notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
The one who came back
Christ Church Norris Green 10/10/2004 (Holy Communion)
2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Why did the tenth leper come back? I'd like us to think about that today.
Now if you've heard a sermon about this story before, then you might know an answer to that question straight away - the tenth leper came back because he was thankful. And his being thankful is an example to all of us, about the way we should be thankful towards Jesus.
And that is true. But there is far more to this man's story, there are particular reasons why he would be thankful, why he alone returned to Jesus, and I'd like us to dig a bit deeper into all of this today, to see what treasures we might find.
Luke sets the scene: On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
You know, Jesus never seemed to take the easy route anywhere. After his birth he didn't go home, he took the escape road to Egypt; at age twelve he hung around in the temple courts while his parents were frantic about losing him on the road; and in his wandering ministry he headed towards the city which he knew would destroy him. He went from lakeside to lakeside via the mountain-tops, and he went around the edges rather than on the more direct, safer roads.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
Dangerous territory, bandit country, the region between Samaria and Galilee. If you believed what people said. Border territory, where two enemy countries met. The edge is always dangerous, as my uncle used to tell me who worked the customs checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic at the height of the Troubles, as any Palestinian will tell you today, trying to get to work or hospital through a heavily-armed, aggressive Israeli checkpoint, as any U.N. peacekeeper will tell you, embroiled in the chaos of Iraq's guerrilla warfare.
Imagine the sense of fear walking through such areas. The region between Samaria and Galilee would have felt quite frightening in Jesus' day. There are edge territories closer to home which aren't at war, but still have the reputation for danger. In this city we know well the stigma attached to the Boot Estate, for instance, although we who live close to it know there's more to that story than meets the eye.
The thing is, if you walk through edgy territory then you're likely to meet edgy people. Some people think the city centre is dangerous because it's full of drunken beggars, for instance. We know that it's not full of them by any means, but we also know we may come across some if we go into certain parks or gardens.
Some people think these outer estates are dangerous because they're full of gangs and druggies. We know they're not full of them by any means, they're actually full of ordinary people just getting on with their lives. But we also know there are some places where there is a risk of running into a gang at night.
And in Jesus' day some people thought the region between Samaria and Galilee was dangerous because it was full of lepers. Those who lived there knew that it wasn't full of them by any means, but they also knew they might come across some if they walked the outskirts of town, these people who were outcasts because they had some sort of gruesome skin disease which people thought was contagious.
That's where the story takes place, and that's the sort of person the leper-who-came-back was.
Except the leper-who-came-back wasn't just a leper, an outcast who people thought was dangerous. He was a Samaritan, a foreigner, an enemy in that region. In the awful language of today's local hatreds, he wasn't just a druggy, he was an asylum-seeker druggy.
And that's important in this story because it meant that Jesus couldn't heal him the way he healed the others.
As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!' When he saw them, he said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean.
As they went, they were made clean. What could this mean? Did their skin, all blotched and flaking, heal over, become clear and pure like they'd never seen before? Perhaps it did. Did their spirits, bruised by the taunts of people, bowed by people's rejection of them, suddenly soar, having received the blessing of Jesus? Perhaps they did.
This is one way the lepers were made clean - Jesus gave them the means to get back into society.
Their condition had made them unclean in the eyes of the authorities. And unclean meant that they could not join in with the rest of society: unclean meant they could not work, could not worship, could not live among the rest of the people. Rejected. Very like today's homeless, or refugees, or jobless.
In the same way as homeless people on our streets are identified by the Big Issues they sell, or as refugees in our shops are identified by the food tokens they have to use, or as those without work are identified by signing-on cards, the lepers were identified by their skin condition. But,
When he saw them, he said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean.
That's why Jesus told the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests, because the priests were the ones who had the power to set people free, to let them back into society. Just as housing officers have the power to give homes to the homeless, or employers jobs to the unemployed, or immigration officers legal status to refugees, priests were the ones who could inspect a leper and say, "yes, you are clean now, go free".
It seems, then, that Jesus somehow healed these lepers; but they had to go to the priest to get completely released. It also seems they did that, and once they were released, they didn't look back. The last place they thought about going was back into the bandit country between Samaria and Galilee, to say thanks to the one who had turned their lives around.
All but one. The Samaritan one, the one tainted not just by his skin condition but also by his race. Here is the reason he came back - because unlike the others, this man could not bring himself to go to the priest. His race disbarred him. The Samaritan would find no value in seeing a priest, the priest's words would not absolve him.
The Samaritan was trapped in a strange place halfway between healing and wholeness. Like a refugee given legal status as a British citizen but unable to find work, or someone signed-off their drug addiction but unable to get onto the housing ladder, this one leper found that Jesus' instruction left him in limbo.
Until something dawned on him. Something wonderful and liberating, something which made the trauma fade into the distance. He realised that he didn't need what the priest could offer him. He didn't need society's absolution. He didn't need the legal status or the freedom of the city or the job opportunities which the others would get. All he needed he had been given - Jesus had made him clean.
The only one of the ten to do this, we read: He saw that he had been healed.
Realising that, was why he came back. Realising that, he praised God with a loud voice. Realising that, he broke all the rules of polite society by throwing himself at Jesus' feet and thanking him. Jesus' cleansing was enough for this one man. He saw that he had been healed.
Then Jesus asked, 'Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?'
Jesus, of course, knew the answer to his own question. The answer was to do with people being happy to get a job, or a house, or a bit of status, and forgetting to see God's goodness which lies behind these things.
We can be sure that the nine other lepers were thankful that at last they had the means to get a job, or a house, or a bit of status, but Jesus wanted to point out that in their excitement they had lost sight of God's graceful role in their lives.
Then he said to him, 'Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole.'
In some respects little had changed for the Samaritan. He was still destined to wander the fringes of society, his skin disease healed but his race stopping him joining in the day-to-day activities the other nine would now enjoy.
But what had changed for him was the most important thing: his faith. Which would carry him through to live a whole new life, which God would make sure was as full and rich as could be.
As the letter to Timothy says,
The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him...
You may be wondering what I'm saying. Should we be prepared, then, to settle for second-best? Should we be content to be trapped in a strange place halfway between healing and wholeness, half-healed but still carrying burdens, still feeling excluded or in some way lost? Should that be a message we give out to others who may be struggling in life? Doesn't sound much like good news.
I'm not saying that; I don't think that's what Jesus did with the leper-who-came-back. I think the gospel demands that we're never content with second-best for ourselves or others, the gospel demands that the poor and downtrodden are raised up, and that those in power should give their power away to help lift those in need.
What I am saying is that when he realised that he didn't need what the priest could offer him, society's absolution, that he didn't need the legal status or the freedom of the city or the job opportunities which the others would get, the Samaritan connected to something more powerful and liberating than any of these things.
When he realised that all he needed he had been given - Jesus had made him clean - the Samaritan experienced an inrush of the greatest power there is. The power of faith. His faith made him whole.
Nothing else has the power to make you whole. Nothing that money can buy or laws provide, nothing that status can offer. Only faith.
This is good news for all who live on the edge, for all who society rejects. It is good news for anyone who doesn't feel completely free, who is only part-way there.
And it is good news for us as we prepare to share in the bread and wine of Jesus: as we accept the healing he offers us in that meal, our gratefulness towards him floods us with the greatest power of all, the power of faith. The faith which makes us whole.