Summary: From the Gospel according to St Luke, chapter 17 verses 11-19
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sickness, diseases, health. Our bodies; the physical condition of our life is something that we hold in high regard. We want to feel good. We want to feel, and maybe look like we did when we were 8, 9, 10, 20 years old. We want to wake up in the morning fully refreshed and ready to take on the day; we want to go through our day without worrying about what other people think of us, and we want to fall asleep at night without any pain or hurt.
And to be sure, this is all the 10 lepers wanted in our Gospel text today. They wanted to be pain-free; they wanted to fit in and be accepted by their culture, by their family.
Now, leprosy was and is a bacterial infection which causes all sorts of sores, lesions and other problems to the skin and muscles. If left untreated it can lead to deformities of the fingers and toes, to horrible rashes in the nose, a degradation of the vocal cords, trouble seeing, trouble walking, trouble interacting with society in a way which is meaningful and productive.
During the time of Christ, and long before, there was no cure for leprosy. It was thought to be very contagious since so many suffered from it. Today we know that, while contagious, it is curable in most cases and preventable. Most people are actually immune to the particular bacteria which causes leprosy.
But for those who lived at a less advanced period of time, there were other measures that were used to control the spread of leprosy. It was not only culturally practiced, but also biblically mandated, that anyone with such a disease should be separated from the rest of society, cut off from any interaction with family and friends, and remain that way until such a time as a priest declare the “unclean” person “clean”.
Those with leprosy were not allowed to offer their sacrifices to God, they could not hug their children, they could not work and make money for their families. They were considered outcast, even cursed by God. They could not study the Scriptures or worship in the synagogues.
Imagine having such a disease as this. Imagine being told by your doctors or by your pastor that you are “unclean” and not allowed to live in society, to be part of society, to be part of church. Imagine being thrown out of Birmingham, forced to live in the middle of nowhere, and the only communication you have with people are with those who suffer just like you.
This is how these 10 lepers went about their days. People would see them and take a broad path around them, maybe even pointing at them or speaking under their breath. The lepers were required to say “unclean, unclean” so that everyone knew to stay away.
But these 10 lepers hear about Jesus. They know that He has the power to heal people of all sorts of things, including leprosy. Perhaps it’s the crowds that follow Jesus from Samaria to Galilee. Perhaps they witnessed Jesus’s healing of the man with dropsy. Whatever the case, the 10 lepers seek out Jesus and when He’s far off, they call out to him, “Mercy us”, or “give us mercy.”
The Pharisees had ruled that those with leprosy stand no closer than four paces, though these lepers are further away than that on account of the crowds. Jesus hears them and turns His attention to them.
Perhaps they expect Jesus to touch them. Perhaps they expect him to raise his hands, to say to them “be clean” or “be gone, evil leprosy”. Instead, much to their amazement, Jesus says “go and show yourselves to the priests”.
It was the duty of the priests to scrutinize the condition of anyone suffering from a disease like leprosy and to determine if they had recovered or if they were still infected. It was very uncommon for a priest to announce “clean” to anyone with leprosy because, as I said before, there was no effective cure for this infection. These lepers, knowing that Jesus has a history of healing, follow His instruction which affords them the necessary faith to go, and as they go they are healed.
One of the now clean lepers returns to Jesus to praise and worship Him. Instead of following the other 9, he recognizes what God has done for him, recognizes WHO Jesus is, and falls at His feet in thanksgiving. The other 9 should have done the same thing; they should have returned to glorify God on account of what He has done, but they don’t. The miracle Jesus performs, a miracle done in order to bring God glory and to draw people back to His presence, escapes the hearts of these 9 lepers, these 9 Jewish lepers, and only the Samaritan leper returns, and by faith, believes. The other 9 lepers may have walked away physically healed, but their hearts were far from God, hearts full of unrepentance and blindness.