God Cleanses Ten Lepers

NB: I decided to post this sermon as it is somewhat of a response to the lessons on Bonhoeffer.  A friend challenged me to address the present political situation in a sermon to a peace church. This was the result.

Luke 17: 11-19 —  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 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. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 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?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

This is a great story where every sentence is loaded with meaning. Jesus is on the road to the Jerusalem temple. Like the priest and the Levite, his trip is interrupted by someone in need. In this case, it is ten lepers who cry out, “HAVE MERCY ON US…Lord, have mercy.”

Immediately you think of the Jewish slaves in the Egyptian brickyards threatened with genocide by the powerful Pharaoh. The most fundamental statement about the divine in the Old Testament is “God heard our cries, saw our suffering, and came to lead us out of slavery, even though we did not even remember who he was at the time.”

So too, Jesus hears the cries and sees the pain of the ten lepers who are in many ways the epitome of those who suffer in our world. They experience the worst that humans do to one another. The word leper has come to designate not only a person infected by the bacterial Hansen’s Disease but anyone who is shunned in society.

A leper makes the perfect outcast. He can be easily identified by appearance. The ancient word meant a scaly person, but the disease can also inflict all sorts of skin blotches, runny sores, and extensive disfiguration as it slowly destroys nerves. Besides that, the leper is usually lower class, because the poor often have damaged immune systems caused by malnutrition.

That makes it easy to segregate lepers who are thought to be contagious. In truth, it is extremely difficult to transmit the bacteria but knowing that never kept society from using the belief to justify mistreating people. Separation was the preferred treatment until the 1940s when drugs were developed finally to battle the bacteria. At the worst, before that time, lepers had to wear torn clothing, ring bells, and cry “unclean! unclean!” wherever they went. Think of the Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars until they found the perfect solution in the Auschwitz ovens. During the best times, even the British Empire into the 1950s, separated lepers away from their society, jobs, and families. Husbands and wives, parents and children were torn from one another. Think of American slavery in the 19th century, South African apartheid in the 20th, and United States of American detention camps at the Mexican border in the 21st. Our gospel story reports the 10 lepers kept their distance which at the time meant six feet in ordinary conditions or 120 feet if the wind was blowing.

By now, we realize we are dealing with more than the treatment of a physical ailment. People think lepers are socially and spiritually impure pariahs. You do not heal leprosy; you cleanse those who leer. Throughout most of history, lepers were simply abandoned and left to die.

Jesus hears their cries, sees their sufferings, and speaks. That’s all he does in our story. In another cleansing, Jesus very significantly touches a leper, but here he simply speaks. We are to think of God bringing life to chaos by uttering, “Let there be…”

In this case, Jesus does not say “Be cleansed” but “Show yourselves to the priests.” The Jewish Torah law tried to control the abuses of this prejudicial treatment. Realizing people could maliciously segregate people with all sorts of skin diseases, the priests were given the task of identifying the real thing. They had to certify, as best they could, that a person really had leprosy before they were thrown out of society. That also involved certifying that they were cleansed before they were cleared to return to their communities and families.

In other words, Jesus tells the ten to go through the authorized procedures for returning to the community even though they see no evidence that they are healed. They had to have faith in Jesus’ word. They had to trust his promise. All ten apparently do, because they head for the temple. And the story says “as they went, they were made clean.”

Our short story then ends with one leper, only one, returning loudly praising God and thanking Jesus. He bows with his face on the ground in submission to Jesus. Christ then adds another twist to the story. He notes that this leper is a Samaritan, a foreigner, another kind of outcast abused by prejudice in his society. Shaking his head, Jesus again speaks, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Faith enables even outsiders and outcasts to enjoy the fullness of the beloved community.

This is not the way we usually read miracle stories in our technological society. We tend to quickly pass over them, because we find it hard to believe they really happened. When we do that, we miss the Gospel message. Miracle stories give hope where there is only despair. They promise God hears our cries, sees our suffering, and will rescue us, even those of us who are lepers. Nobody is beyond God’s love, not even those society shuns. The miracles promise God will change what we cannot.

These stories offer a different vision of reality. Our world pictures life as survival of the fittest. Lepers of any sort are losers. They have no worth or dignity and deserve no freedom or support. The world thinks it is wise to prevent lepers from entering our society or to throw them out if they get in. If they are not fit enough to survive, it is only intelligent to let them die or, for that matter, to exterminate them if we have the courage.

We hear that kind of talk all around us nowadays. All sorts of people are belittled and shunned as lepers. Often they are people whose appearance easily gives them away: people of color, the shabby homeless on our streets, those living in the poor section of our towns. Sadly, we have also come to treat as lepers anyone who disagrees with us or keeps us from doing whatever we want.

The miracle stories proclaim a different way of life. They invite us to join God as he prepares the way for a community in which everyone is beloved. We who call ourselves Jesus’ followers are to open our ears to hear the cry of the lepers among us, open our eyes to see their suffering, and open our hearts to rescue them. In thanksgiving for God’s love, we are to reach out and embrace those whom our society shuns.

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  1. Kerry says:



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