The Rev. Canon Patricia M. Thomas
It’s a simple story, the one we have just heard! In the story, we meet Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. He is in a territory that is described as “between,” as a place that is neither here nor there. In some sense, it is a place that is yet to be determined. In this “between” place, Jesus enters a village. So we know that people live in this “in between” space. On the outskirts of the village, as Jesus begins to enter it, he hears a group of people calling him. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” they cry. “Jesus, Master…!” Recognizing that these people know him in some way, Jesus turns. He sees a group of ten lepers. What’s more, the lepers are moving toward him. In this situation, any sensible person would step back, would turn away, would keep plenty of distance between himself and the lepers.
To be given a sentence of leprosy, in the ancient world as through most of human history, was a death sentence. Perhaps we can relate to it by recalling the way the diagnosis of AIDS affected people for that too, in the early days of the disease, was a death sentence. There was nothing that could be done to cure the disease. The most the sufferer could hope for was some relief from the ravages the illness would take over time. People without the disease were very afraid of those who had it and, in one way or another, put distance between themselves and the sick. The result was that those who had the disease were isolated, alienated and cut off from much, if any, role in the human community. They lived on the edges of communities and villages and cities and banded together for what comfort they could find.
So Jesus sees ten lepers coming toward him and he knows they recognize him. They call him by name and then add “Master” as if to claim that he has some relationship with and over them. Jesus acknowledges the lepers by speaking directly to them. His words are so direct and simple that it almost seems too easy. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he directs. The priests were those in the community who exercised the authority of readmittance to membership in the community. If someone suffering from leprosy showed himself to the priest without any traces of the disease, the priest would pronounce the person “clean” and he would be restored to normal human society. Jesus tells the ten to do just that. As they go to find a priest, they “were made clean,” that is, they were cured. We can imagine what that meant to the lepers. They were free from disease and the nagging questions and painful effects that disease brings. They were released from the bondage of living primarily with the disease as the central reality of their life. They were awed by the restoration of their body to a disease-free state. They were cured!
Three weeks ago, my brother died after a three-year battle with cancer. He fought so hard, continually seeking the best medical science had to offer. He had his moments of hope, when the disease appeared to go into remission. But he also lived with the constant question, “What is this doing to my body?” And the big question was always there, “Will I survive this sickness?” He was waiting for the new medicine, the next cure, the better treatment. But, for him, they didn’t come. Before he died, he said to me, “I’ve made peace with my maker.” We both knew what he meant! Steve wanted to be cured, and he endured a great deal in the hopes it would happen. It didn’t! Still, I wonder, what did happen for him? Has he found his peace? Has he found his peace with God? My continual prayer and hope and faith is that he has, that he has entered that place for which we are all destined. It is the place we think of in so many ways: as a place of the great banquet, as a place called “home,” as a place where those we love will still be with us, as a green pasture where all we need is provided, as a place of rest, as a place where we get our wings and really know how to fly with all the freedom that brings. It is not an “in between” place. It is our ultimate destination.
Jesus said to the ten lepers, “Go and show yourself to the priests.” And they did….and, in the journey, discovered that they were cured.
But that is not the end of this simple, yet so profound, story. There is more! For one of the lepers returned to Jesus. He prostrated himself before Jesus, an act of submission to a power greater than his own, and he thanked Jesus for his cure. I believe that he alone of all the ten lepers had come to know the truth. He knew that he had not only been cured but that he had been healed. His body was not only free from disease, but his whole being—mind, body and spirit—was restored to a state of “health.” For his healing, he gave thanks to the one who makes “health” possible.
Seeking and finding health is the message of this story. The story is not just about curing disease and it is not just about gratitude and it is not just about the foreigner making the faithful gesture. All of these are very important elements. The story is really about recognizing that Jesus is the one through whom we enter a new way of being, a way we call “health.” To be healthy is to live in a conscious relationship with God, with others and with the whole created order. It is a committed relationship that is chosen by God and the person. The Bible speaks of it as a covenant relationship in which God promises to do some things and the person promises to do some things. God promises to be with us always, to forgive us our sins, to release us from bondage, and to bring us into the fullness of life, our true home. The person promises to give priority in all things to God. This is an authentic, humble walking before and with God. One of my favorite prayers puts it this way,
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being:
We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit,
that in all our cares and occupations we may not forget you, but
may remember that we are ever walking in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(A Collect for Guidance, Book of Common Prayer, page 100)
In addition, the person promises to live a life marked by justice, compassion and peace toward others and, indeed, toward the whole creation.
The leper knew he had been restored to health. And don’t we long for that ourselves? Don’t we want to leave behind the power struggles and intrigues and injustices that are all too prevalent in our life and in our communities and in our world? Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” His is an invitation that few hear or recognize, but those who do are truly blessed. May we choose to be among that company and may we accept our responsibility to bring others to the giver of health and salvation.
Let us pray:
Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you
through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him,
that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the
hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Prayer for the Mission of the Church, Book of Common Prayer, page 816)