This morning I want us to consider five words that may seem unrelated but are well worth considering as a group. The words are
Judgment – Authority – Healing – Gratitude – Grace
The story that invites us to consider the interplay between these five words, is the encounter in the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee, in which Jesus engages ten men with a terrible skin disease. While the word “leprosy” is commonly used by Bible translators, any number of medical conditions would have this dual impact: physically painful and socially isolating. And while it would be nice to skip ahead to the gratitude part of the story, to do so would be to short-change its full power.
The first word we meet up with, is JUDGMENT.
We know from this story that one (or more) of the men with leprosy was a Samaritan. And what do we know about Samaritans? In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), a wounded traveller is helped, not by the religious figures you’d think would help, but by a Samaritan, and we are invited to experience a prejudice of that time and place, that the words “good” and “Samaritan” could not possibly be uttered side by side. In another Biblical story (John 4: 1-42) Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for water, and the woman is shocked: not only was Jesus, a man, speaking to a woman in a public place but Jesus, a Jew, was interacting with a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans had a lot of animosity towards one another, and that would have coloured how the first audience would have heard this account.
In addition to the religious/ethnic judgmentalism built into this story, it also invites us into the huge, heartbreaking judgment directed at people disabled by these diseases. Folks with physical challenges of various sorts can attest to the fact that such judgments are still alive today. In the case of the ten men cured, the judgment is not just an attitude; it is seeded by the wording of the scriptural laws governing skin diseases. In the 13th and 14th chapters of Leviticus, the potential for dehumanizing is so clear:
“9 “When anyone has a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to the priest. 10 The priest is to examine them, and if there is a white swelling in the skin that has turned the hair white and if there is raw flesh in the swelling, 11 it is a chronic skin disease and the priest shall pronounce them unclean. He is not to isolate them, because they are already unclean.” (Lev 13: 9-11, NIV)
These skin diseases – leprosy and related conditions – are nasty, disfiguring things that can be fatal. And especially in the early days, when the Israelites were living in tents, and with a limited range of cures available, I can understand how important it was to quarantine. But the language here, of a skin disease defined as “defiling” and the conclusion that those suffering from the disease “are already unclean” points to a level of judgment that is not just skin-deep. Here, there is a baseline of brokenness; this has gone beyond “a person with leprosy” to identifying the entire person as a “leper”, with all the horrible connotations of that old-fashioned word. If you were judged to be a leper, your participation in community life was over – except in your sub-group, of other folks with leprosy. You were, in essence, a walking dead person. You were prohibited from being with the main community, you couldn’t engage in any meaningful employment other than begging from a distance, you had to shout, “unclean, unclean” or, if you lost your voice, ring bells to warn people to not get too close. And while not specifically mentioned in today’s reading, all indications are that if you had one of these diseases, the non-infected population would view it as a divine punishment for something you or your ancestors had done wrong.
As with so many stigmatizing conditions, the disease itself was devastating, but diseases don’t act maliciously. Human judgementalism, however, like blaming the victim for their infirmity, or defining someone by their disease, are intentionally cruel, and truly malignant.
I could go on and on about the power of judgment in this story, but I would actually like you to stay for the entire sermon, so we’ll move on to the second word: AUTHORITY.
There was only one way, in that time and place, to be given a clean bill of health if you’d had a skin rash or infection: see the priest, the only person authorized to proclaim you “healthy.”
Jesus knew that these were the rules, so when the ten men with leprosy came to see him, he sent them to be seen by the priests and as far as we know, they did. But in this, there is for me a nagging question: what about the Samaritan? To whom would he have gone?
Ponder with me: if a regular, everyday Jewish person was forbidden from having interactions with Samaritans, would a Jewish Priest have anything to do with them? Would a Priest even be allowed to? Likely not. So one possibility, is that the Jewish men would go see a Jewish priest, and the Samaritan would go see his own priest. We know that since the days of Moses and Aaron up to the present day, there has been a Samaritan High Priest, so this is a very real possibility.
But another possibility, is that the Samaritan doubled back and thanked Jesus, not just to express gratitude, but to proclaim the Jesus as “one with authority.” This is a big theme in the Gospels: Jesus is said to teach with authority (Mark 7:29), he has authority to cast out demons (Mark 1:29) and gives his followers to proclaim forgiveness in his name (John 20:23). Verses 15 and 18 in today’s reading strongly imply that what the Samaritan did was an act of proclamation and praise, a declaration that Jesus had the power to do what only the Priests generally did. The core of Jesus’ mission was and is to reach out to those judged and excluded by others, and in this instance a man with a double dose of marginalization – a Samaritan with leprosy – is the one who recognizes and proclaims the authority of Jesus in his life. It’s often those most marginalized who are most able to recognize the fullness of who Jesus is.
