Summary: What does it mean when only one in ten returns to give thanks?
The Importance of Giving Thanks
Leprosy was the worst form of excommunication. Many have criticized the use of excommunication as a means of discipline in the church to cast out members for some heresy or misconduct. But to be excommunicated simply because they caught a disease through no fault of their own. Lepers in Israel were to remove themselves from the camp where they had to beg for a living. They could leave their begging bowls by the road and call for alms from a distance. The only company they could keep was with other lepers.
There were many skin diseases in the Ancient Near East which were grouped together as leprosy. One could think of leprosy proper, but scabies, eczema, staff infections and even acne fell under the regulations. There were no antibiotics then, and some of the diseases were quite infectious. They had to be separated from society to prevent the spread of contagion. If the skin disease cleared up, they could be examined by a priest, declared clean, and upon a certain cleansing ritual being performed, were allowed to return to society.
Of course, many saw disease of any sort as a plague from God. And in Israelite society, there was the added stigma that leprosy was sent by God as a punishment for sin. For example, we do see this happening to Miriam who was struck by leprosy after complaining of the dark skin of Moses’ wife. In today’s world, some attached this sort of stigma to AIDS as sexual infidelity or IV drug users had a high incidence of AIDS. Whatever that can be said of this, many perfectly innocent people were struck with this deadly plague such as spouses, hemophiliacs and other recipients of transfusions. For a long time, as the disease was misunderstood, many kept their distance from AIDS victims. We can only imagine the pain that such people feel. And many of these lepers internalized this, and added self-imposed guilt unto their physical torments.
Today’s passage occurred in the region between Galilee and Samaria. This means this group of ten lepers were mixed between Samaritans and Jews, who were in a sense lepers to each other due to long-term hatred between them. But misery needs some company. In the Leper’s outcast world, being a Jew or a Samaritan did not matter so much. They were lepers in their own host cultures, but they were not lepers to each other. Instead, they comforted each other and protected each other. When one is an outcast, social rules no longer apply.
I would suppose this day started for the tem lepers much as every day did. They positioned themselves along the way at the entrance of the city. There they would let down their bowls and then back off within earshot. They would call out to the passers by to have mercy on them and leave a coin or a crust of bread. But today would be different. Jesus of Nazareth was coming to town. We don’t even know what town it was, whether it was in Galilee or Samaria. But it was their town, and Jesus was coming there.
We can wonder how these lepers had heard of Jesus. Even though they were outcasts, they could have heard Jesus talk going on between people going up and down the road, a snippet here and a snippet there. Was there any human who dared to tell them directly about Jesus. It seems too often that today’s outcasts must also get a snippet here and there. Too many Christians pass them by to go to their churches in the town. The churches look for more Pharisees to fill the pews as they are taught to tithe. If the churches care at all, they throw biscuits to the poor out the back door while the elect enter in the front. Too few people have the heart of John Wesley and others who cared about the souls of these men and women rather than earning points for their badge of election. We do knot know how they heard or how much they heard. We know nothing of their orthodoxy. But they believed that this man could heal them of leprosy.
They cry out: “Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us!” Jesus at other times actually dared to touch these lepers. So we know that Jesus’ response here is not that stale back-door biscuit. Jesus made the unclean clean, but the unclean could not defile Jesus. He tells them to go show themselves to the priest. There was no immediate miracle here. They undertook the laborious journey to either Samaria or Jerusalem to show themselves. But is says they were healed as they went. They had to start the journey still infected with leprosy. So the journey for them started out in faith. If they could be declared clean, they could return home. They could be Jews or Samaritans again. The mixed marriage of Jews and Samaritans as miserable outcasts on the edge of town would be over.