Earlier this week I was at a meeting with other clergy and the facilitator asked us if we had a favourite gospel. I had never thought about the question in quite that way before, but I realized that I did, and that itâ€™s Luke.Â
Like a kaleidoscope, each of the gospels shifts the same elements to give us a different impression of Jesus and his mission and ministry, but no other gospel is as good at reminding the reader of Jesusâ€™ special concern for the poor, women, children, lepers, beggars, Samaritans. Much of what we call Lukeâ€™s special material is concerned with stories of Jesus and the marginalized and outcast.
This story of the healing of the ten lepers is an example of Lukeâ€™s special material–this story simply would not be known to us if Luke had not included it. And in this case it involves two kinds of marginal figures–lepers and Samaritans. Or, more specifically, a leprous Samaritan.
When we think of leprosy, which we probably rarely do, we think of modern leprosy, which doctors call Hansenâ€™s disease. A white patch appears on the skin and spreads until the suffererâ€™s fingers, noses and toes drop off.Â But this not what the ancients knew as leprosy. Hansenâ€™s disease appears to have been unknown in the ancient world. Skeletons of ancient Israelites show no evidence of the grotesque twisting of the bones that go with modern leprosy until well after New Testament times. And there are no descriptions in the Bible of the rotting limbs and deformed faces that are characteristic of Hansenâ€™s disease. In the ancient world, leprosy was any kind of skin disease that did not begin to heal in a week or two. It might be something highly contagious, like ringworm, but it could also be psoriasis or eczema.Â Even vitiligo, in which a dark skinned person develops white patches, would have been considered leprosy until the white patches covered the entire body, at which point the person would once again be seen as clean.
While you were leprous, you could not live with family or friends, and had no part in the life of the community. You had to live on the margins of the human world, permitted only the company of others like yourself–and alone if needs be. And you had to call out â€œUnclean, unclean!â€ to warn others to keep their distance.
For leprosy marked its victims as both spiritually and physically unclean. Under Jewish law, only if you could present yourself to a priest with unblemished skin could you be restored to family and friends, and to a right relationship with God.
No wonder, then, that the ten lepers pleaded with Jesus to be healed!
Notice that Luke does not tell us exactly what happened. Jesus does not touch the lepers, and seemingly they were not instantly cured.Â Instead, they appear to have been told to go to the priests to present themselves as clean and although nothing seemed to have changed, they trusted enough to go obediently off to do so. And as they trotted off, they found that they had indeed been made clean.
We can well imagine the gladness that gave wings to their feet as they hurried off. At last they could return to normal lives, to their families, to worship in the Temple.
But one, a Samaritan, turned back to give thanks, as extravagantly as possible. He shouted praises to God, threw himself at Jesusâ€™ feet and to thanked him with his whole heart.
Jesus looks at him and then asks, very dryly â€œThe other nine–where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?â€
And then Jesus says something a little surprising: â€œGet up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.â€
â€œYour faith has made you wellâ€¦â€ But wait–isnâ€™t the Samaritan already well?
Well, yes. He was cured of leprosy. But the word Jesus uses here can be translated in one of two ways: as â€œwellâ€ or as â€œsaved.â€
This is a cure beyond the physical healing, even beyond restoration to family, friends and community. This is a restoration to a right relationship with God by one who was seen as, to all purposes, outside that possibility. For the other 9 lepers were, apparently, Jews. This last is a Samaritanâ€”who is, for a good Jew, at best, a heretic and at worse a follower of a false religion. You could not go much lower on the social scale in Jesusâ€™ world than to be a Samaritan with leprosy.
And even if he is no longer a leper, as a Samaritan, he is still the despised one who lives on the margins.
And yet he is not only healed, but saved.
Simply because he came back to give thanks.
But note thatÂ this is not about sending a polite thank you note. This is about being passionately grateful to God. Clearly it is the offering of thanksgiving with a heart fully and joyfully open towards God that allows God to work in and through us, and to heal and strengthen and preserve us. To, in short, save us.
All ten lepers had been afflicted with a condition, that, in their time and place, made them outcasts because they were seen as spiritually and physically unclean. Nine of them settled for going back to their old life and old ways, physically healed. The tenth was healed both physically and spirituallyâ€”his inner and his outer life were made one. He became whole.
Luke wants us to understand that salvation is not a matter of who we are, or how the world sees and judges us. He was always very concerned that those who might feel despised or forgotten or of no worth understand that they are of infinite worth to God. And he wants each of us, as well, to recognize all the good things, large and small, Â that come into our lives through the hand of God.
We are invited to offer in response what we call in the Eucharist the â€œsacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.â€ And thereby to become whole and joy-filled persons.