Thanking the Lord for all your blessings is always a good thing to do, but sometimes you need to do more.
There’s six words that every mother has said to her children more than once: “DON’T FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU.” Every time my parents would drop me off at a friend’s house for the night, they would add those enduring words: “DON’T FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU.” Whenever a long lost relative would visit and bring us kids a gift, mom would whisper in our little ears: “DON’T FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU.” And if I tried to sneak away without saying “thank you,” she would stop me in my tracks by asking, “WHAT DO YOU SAY?” And the answer: “THANK YOU.”
We heard it from our parents; we heard it from our teachers; we heard it in Sunday School. We’ve heard it over and over again! Something tells me no one reading this needs another sermon on the importance of saying “thank you.” If you don’t have that down by now, probably nothing I write here will have much effect anyway. Yet, when we hear the Gospel of the ten lepers, and how only one of them returned in gratitude, it starts to sound a lot like good old mom saying once again,
“DON’T FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU.” If that’s the only message in this week’s Gospel, then I may as well just have you read it again and stop there. But as in all the events in the Gospels, there is a whole lot more going on than meets the eye.
Leprosy wasn’t just one disease in Jesus’ Day. It was a category word for any skin disease that was visible and that wasn’t understood, which was practically all of them. How many of you ever had a bad case of acne? How many ever had a patch of psoriasis on their arm, or a bit of poison oak, or the measles, or chicken pox?
In Jesus’ day, unless you could conceal a skin eruption from everyone you met, you might well be considered a Leper and subsequently thrown out of your village, cast away from your friends and those you loved.
Ignorance breeds a kind of fear that causes people to do terrible things to one another.
These ostracized ones — these Lepers, were required by law to keep a good distance from anyone who might be approaching them. When they saw someone walking toward them, while they were still far off, the Leper was required to shout over and over like a clanging bell, “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” Not only were they mis-labeled by the community, but they were forced to mislabel themselves. They were forced to live in hovels and beg for their very existence. It was believed these people were being punished for their sins. They were the dirtiest of the dirty! Because there is safety in numbers and because the human organism was never meant to live in isolation, these despised rejects would gather in groups; gather in “families” if you will.
Our Gospel this morning informs us that there were ten Lepers who made their home on or near the border between Samaria and Galilee. One of these poor unfortunate people was a Samaritan, and probably the rest were Jews. Now normally Jews and Samaritans didn’t congregate together; there was much hatred between them. But isn’t it interesting to note how a common suffering will often break down such barriers? I think it was C.S. Lewis who wrote, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.” Survival is what mattered most! None of the ten bothered to look beyond their pain and their misery to notice racial and religious differences.
Leo Buscaglia was asked once to judge a contest. The purpose of the contest was to find the most compassionate and caring child. Who won the contest? The winner was a four-year-old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”
These Lepers had formed a kind of support group to help them carry on, to help them just to make it through one day at a time. Is it too much to presume that there were times when these lepers did nothing more than help each other to cry?
On one particular occasion, St. Luke tells us, Jesus was teaching in a village near that border where they lived, and these ten shouted at our Lord from far away, always from far away. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Now they could have been begging for a crust of bread or for an extra cloak to keep warm, but I suspect it was more than this. They called Jesus by name. I think they knew of our Lord’s reputation. I think they knew that he could help them as probably nobody else could.
And Jesus spots them and gives them one simple command: “Go show yourselves to the priest.” Jesus knew that they were going to be cured, but the only way that they could find their way back into society was to be declared “officially” clean by the priests of the Temple. Well, none of them were going to question that command. Lepers, you see, only went to see the priests if they believed they were cured, only if somehow they were made clean. Who was going to argue with this healer from Nazareth. None of those Lepers did. They just hoofed it on down the road to the priests at the Temple. They showed remarkable faith, remarkable trust in Jesus. ALL TEN OF THEM SHOWED REMARKABLE TRUST IN JESUS!
Now it’s a very long way from southern Galilee to Jerusalem, and Luke doesn’t tell us how far they went down that road before they made a startling discovery that THEY WERE CURED! No more sores, no more scales, no more bumps on the skin, no more leprosy! Can you see them beginning their dance? Can you see them jumping for joy and praising the God of creation; can you hear them laughing and singing? All except for one, that is. One of them is quiet. One of them is beginning to slow his pace. One of them is beginning to lag behind, and in their joy, the others don’t even realize it’s happening, and then he stops and watches the dust kick up as his friends, his only family for God knows how many years, continue to walk down that road to Jerusalem until they are completely out of sight.
This now very alone leper stands frozen on the road with the penetrating awareness that he cannot go with his companions. He cannot go to the priests in Jerusalem, and for only one reason, he is a Samaritan! No priest would ever see him. No priest would ever declare the others to be clean as long as they were with this foreigner. Signs were posted in the Temple that forbade Samaritans from entering. No, he could not go with them. He will never be able to continue a relationship with those other nine again. Isn’t it interesting how sometimes suffering becomes a common and uniting cause and then when the suffering ends, the reason for uniting ends as well?
During WW2, I doubt it meant very much to most of the soldiers what color you were when you were in the fox holes or in the trenches, but what conditions did the Black soldiers find upon their return home? They found segregation and discrimination. Jesus removed the common cause, and now this single leper was forced to face the startling realization that there is a profound difference between being cured and being made whole!
And then he remembers JESUS. Surely the one who heals will also accept me, and he begins to run back up the road, and he finds Jesus and he kneels before him, and he give thanks. The other nine went to the priests in Jerusalem; this Samaritan went to the Great High Priest whose temple is the road we travel. Jesus turns to everyone present, and the first words from his mouth aren’t words of criticism because nine lepers had bad manners and didn’t say “thank you.” The question Jesus asks first is, “Weren’t there ten lepers, where are the other nine?” Yes, Jesus is pleased that the leper is thankful, but first he points out that there is a separation here that ought not to exist. Why is this man separated from the others? And so Jesus does more for this leper than just cure him. He restores him, by ACCEPTING him. “No Admittance” signs don’t exist for Jesus. “Get up,” Jesus says, “you are now not only cured, but your faith has made you whole.” This Samaritan who had no place to go, who was a foreigner, who didn’t worship and pray like everybody else, found a place of rest in Jesus!
I submit to you that all of us from the youngest child to the oldest adult have stood with the Samaritan Leper on that fateful road! I really think that one of the heartfelt messages in this Gospel is that whenever we are estranged, or isolated, or alone or outcast, when all the signs say “NO ADMITTANCE,” Jesus stands on the “border” between both worlds; he’s there on whatever road you are traveling waiting to pronounce you “CLEAN,” waiting to receive you with the words, “Come unto me all who travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
Roberta Ross says
So much to comment on this week….yes …skin conditions were huge at that time. They still are as I try to figure out what keeps irritating my cat’s neck.
It was a different world back then (as we have learned) and easier to separate people into clean and not so clean:…a certain amount of fact involved!
Rev. William Joseph Adams says
I’m reminded of MLK’s remarks regarding judging people only by the content of their character.
Lonnie Hardage says
Thank you for the historical background. It makes a huge difference to the story, as you point out. I am experiencing those “you, too?” moments with other rejected people and need to find the priest Jesus who makes me whole.
Rev. William Joseph Adams says
Thank you. Keep looking you WILL find him.
Sandra McCann says
I appreciate the historical background and the refreshing new take on this parable.