Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
This story may be a familiar one to you. It is a relatively straight forward account from Jesus ministry which illustrates two different attitudes to a miraculous healing, and lift up the one leper who returned to offer thanks to Jesus as an exemplar in contrast to the other nine. In a way, this passage is really that simple.
The context, however, is also important and may help us deepen what we glean from this encounter. Lepers were ritually unclean. They were held at a distance, which is why, we can assume, they shouted at Jesus from afar, outside of the village. This is where they were relegated to. Clearly these ten had each other as a sort of make shift community. But they were cut off from their families, from the temple, from being able to do most aspects of normal life.
A scene from the movie The Motorcycle Diaries vividly shows how cut off being a leper can be. This film traces a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara riding a motorcycle with his best friend all around South America so, early 1950s. At one point they end up at a leper colony in Peru. The set up of this colony was divided in half, separated by a river. The doctors, nurses and staff had houses and offices on the north side of the river, which had a road into town. The lepers, meanwhile, stayed on the south side of the river in cabins, surrounded by jungle. The staff would boat across by day to tend them, and then cross back to their lives at night. The lepers would only have contact with one another and with staff during the day. The doctors and nurses and staff, of course, had full access to the range of human interaction and society. Night and Day.
What then are we to make of the Samaritan Leper, the one who came back to give thanks and praise to Jesus? It is interesting that this detail makes it in there. Presumably the other nine lepers were Jews. This leper was doubly ostracized: not only was he a leper as the other nine were; he was also one of those good-for-nothing Samaritans. This details caught my attention and made me curious as to why it would be included here and what it suggests to us about this story’s meaning.
Jesus doesn’t heal the ten lepers immediately upon their request. Instead, he tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This would be the first step to being reintegrated into the community. First the priests would have to examine them and declare that their leprosy was indeed healed, they could indeed proceed with ablution and purification rituals necessary to fully return to the community. On their walk back to the priests is when the healing happened.
For this one Samaritan leper, however, there would still be stigma. Sure, his leprosy was healed. It would not change the hardened hearts of others towards Samaritans. For this Samaritan leper, why go to the priests to be declared healed of leprosy only to still be despised for being Samaritan?
Instead, he turned around and came back to Jesus. He knelt at Jesus’ feet. Touch! How long had it been since he had last touched another person? In Jesus, this Samaritan found someone who not only healed him, but who accepted all of him. There was healing for his ailments and welcome for the aspects of him that made him outcast among the Jewish community of the region.
On the night of his birthday at the leper colony in Peru, Ernesto Che is being celebrated on the staff side of the river. After a time, he decides he wants to celebrate with the lepers on the other side of the river.
His friend Alberto says: “Of course, we’ll celebrate in the morning with them.” “No. Now,” Ernesto replies. And with that he wades into the water to swim across. This is 1952 in rural Peru. There are no street lights or flood lights. No nearby emergency services to send a helicopter if need be.
Hearing the splashing other staff come to the bank of the river with Alberto, trying to discern in the dark where Ernesto is out in the river. For breathless minutes, he swims in the dark. A couple dim lights to guide his course. Finally, bedraggled and out of breath, Ernesto arrives on the other side and is received by the lepers. They pull him out, no concern for touch. Astonished that they should be given such consideration.
Isn’t this, in a way, what Jesus does for us too? In Christ we find ourselves given dignity, family, a sense of belonging. We are set free to live knowing our belovedness and our belonging. Christ, we are reminded, accepts all of us, our whole selves. He does not recoil at our touch, nor scorn any for their culture, or race, or gender.
Jesus responds to the man: your faith has made you well. The other nine also seemed to have faith: they all did call out to Jesus for healing, after all. Jesus is commending here the faith that leads to gratitude. This one leper had not only the faith to call out in need, but then to take time to return and say thank you. Faith to complete the circle in recognizing blessing. Gratitude is an essential part of our faith. In fact, beyond just being a nebulous thing, I think this scripture reminds us that feeling and expressing gratitude are a key spiritual practice.
This one leper claimed faith for himself. Not waiting to see whether he would pass muster with the priests, the gate-keepers of who was in and who was out. He recognized his freedom from their judgment in this new view Jesus gave him of himself. And he expressed that gratitude right back.
In Jesus’ case healing these ten lepers was not just a physical, bodily healing of painful and debilitating illness. He also restored these lepers—restores us–to our full humanity. Jesus gives back our true identities and all that makes us human: family, community, society, intimacy. Let us make gratitude our response, our way of life. Amen.