Summary: Begin with imaginative rationale for nine who did not return, and conclude with the gospel of God’s great mercy and the human response of worship
ONE OF THEM TURNED BACK
When we meet new people, we ask questions like, “Where did you grow up? Did you live in town or on a farm? Where did you go to college? We ask questions like that because place and background are important. Are you German or Norwegian or Polish?
In today’s gospel, we are still with Jesus on his way from his home in Galilee to Jerusalem. On that journey, we have seen him do a number of healings, watched him respond to several Pharisee and scribe interruptions, and listened to him instructing his disciples about how to improve their discipleship.
Today, he and his entourage were walking near Samaria. Here, geography is really important - this was not friendly ground – it’s very much like enemy territory. Samaritans and Jews were never on good terms. It does not indicate what village they entered, but it does say they were met by a delegation of ten lepers – here, near Samaria.
By Old Testament law, lepers were required to warn people of their presence. It says in Leviticus 13:46, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes, and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, Unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease.” And listen to this: “He is unclean; He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Here they were, ten lepers, standing at a distance.
These lepers were always, “outsiders!”
So, while keeping their distance, today’s text says they called, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” So they went – and as they were going to have the priests check them out, they all discovered that they were made clean. Isn’t that something?
Then it says that one of them, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back - turned back to do what? It says he did three things - praised God with a loud voice, prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him. Then Luke points out that this person who turned back was, of all people, a Samaritan.
That’s when Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?”
At this point we have the serious temptation to condemn those nine who didn’t come back to thank Jesus! Why those selfish, ungrateful scoundrels – healed of a disease so repugnant that they were expelled from society – completely made clean to return to real community life - healed and able to have family life again - healed and able to be with friends again - healed and able to have jobs again? And they don’t even return to say, “Thanks?” It’s easy to condemn them.
So, first, I want to say a word for those nine who didn’t come back: Clearly, there is nothing in the text about why they didn’t come back - so we have to make some things up. But that’s OK – as long as we know that we are making it up – taking some liberty to use the freedom of our imaginations.
In fact, I’m going to ask another person to help with our imagination. Here is a book written by a young minister, Martin Bell – also a singer, composer, storyteller and former disc jockey. The book is entitled, The Way Of The Wolf. In this book he writes a short chapter entitled, “Where are the other nine?” Let’s look at it:
Where are the other nine?
(1) For the first - it was very simple. This whole thing scared him and he went into hiding! He had been ugly for years and years and years. Even though he was now clean, he had been removed from society for so long that he didn’t remember how to be with people anymore. It just scared him! He had forgotten how to shake hands, forgotten how to hug, he had been removed for so long that the only thing he could do was yell out, “Leper. Leper. Unclean. Unclean!” He was frightened and so he hid.
Isn’t that something – that there may be people so frightened of life, and of other people, that they need to hide? How can they come and say, “Thank you!”? I recall a Thanksgiving weekend when our Prison Warden gave 15 prisoners a pass for an 8 hour supervised visit. One of the guys in my class who had been in prison for 14 years said, “I’m really scared – I’m not so sure that I want to go out.”
Frightened and hiding!
(2) A second guy had been made clean too – but he was offended! He thought that this was just too easy! He thought that he should have had to do something! Maybe it should have required weeks and weeks of fasting, months and months of medical treatment, a lifetime of rehab. Then, maybe, and only then, could there be healing. This was just too easy. He believed in, “You get what you earn,” and “You get what you pay for,” and “Anything that’s free, well that just can’t be any good.” and “There is no free lunch.”