Sunday, 13 October 2019

The Grateful Leper

And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:  And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.  And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?  There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole. (Luke 17:11-19 King James Version (KJV)
So let's start with the normal disclaimer. Leprosy, as the New International Version of the Bible always tells us in the footnotes, does not necessarily mean the disease - otherwise called Hansen's disease - that we call "leprosy". That is a disease that affects the nerves. The disease in the Bible seems more often to mean something that could have been impetigo or maybe eczema. And while impetigo is no fun - I remember being painted purple as a child,  to cure it - it's not got the horrors of untreated Hansen's disease. But it does link back to Lazarus and the rich man. When Lazarus was laying outside Dives's gates, with the dogs licking his sores - was that because he was a leper? That would be another reason why the rich man wouldn't want to go near him.

Because Biblical leprosy was bad enough. The rules in Leviticus were pretty clear. If you were a leper you couldn't be a normal member of society. You had to hang outside the town, dress scruffy, and shout "unclean" if anyone came near. You couldn't let your uncleanness affect anyone else. So you couldn't make a proper living. Couldn't be with your family. Couldn't go out for a pint or go to synagogue or go to the Temple. You were an outcast.

So these ten lepers see Jesus. And we're not told why there's only men. Jesus was always very happy to cure women - but maybe the women lepers were outside a different village or behind a hill or maybe, let's face it, there were fewer women "lepers" because women are more likely to wash properly, or less likely to be running through thorns while farming and picking up infections. Anyway. These are ten male lepers. And Jesus - they've heard of Jesus. Maybe he can remove their mark of Cain, they think? And Jesus says go - show yourselves to the priests. And off they go and they are cleansed.

Cleansed. They're not lepers anymore. They're OK to rejoin society. Once they've jumped through a few ceremonial hoops. The priest has to sacrifice a dove for them. Then... in the words of Leviticus...
The person to be cleansed must wash their clothes, shave off all their hair and bathe with water; then they will be ceremonially clean. After this they may come into the camp, but they must stay outside their tent for seven days. On the seventh day they must shave off all their hair; they must shave their head, their beard, their eyebrows and the rest of their hair. They must wash their clothes and bathe themselves with water, and they will be clean.
Then the priest has to sacrifice a lamb as a guilt offering for them. Because the illness is presumed to have been their fault. And how often do we still fall for that? It doesn't help that our medical system and our media use guilt as a means to try and educate us in our health. Since the belief of today is that if you eat the right things, drink the right things, do the right things and use a condom you'll live forever - any illness we may acquire can't help but be because we did it wrong.  But I know a lovely woman who was struck by cancer. And her words to me were "I must have been an evil git". And she cut her best friend off - not because her friend had done anything wrong - but because she was so embarrassed that she was ill.  But the good news for the former lepers is that now they are properly clean and ready to join society.

But they're out in the badlands of the Galilee-Samaria border country. And the temple in Jerusalem - the only place the Jewish lepers could offer their sacrifices - is up in Jerusalem. Now I don't know how well the Jews of the first century stuck to the rituals - when you consider they lived all over the known world and there was only one Temple. You couldn't just set off on a 1,000 mile pilgrimage if you were a Jew in south France and got healed from a boil, I imagine. But then ceremonial uncleanness is less of an issue when it's a major trek to get to the Temple anyway. But let's cut them some slack. Let's suppose they're busy getting together pigeons, lambs and a decent supply of shaving cream, and packing to get to Jerusalem.

But still. There's only one that comes back. And he is a Samaritan. From the race that Jesus's people think are unclean just by existing. The ones they won't eat in the same room as. But he comes back. And Jesus says - look, it's only the Samaritan that said thanks. He glorifies God, while the others are off and running.

Important message from Jesus - it's the despised one that is made totally right with God. Not that the others couldn't. They just didn't. It's often the surprising ones that get to know God. Not the good ones, the clever ones, the self-righteous or talented or well-connected ones. It's the ones that know they need God, who get to know God.

And so nine of the lepers are "cleansed". But the tenth - the Samaritan - is "made whole". Key difference in the Greek, reflected in different ways in our English Bibles. Nine are clean, one is whole. Or, to use the other translation - saved. Or, to use an English comparison. Nine are merely cured. The tenth - the Samaritan, the outcast, the enemy - the tenth, who has given glory to God and not just entered into a medical transaction - who has turned, and without knowing it, looked on the face of God -  he is truly healed*.

* With thanks to Wobbly Goose for the inspiration.

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1 comment :

  1. If these 10 geezers were Exiled from Main Street then I suspect they had something more than a nasty bout of acne. Jesus (AKA God Incarnate) created the Universe, so curing eczema, leprosy, or Hepatitises A to H (yes, I looked it up, there really are that many Hepatitises), it’s all the same to Him – it’s a piece of cake.

    BTW, if you’ve never heard of the leper saint, Damien of Molokai, read his story. This is the very definition of what it means to be holy.


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