Today’s gospel lesson is the story of Jesus healing the Ten Lepers. This particular story is unique to Luke who had a heart for outsiders and the poor. The story of the Ten Lepers fits in in well with Luke’s understanding of Jesus. There are many ways we can get at this text. One way I find particularly helpful is to “try on” each of the characters in any given story and see how they “fit” us. The connections we make with any particular character tell us a great deal about our spiritual life, what’s going on inside of us. These connections also tell us something about what resources we need to help us navigate whatever challenges life is throwing at us at any given moment. So, walk with me through the story of the Ten Lepers, try each character on, and see who fits you the best.
The first character we need to “try on” is the leper. There are ten of them mentioned in the story. But, chances are, there were more of them cowering in the shadows, unable to show their faces in the light of day. Leprosy is something we don’t encounter much these days except when we read about it in the Bible. The modern term for leprosy is Hansen’s disease. 95% of us are naturally immune to it. According to the charity Lepra, every day, 600 more people are diagnosed and start treatment for leprosy which is now a curable disease. In 2014, 213,899 people were diagnosed, a figure which experts say is likely to be higher since many cases of leprosy go undiagnosed. Although World Health Organization declared leprosy had been eliminated in 2000, This means there is a prevalence rate of less than one case per 10,000 persons at the global level.
You might also find it interesting to know that leper colonies still remain in countries such as India, China, Romania, Egypt, Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam and Japan. But here in the United States, leprosy is a forgotten disease. It’s been confined to the pages of the Bible. This does not mean we cannot identify with the leper. In fact, we may have more in common with them than we may first realize.
In Jesus’ time, people were labeled as lepers for a number of reasons: Some of them had Hansen’s Disease. Others had a variety of skin disorders such as psoriasis or other non-contagious skin infections. Because people in Jesus’ time made a connection between disease and sin, it was assumed that a person got leprosy because of the sins they or their parents had committed. God was punishing them for their transgressions. Therefore, lepers were labeled as unclean. They were forbidden to have contact with family and friends. They were forced to live in leper colonies, where living conditions were unimaginably horrible. They had to stay there until their leprosy was cured, which rarely ever happened.
Armed with this understanding of leprosy, we might find these characters in our gospel lesson fit us quite well. Some of us know what it is like to be labeled as “unclean” by both church and society. We’ve been treated like lepers because of illness or divorce, because of what we believe in, because of whom we choose to love, because of our gender identity, because people have judged us without taking the time to get to know us.
Some of us know what it is like to be estranged from family and friends, with little or no hope for reconciliation. Some of us have lived on the margins of society, scraping by to make ends meet, grateful for the smallest acts of kindness we receive from friends and strangers alike.
There may be more lepers among us than we can imagine. If it feels like this character fits us well this morning, There is hope and good news to share! First of all, Jesus crossed several social and religious boundaries to ensure that the lepers felt loved by him. Without going into much detail, Jesus was in the region between Samaria and Galilee, a place no respectable rabbi was supposed to travel. Jesus was also ministering to at least one Samaritan which was another “no-no.” Furthermore, Jesus was interacting with lepers which was the biggest taboo of them all. But Jesus didn’t seem to care about these social and religious prohibitions. He ignored them in order to make the lepers feel welcomed and loved. This was something they had not felt in a LONG time. I believe he does the same for us.
The second word of Good News is that those who have felt like lepers, but have also been embraced by Jesus’ love and mercy, are some of the best ambassadors for Christ our world has ever known. Because we know what it is like to be rejected and estranged, we are less likely to treat others the same way. Because we have been welcomed and embraced by Jesus, we feel compelled to welcome and embrace others. It is a gift that the lepers among us need to celebrate and claim as our own.
The final word of Good News for the lepers among us is that we also have the opportunity to receive a special blessing. Ten lepers were healed, but only one returned to give thanks. Perhaps the lesson learned here is that a grateful heart is a powerful thing. If we’ve always felt like insiders we might not realize what a wonderful gift that is. However, if we’ve ever felt like a leper, we SHOULD have a deep appreciation for the people and places where we feel welcomed and loved. In our gospel lesson 90% of the lepers miss this final blessing. Perhaps the story is told so that we improve on that percentage!
The second characters we need to “try on” are Jesus’ disciples. “But they’re not in the story” we might respond. I would argue that they are in the story. Jesus NEVER traveled alone. In fact, no one traveled alone on the road between Samaria and Jerusalem. The disciples are there. Trust me. They just don’t want to get involved. They are somewhere in the background wishing they were somewhere else, Perhaps disapproving of Jesus’ actions, unwilling to cross those social and cultural barriers, unwilling to get their hands dirty. Often times we identify with the disciples in the gospel stories because they are most like us. Common, ordinary working folk with a passion for following Christ. But in this story they are M.I.A. We are left to ponder what this says about us as followers of Jesus.
Let’s be honest, it’s easier to be the church in the warmth and safety of this building. But the real work and ministry of the church is out there in the trenches. We cannot read the gospels any other way. Jesus was always willing to roll up his sleeves, pick up his towel and basin, and serve those in need. If we find ourselves always standing in the shadows, content to watch from the sidelines, then should ask ourselves what’s keeping us from joining Jesus among the lepers. Are we afraid of what others might think? Does it make us nervous to venture into unfamiliar territory? Have we been conditioned to believe that it’s wrong to associate with “those kinds of people?” There are many reasons for standing in the shadows. But I believe that the same Jesus who welcomed the lepers invites us disciples to fish for all kinds of people, to take up our cross and follow him. It’s quite clear where he goes and who he embraces in our gospel lesson. Are we, his disciples, willing to follow?
The final character we need to try on is Jesus. For some of us, this is hard to do. After all, Jesus is the Son of God. He performed miracles and healed people. He died on the cross and rose again. How do we dare compare ourselves to THAT? Well, I think we do so humbly and reverently, recognizing that we are called to walk where Jesus walked. Therefore, at the very least, we can be his “intern.” We can watch and learn. We can tag along behind him like a kid brother or sister and try to imitate what he does.
If we identify with Jesus in our gospel lesson we need to be prepared to go way out of our comfort zones. We need to be prepared to be misunderstood and to be criticized by well intentioned people. We need to have the faith that God’s love knows no boundaries. Then we must be willing to cross those boundaries in order to bring love and healing to those who need it the most.
Jesus walks in some pretty risky territory in our gospel lesson. He’s in a region where good rabbis are not supposed to go. He’s among a people that good rabbis are not supposed to associate with. He’s reaching out with hope and healing to the most desperate of souls; some of whom appreciate his efforts, some of whom cannot bother to turn around and say “thank-you” Jesus is where he is, and is doing what he is doing, because God’s love leaves him no alternative. Jesus knows that no one lives outside the boundaries of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy.
Therefore, Jesus has no choice but to venture into forbidden territory, to love the most hopeless and helpless of people, and restore them to community: community with God and community with their neighbor. If we identify most strongly with Jesus this morning. It’s a beautiful place to be, but it’s not an easy place to be. There is a cost to following Jesus. We may or may not be willing to pay it.
So, as I bring my thoughts to a close this morning. I hope we will all walk closely with our gospel lesson this week. I hope we will try on each of the characters and see which one fits us the best. I hope we’ll listen carefully and let this story challenge us with the life-transforming power of Jesus’ love. AMEN
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck