Ten Lepers

Luke 17:11-19




11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,

13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.

15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"

19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."


Imagine that you were there that day. You were one of the disciples following Jesus. You know that there is something about Jesus--God seems to be where he is—so you have followed him to learn the way of life.

We are all going to Jerusalem, and we are walking a road that runs along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. Did I say a road? Well, more like a path. There are no paved roads, except an occasional Roman military road.

It was a hot day. Most days in Palestine are warm or hot. The road is beaten to dust by the feet of many travelers and the dust is stirred up by our passing.

After awhile, we are sweating and covered with a layer of dust and grime. We see ahead that the road goes through a small village, but as we come to the village, we hear that cry that strikes terror into the hearts of every thinking person.

"Unclean, unclean, unclean.” Then we see them, standing just off the side of the road, ten of them. Even had they not warned us, we would have known what they were. They were dressed in tatters, rags wrapped around their arms and legs, torn clothing on their bodies, covered with dirt and filth, but that was not the worst of it. The rags and tatters do not cover the ravages of the disease. We can see missing fingers and toes, and faces eaten away to the bone.

Lepers. At the sight of them standing just off the path, staring at us, searching for some glimmer of hope in the depths of their despair, we stopped. None of us wanted to get any closer to these things that had once been human beings. Can you blame us for that?

You know about leprosy, don't you? You do not recover. You do not get better. It works at you for years, slowly rotting your body. And the worst thing is, you can catch it. You get leprosy from Lepers.

That's why the priests insist that everyone who has a skin blemish report to them for an examination. If they have raw patches of flesh, or white bumps or red marks on their skin, or if their hair is discolored, the priest pronounces them unclean, and the person must go into isolation for seven days so no one else is put in danger.

I imagine it is hard for those people, wondering for a week if they have leprosy, wondering if they are ever going to be able to live with their families again. It is hard for them but fair for the rest of us, because that is the only way we have to control this awful affliction.

Most of the time, the person does not have leprosy. They go back to the priest after seven days; their blemish is healed, and they are pronounced clean, and allowed to return to their homes and villages.

But, for others, like the ten we saw that day, the blemishes get steadily worse. Sores appear and get infected and rot. They are banished of course, that is all that we can do.

They are declared forever unclean, forever unable to have normal human contact, unable to touch their children, unable to hug their wives or husbands, unable to share a table, or even to live in the same village with other people. Imagine, if you can, living out the rest of your life in a camp, surrounded by others who are suffering and diseased like you, not being able to see anyone you love except at a distance, not being able to talk to them except by yelling from a distance.

After a while, as the disease gets worse, everyone you know stops coming to see you, no one wants to look at you; no one wants to have anything to do with you; no one, that is, except those who are like you, those whose bodies are as mutilated and defaced and marred as yours.

Imagine too, waiting to see what will happen to you, watching the disease spread, seeing your own flesh rot. Leprosy takes your fingers and toes, then your hands and feet. It destroys your mouth and nose, until in the end you starve to death, or die from some infection, but only after you have lingered and suffered for years.

Imagine waiting, hoping, or trying to hope, that by some miracle—it would have to be a miracle—by some miracle your sores will clear up and that you will be able to go to the priest and hear him say the word “clean” to you, but knowing that is probably not going to happen.

That is why we as disciples walking along the road with Jesus that day would have stopped when we saw them. Any normal person would have felt a pang of fear and drawn back.

We wondered what Jesus would do, because Jesus, in defiance of all common sense, was not afraid of lepers. Before this, we had seen him reach out and touch a leper and say "be clean," and the man was healed. That was an astonishment. Probably the ten lepers we met that day had heard about that, that healing of the other leper. That was why they were there, waiting there for Jesus, hoping against hope. They began to cry out: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

You would have thought that if Jesus was going to heal them he would have done something really dramatic—called down thunder, or waved his hands around, or chanted some weird words—but he did nothing like that. He simply said, "Go and show yourselves to the priests."

The ten lepers must have wondered what Jesus meant by this. They could see that they were not healed, so what would be the point of going to a priest. The priest would just say again,n “unclean.” But there was something about Jesus, there was always something about Jesus, and they believed him. They turned to go, and as they went, as they walked away, it happened, the miracle. You cannot call it anything else. They were healed. When they showed their belief by their actions, they were healed.

This miracle shows the power of Jesus. Without even saying, “Be healed,” he healed them. Sores dried up, limbs were restored, faces healed. That was Jesus.

With every step those lepers took towards a priest, they felt stronger, younger, more energetic, until as they disappeared from our sight, they were completely healed.

That must have been an incredible walk for them. Think of it - after all their suffering and then, all of sudden, through this wonderful Jesus, their loneliness, their pain, their banishment, begins to evaporate. With every step, it became more and apparent that they could once again play with their children, kiss their wives and work with their brothers and relatives in the fields of their old villages. They were rejoicing, singing, crying.

They were so happy, they were healed. They ran toward their new life. But one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned around and came back toward us. He was not longer shuffling and stumbling along as he had been earlier. He was striding rapidly up the hill towards us, and he was laughing and saying over and over again, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. As he got closer, we could see that he was completely cured. His skin, what we could see of it through his tattered rags, was pink and glowing with health. He came right up to us, no more standing off at a distance for him, and he threw himself down before Jesus and kissed the feet of Jesus, and thanked him and thanked him over and over.

We were all moved almost to tears by the man’s wholehearted gratitude, but 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?"

For the first time, we realized that this man was a Samaritan. After all who notices or cares what country a leper comes from, but now it hit us like a bad odor. You know about Samaritans I guess. They don’t like Jews and we don’t like them. They are sort of semi-Jews, heretics, renegades. They have a sort of Bible and a sort of worship, but they never get it quite right. And we, and most Jews, have as little to do with them as possible.

Yet this Samaritan had returned to thank Jesus, and the other nine, all good Jews, had never given a thought to thanking him, had just run away, thinking only of themselves and their good fortune.

After a moment, Jesus seem to forget abut the nine ungrateful ones and he turned back to the man lying at his feet. He reached down and lifted him up, and he said, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." And the man obeyed Jesus, and went his way, still singing and praising God.

We stood there a minute and thought about what Jesus had said. We wondered if Jesus was angry at the other lepers for not coming back and thanking him for giving them their lives back. We wondered if Jesus was trying to tell us something about himself, or about Samaritans.

Ten men had been cured of leprosy, not doubt about that, but somehow, when all was said and done, this one who had come back seemed better off than all the rest.

We imagine as we stand there talking among ourselves, that we begin to realize that there is something special about giving thanks. That is what Jesus was trying to teach us. He was not just showing us that he could do miracles. We already knew that. He was teaching us that gratitude is its own reward.

And we all had to wonder about how we would have behaved if we had been one of the ten lepers that day? Would we have been the one who came back to thank Jesus? Or, would we have been so happy about what we had received that we, like the nine, would think only of ourselves and rush off to the priests, and hurry back to our homes and some kind of normal life.

We asked ourselves and each other if we had ever really thanked God for what we have, or if we had done all our lives what so many do. Had we acted like the nine in that we had simply gone to the priests and the temple at the times prescribed by the law, and made the offerings and said the rote prayers, and then returned to our homes to carry on as before, as if nothing had really happened at all.

We wondered: Were we like the nine lepers who were cleansed? or were we like the one who was not only cleansed, but, was commended by Jesus for the thanksgiving he gave through faith.


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