by Pastor Cherie Dearth
As we are heading towards Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter, we are concluding or sermon series, Outsiders, the Friends of Jesus. We have listened to after dinner conversation between Pharisees and Jesus. We have seen Jesus restores a Kia, Jericho’s chief tax collector, to the community. We have seen the love and gratitude of a woman whom Jesus gave New Life.
This week Jesus does one of his most amazing healing miracles as he is continuing on his last trip to Jerusalem. By now, Jesus has a great reputation as a Healer, but this act surpasses them all. He does it for group of people who are perhaps the most ostracized group at the time, lepers.
Luke 17:11-19 NIV
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.
16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
When we are talking about leprosy in the Bible, we are not necessarily talking about the same disease we call leprosy in modern times, but it could have been among them. It was any kind of contagious skin disease. There was a very specific course of action required in the law. The person determined to have leprosy was put outside of the community. No one was allowed to touch them. They could not be restored unless all of the symptoms have gone away, and it was certified by a priest.
This is actually understandable among this group of people that we meet in The Exodus who have escaped Egypt and are wandering around in the desert. Basically, the people determined to have leprosy were quarantined.
When I was living in Charleston South Carolina, I worked for a home health agency. What are the things we had to do in the terms of our employment was have what is called a PPD test. It tested whether we have been exposed to tuberculosis or not, what you may know is a highly contagious disease. One year, one of the girls in the office had a positive test. This did not mean that she had tuberculosis, but she had been exposed to it, probably.
She had to go to the health department, and she was eventually admitted into the hospital where they put her in a very special room. It is called a negative pressure isolation room. This is where all of the air is sucked out of the room and put through a filter before it mixes with any outside air. My friend was quarantined in this room. It allowed her to be treated. It allowed her to have interaction with other people while they determined whether she actually had tuberculosis or not. It turned out she did not.
There were no negative pressure rooms with disposable incinerated filters when the Hebrews we’re wandering around the desert after they had escaped Egypt.
Imagine that you are a small child, and your mother is a germaphobe. Every time you have a cold or sniffle there are no snuggles or cuddles as one might want when they don’t feel well. Everything you receive has been sprayed with Lysol. You are in isolation and alone.
When you think of this, you begin to get the idea of the kind of isolation that someone who has been diagnosed with leprosy had in Jesus time.
As you might imagine, this malady became associated with severe punishment for sin. Some of the reasons include the well-known people who did receive leprosy as a punishment. During The Exodus, Miriam, Moses’s sister, is punished by being afflicted with Leprosy for 7 days. However she was able to rejoin the community after those seven days. Uzziah king of Judah, despite being considered a very good King, eventually got too in love with his power and tried to usurp the authority of the priests. He went into the temple, we’re only priests were allowed, and he tried to burn incense for the Lord. The priest try to stop him, but they failed. The Lord punished Uzziah with Leprosy. He was put in a separate house outside of Jerusalem, and had leprosy for the rest of his life. His son, Jotham, governed in his place. Those were punishments.
People have suffered all kinds of consequences for sins in the Bible without being ostracized in this way. Nothing in the law suggests that leprosy was a punishment. Its harshness was for the protection of the community.
The harshness was extreme by Jesus time. People considered lepers had to live out in the elements. Structures were burned to the ground to avoid contamination. They were literally outside the community and had no house, so they were vulnerable to predators, both animals and criminals. It was difficult to get food. They couldn’t go to the Town Market. Growing it all by themselves? Not likely. They had to beg, but not too close, so how effective could it be, especially if people thought you were responsible for your own condition. They had to scavenge. They gathered wild Foods. There was no interaction with other people. If anyone did come around, the leper was supposed to warn people by saying “unclean unclean!” Not conducive for regular social conversation to say the least. In fact, if people thought you might be getting too close, they might start throwing rocks at you to keep you away.
Imagine, no physical contact with anyone, ever. No handshakes, no embraces, no hugs, or kisses from loved ones. Due to the nature of the disease, it might even be painful to do so. Of course they were prevented from participating in any worship activities, so therefore they were also separated from God.
Even a tax collector, not the best love people in Jewish Society at the time, as you know, would avoid a leper. It was like being in solitary confinement in prison for the rest of your life with less safety. They were utterly reviled. They were considered the walking dead.
Lots of things could make a person ritually unclean, but they were remedies in the law to restore them to the community. For leprosy there were none. One had to be completely free of any evidence of disease and prove it to a priest before they could be allowed back into the community.
These ten lepers seems to make a common cause. At least they have each other for company. They would have to continue to live this way until their leprosy was gone, and they were certified by a priest.
So Jesus was traveling in the border area between Samaria and Galilee. It was a place where perhaps lepers would congregate because they were not permitted in either community.
Due to the festivals in Jerusalem that Jewish men were required to attend every year, Jesus had been through this area many times throughout his life. As this was his last trip to Jerusalem, he would have been through here multiple times after he began his public ministry. He was known as a teacher, but his fame has spread far and wide as a healer.
