This story of the healing of the ten lepers and the one who says thank you to Jesus is so well known that we can miss the genius of the beautifully told story and the many gems within the familiar. (RCL Luke 17:11-19)
Maybe as a child you will have learnt this story as a lesson in saying thank you. Or as another story demonstrating Jesus’ miraculous healing power. And the story certainly points to both these things. And there is so much more happening.
Maybe a few background details to set the scene will help. Firstly what is referred to as leprosy in the bible is really a collection of skin infections, not just the disease we now know as leprosy (or Hansen’s disease). Its impact on the individual varied physically depending on which of the diseases it actually was. But socially the impact was fairly devastating for all, as they were declared unclean. This meant that the person was not only ritually unclean and unable to take part in religious ceremonies – therefore not a whole member of the community – but they were unable to take part in most economic, family, and normal social activities of the day. They were therefore very vulnerable and often not able to live with family or work at their usual occupation to make a living. Lepers were to keep themselves at a distance from others, because they were unclean. Which of course made begging or seeking help rather difficult. We note that the lepers called out to Jesus from a distance.
And if and when they thought they were cured they were to show themselves to the priest so that they could be declared clean again and allowed to join society once more. An offering was usually associated with this service. Hence it is normal and proper that Jesus directs the ten lepers to the priests.
And one more detail – the one who said thank you was a Samaritan – a member of a society not thought well of in part because of the ongoing dispute about which Temple lay at the heart of worship and community. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan and the surprise that it was a despised person who knew how to care for his neighbour. And indeed Naaman, commander of the army (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15), is a foreigner as well, so a bit of a theme happening here.
So now it is more than just a story about saying thank you. It is a story which demonstrates Jesus’ great concern for those who were on the outer edges of society, for those who were unimportant and unclean in the eyes of the respectable. It is a story about being healed and being returned to full membership of society, of human dignity restored. It is a story about God, through Jesus, reaching out to those in desperate need in compassion and mercy.
It is also a story about the journey, the quest, that we must often go on in order to find healing and salvation in its broadest deepest sense of being taken from danger to safety, to be rescued, to be made well and whole. For aren’t so many of us like Naaman and having asked for healing we are then scathing about what is offered us – “well at least for me I would have thought that he might come out and greet me but instead I am told to dip myself in the river seven times. Surely for a warrior like me, some one important, I might have been given a mighty task worthy of my ability so that I could earn my healing!”
And yes it is a story about saying thank you, about recognising the healing that has come to us and being grateful. How often are the answers to our prayers too small and modest to gain our attention let alone our thanks and praise? And the twist in the tail of the tale is that once again it is the unlikely character – the Samaritan – that role models true gratitude and appropriate behaviour. So often lessons of humility and gratitude are closely related. How often is it that those we think of as lesser than us are the ones who can teach us?
So what do we take out of this for us and for our faith community? Firstly it is a powerful reminder that the focus of Jesus’ ministry of healing – physically and spiritually – was often among those who were regarded as marginal and unimportant. This story is a compassionate reminder that when we feel that we or those we love are not valued by society that we are seen and responded to by Jesus. It is also a very clear reprimand to those faith communities who see their mission as separating the clean and unclean and excluding the unclean from the very community Jesus came to establish!
Secondly it seems to me to be a story of healing as a journey, a holy quest that requires faith in action by us. Whether we are strong and famous like Naaman or unnamed like the ten lepers we at times find ourselves vulnerable and need to seek out cleansing and cure. Our journey will inevitably lead us to seeking the mercy and restorative power of God. In some healing stories Jesus does all the apparent work but in this and some others stories the one seeking healing is called upon to follow instructions and to actively take part. Naaman is asked to do a strange thing that has overtones of ritual cleansing. The ten lepers are asked to go to the priest to show themselves. This was the proper thing to do in order to be declared healed. But the ten lepers had to commence that journey before they were healed and it was only while they were on the way that they could see the healing. We are often called to be active participants in our own healing process whether that be conventional medicine or change of diet and exercise or participation in a spiritual discipline or all of the above.
However I need to note that while I believe that we are called upon to be active participants in our own healing that does not mean that if we are not healed in the ways that we want to be – such as physical cure of a disease – that it is necessarily because our faith is too small. This cruel judgement is all too often made in church circles and I suspect is often to save the faith of those who are not the ones seeking healing but are anxious onlookers?! There is no easy answer as to why some requests seem answered and others not in any obvious way. If faith is about trust and relationship then we are to ask for what we want with courage and confidence that our relationship with the divine will deepen and grow regardless of the physical outcome. It calls us to live and worship with our hearts dangerously open.
Jesus responds to the Samaritan man (who having found that he was healed rushed back and fell on his face at the feet of Jesus in true and deep gratitude and recognition that Jesus was the human expression of God) that it was his faith that had saved him/made him well. Faith (pistos) or confidence, trust, belief was the state of heart and mind that led to being saved (sozo) or rescued, brought to safety, preserved, made well. It is the state of our heart and mind; a life lived with our hearts wide open to God and to all of God’s precious ones, that saves us. Doctrinal beliefs and understandings are interesting (very to some of us) but it is the relationship of our heart to the great heart at the centre of the universe that saves, that makes us well, and therefore true healing and restoration may be physical repair or a soul returning to source through the gate of death or suffering.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come heal us so that our hearts open to you and all your precious ones until we are one with you.