“Were not ten made clean? …[T]he other nine, where are they?”
The question is apropos, don’t you think? Ten men suffering from one of the most debilitating diseases imaginable came to Jesus begging for mercy and healing… and received it… and then off they went without so much as a backward glance or “fare-thee-well.” How rude! But before we begin “casting stones,” let’s take a minute to search our souls and ask ourselves if we’ve ever behaved in similar fashion. Do we always take proper notice of God’s Providence in our own lives and express our gratitude? I know I don’t.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is often thought of as a malady of the skin… but it really isn’t. The bacterial agent that causes the condition we know as leprosy is called Mycobacterium leprae, and it first attacks the nerves before spreading to the peripheries, particularly the hands, feet and face, most visibly the nose and ears. As the disease progresses, victims often experience disfigurement of the skin and bones. They may develop tumor-like growths called “lepromas” on the outside of their bodies and in their respiratory tracts. Their limbs may become contorted and their hands take on a claw-like appearance. The optic nerve is often affected, causing visual impairment… and even blindness. Interestingly, many of these deformities develop, and become more and more acute, because the victims have lost their sensitivity to pain. They can’t feel anything in their extremities. Mycobacterium leprae destroys nerve endings that transmit pain signals to the brain; thus, victims are unaware when their bodies are being injured… and fail to take steps to stop whatever is causing the pain and treat the damage. Folks with advanced cases of leprosy can receive serious cuts, or burns, or crushing injuries to hands and feet… and never even feel it. Then, infection sets in… and eyesight fades. Before they know it, they are no longer able to work… or walk… or live any semblance of a normal life. And leprosy is catching… through skin contact or droplets from coughing or sneezing. In a culture that valued spiritual purity—as evidenced by the absence of physical blemishes—it’s sad, though not surprising, that lepers were shunned and relegated to the margins of Hebrew society. They lived an isolated existence outside of cities and towns and kept well-away from healthy people. They were barred from the Temple and synagogues of course and, as a sign of their condition, they were required to dress in rags, wear their hair in a long and unruly fashion, keep their mouths covered and, whenever anyone approached, cry out in a loud voice in Hebrew, “Tame, tame!” (taw-MAY, taw-MAY!), “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev. 13:45)
Scholars agree that not all “lepers” actually suffered from Hansen’s disease during Biblical times. There were, and still are, all sorts of illnesses that cause significant disfigurement and deformity. Not all are as lethal… or as contagious as actual leprosy… but folks weren’t taking chances. “If he looks like a leper, he’s a leper… ’til a priest says he’s clean” (Lev. 14:1-9). And even on those occasions when a priest would make such a pronouncement, I expect folks were still a little skittish. Fear is a hard thing to shake. In any case, this really isn’t a sermon about leprosy, though I suppose it’s good to have the background information. This is a sermon about gratitude… and faith… and transformation.
Surely, we should offer thanks to God for all of the blessings of this life. When we fail to do so, we are failing to acknowledge that blessings are, in fact, blessings: God’s Providence for a people wandering through a wilderness of sin and unbelief… undeserved, and un-repayable. When we fail to give thanks, it’s either because we’re taking Providence for granted, which is never a good thing (just ask the Israelites how that worked out for them during their own forty-year wilderness sojourn), or because we’re not paying attention. Why didn’t the other nine men come back praising God and thanking Jesus, as did the Samaritan? I don’t know… but I’m not prepared to call them simple ingrates based on what I read in the text of today’s Gospel lesson. Maybe they were, but maybe they were doing the last thing that Jesus had told them to do—which was to go and show themselves to the priests. That was their ticket to reintegration with society, after all. “There’s not a moment to lose!” they may have been thinking. “He told us to go, so we’ll go. Giddy-up!”
Or… and here is kind of where I’m leaning… what if the other nine men simply weren’t paying attention to what Jesus had done to them? They had been outcast… suffering grievous emotional and spiritual pain day-in, day-out for who knows how long. Unclean… without hope of salvation. What if they simply failed to notice that they had been cleansed? What if all they could do was continue to trudge the familiar path of self-hatred and exile, doubting both their own worthiness and Almighty Providence because they couldn’t see themselves as deserving of salvation? And, in truth, none of us is worthy on our own. But we are made worthy… made clean… by the Father. The Samaritan figured it out first. Good on him! I wonder how long it took the rest to realize that they had been transformed? Joy! Better late than never, I guess.
So, what do you think? Am I preaching to the choir? Or are there some of us here today just plodding along… fat, dumb and un-happy, living lives of spiritual isolation and ennui… never quite able to believe we were made for so much more? Perhaps there are others of us who hesitate to lay our sins, things done and left undone, at the feet of the Almighty—so that we can be made whole and clean—because we’re just too ashamed and embarrassed to own them? Maybe we’re afraid that God might withhold forgiveness. Better not to know… than to be disappointed, right? Wrong! Pay attention! You’ve been redeemed by the Blood of Christ. Have faith! No matter how blemished your life, no matter how far you may have traveled down the road of disease and exile, your salvation is at hand. You have encountered God in Jesus Christ on the road from where you have been… to the place where you are going. How long will it take you to figure out that you’ve been transformed?