that the man’s faith was expressed as gratitude. Gratitude, Jesus is saying, is a form of faith. Faith is depending on God’s grace and mercy. Gratitude is that feeling that rises up in a heart that depends on God’s grace. The German mystic Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ it is enough.” The prayer of thanks is a prayer of faith, trusting that your healing and every blessing comes from the love of God. Let us pray that prayer today and Thursday and every day. Amen.