HEALING – our third word this morning.
Twenty-five years ago, a beloved spiritual friend, the late Rev. John Branton taught me the difference between being healed and being cured. To be cured, is to be relieved of a disease and its symptoms. To be healed, at least in spiritual/Biblical terms, is less of a medical word and more of a relational word. To be healed is to be made whole. This can be particularly important when dealing with someone in palliative care, for even in situations where there is no reasonable expectation of cure, one can always pray and work toward healing: restoring relationships with estranged relatives, forgiving oneself for misdeeds or shortfalls, and the like. You can be healed without being cured, and in the case of today’s Gospel reading, it appears you can be cured without being healed.
Leprosy and related conditions are terrible, disfiguring diseases but that’s only part of it. Being isolated from the community and forced to repeatedly call out one’s unclean-ness broke one’s relationships – with family, with the extended community, with communal religious practices such as Jews going to the Jerusalem Temple, or Samaritans going to their Temple/Shrine at Mount Gerizim. To really “get better”, to be fully healed, would go well beyond cure; the healing would reach completion when you had been restored to your family, your community, your religious practices.
A number of Bible commentators, including David Lose, have pointed out that all ten of these men were cured. The nine that did not return to Jesus were not suddenly cursed with a relapse of the disease. But an argument could be made – and is made in verse 19 – that the one man who went back to see Jesus, was the first one to be truly healed. Returning to Jesus in thanksgiving and praise, was to seek healing that goes beyond cure.
GRATITUDE AND GRACE
These last two words I will deal with together, for a specific reason. The story of ten lepers cured and the solitary Samaritan who returns to Jesus is a wonderful illustration of gratitude. Jesus himself, on seeing the one Samaritan return to him, asks a rhetorical question bordering on sarcasm, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” (Luke 17:7), for gratitude is a pretty natural response when something this profound happens – and Jesus is both somewhat surprised that all ten didn’t feel the same urge, and moved by the one that did. (Now to be fair, Jesus DID tell them to go to the priest, so you could say that the one who returned to give thanks and praise was the one who DIDN’T follow instructions, but that might be another sermon!)
As noted earlier, though, as much as we lift up the Samaritan’s gratitude as exemplary, Jesus cured all ten men. None of them had to live with an active case of leprosy anymore. Although the story might make an even stronger point in favour of gratitude if the other nine had started seeing spots reappear because they hadn’t come back to offer thanks and praise, God’s gift of grace does not work that way. God’s loving care is not something that we earn, it’s not conditional on our goodness, it is a gift of pure grace. Aligning our words and actions with God’s high intentions for us is not a prerequisite to being loved by God.
Gratitude doesn’t buy us anything, it doesn’t let us slip past the lineup into the front row. But that’s not to say it is inconsequential. From my experience in life, the places where I am most grateful, and choose to demonstrate my gratitude in some way – whether by financial donation or direct involvement or both – are the places where I feel most uplifted. Expressions of gratitude are in themselves “rewarding”. When I think back to the days when Shannon and I were driving our kids to various activities – Cubs, Brownies, Dance, Gymnastics, Art Classes, Baseball, Hockey, Soccer – I can definitely say that as a parent, the activities where I got involved – in governance, in coaching, in fundraising – are ones I remember fondly to this day. My willingness to get involved as a tangible expression of gratitude helped them out and was an extra bonus for me, too. Over the years I have seen the same effect in Church life, as people share generously of their financial resources, as they offer well-developed skills where needed, and as they step into new roles and enjoy the learning curve of doing something different. Expressing gratitude with our words, our time and our resources, is of great benefit for all concerned.
In the story of the ten men cured, we are given a memorable example of the power of gratitude, as one returns to Jesus with thanks and praise. While this was not required, Jesus doesn’t just turn the man around and say, “go be with the other nine.” Jesus recognizes the gratefulness, and responds with powerful words of blessing and wholeness. The grace of Jesus and the gratitude of the Samaritan come together, in that beautiful moment.
And so we sum up: in the borderlands, between Galilee and Samaria and between life and death, ten men with skin diseases approached Jesus from a safe distance and asked for help. They took a chance that he would step past the judgementalism that marred their lives, and that he had the authority to heal, to make them whole. And with a wonderful blend of gratitude and grace, there was cure, and for one of the ten there was an extra element of healing, bathed in praise. May your life, and the gathered life of the Ralph Connor and Rundle congregations, and our reach into the communities and world around us, be enlightened and enlivened and bear evidence to the glory of God. Amen.
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.