Perhaps you remember the story when Jesus was teaching and four people brought their friend on a stretcher, so Jesus would heal him. It was so crowded with people outside the house that they couldn’t bring him in, so they made a hole in the roof, so that they could lower him in front of Jesus. (Luke 5:17 – 26)
These lepers knew Jesus was coming, and they were waiting for him. I can’t blame them for that. He was their only hope. Whom are they appealing to? They call him Jesus, master. He was a well-known healer. He was a person who could help them. They did not see him as Messiah.
And one among them was a Samaritan. He was an outsider among outsiders. Samaritans understanding of God is different from the Jewish understanding. They only accepted the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in other words the Torah or the law. And Moses was the only Prophet that they accepted. However they also believed that Messiah would come.
Jesus confirmed that the Jewish notion of God with the law and the prophets was more complete as he described in his discussion with the woman at the well, also a Samaritan, in the Gospel of John. (4: 21 – 26)
The Jewish Community considered Samaritan’s less pure because from the time of the conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 722 BC, other peoples were resettled into the area and brought in their culture, religious practices, and worship of other gods. This also kept them from exposure to the prophets and other writings that became the fuller Hebrew Bible, what we refer to as the Old Testament.
So, this person with less information about God is able to recognize the person of Jesus, while these Jewish lepers, with all their advantages and knowledge could not see it.
Why is this important to Luke’s original audience, and to us? They were primarily a gentile Church. The introduction to the Gospel of Luke says that Luke is writing to the most excellent Theophilus. They included a wide variety of people: rich and poor, men and women, Gentiles and Jews. But Luke makes particular emphasis of highlighting the knowledge and understanding of people outside the Jewish Community, even during Jesus’s Ministry.
Have you ever thought about it? What if Jesus is family had not settled and Nazareth in Galilee, and Jesus kept his home in Capernaum in Galilee? What if they returned to Bethlehem or lived near Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany? Jesus would not have had the need to travel near these places in and around Samaria, wouldn’t have had nearly the number of opportunities to interact with Samaritans. We would have had far fewer opportunities to see Jesus showing mercy on people from other groups.
So, after Jesus tells these lepers to show themselves to the priest, before they have seen any healing, in faith, they all make their way towards the priests to be certified. They are still full of leprosy. As they go, they are cleansed or healed.
But what is their faith? That this person of Jesus had the ability, for whatever reason, to heal them, like they heard of him healing others? Faith like when I flip a light switch that the power will go on? I believe that with a regular schedule the sun is going to come up in the morning. I believe that sometime soon, it’s going to stop snowing, though that belief is more tenuous. I do believe that God is somehow responsible for all of it in some way as creator of the universe, the one that set up the laws of physics and astronomy. Do I believe that God has a direct, ongoing, participation in these acts in an ongoing daily even minute-by-minute basis, or is it that I believe he set up the cosmos, and it continues to behave the way God designed it?
So regardless of the basis and foundation of the lepers’ faith, Jesus sees them and acts. The healing of the lepers was not something that was naturally occurring that coincidentally happened at this time and place. Then this one, who has seen what has happened, recognizes the presence of God and Jesus.
How do we know this? The Samaritan, and Luke, praise God and Jesus, and by the use of pronouns, which the NIV doesn’t reflect very well, Luke equates God with Jesus. “The Samaritan [here I am taking out a pronoun for clarity] praises God and throws himself at his feet and thanked him.” [Emphasis mine.] What is the only proper noun here? God. So whose feet is the Samaritan throwing himself at? Who is he thanking? God.
Did the other nine do anything wrong by continuing on their way? They did as they were told. They received their healing. They are on their way to be certified by the priests. They will be free to reenter Society. They are clean on the outside, but how are their insides? They got what they wanted, but they missed what was right in front of them.
They saw a healer. They did what so many people do today. I think that Jesus was a great teacher. And of course yes he is. I think Jesus was great about teaching about morals and ethics. Yes he is. I think it’s wonderful how Jesus was able to heal so many people, the ancient style physician. He was so compassionate. Yes he is. If that is what we are limiting Jesus to, we have missed the whole thing. If we do that, we missed with the nine missed. They did not recognize that the kingdom of God had come near. They did not see a visitation of God. Emmanuel, God with us.
All of this happens as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem for the final time during his Earthly Ministry. Next week is Palm Sunday, when we celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Who do the people want to see? A mighty warrior who is going to restore the glory of Israel of Judea. They call him Messiah, but soon the whole thing is going to be turned on its head and all because the people who could know, who should know, cannot see, cannot recognize who is right in front of them. They do not recognize the presence of God, Emmanuel, God with us.
Are we satisfied to be clean on the outside? Concerned about how things look? Or do we want to be cleaned through and through? Do we want to be made whole through the power of God, the power of Jesus?
Because the truth is that we are all lepers. As Isaiah says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags: we are all shriveled up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64: 6)
Paul puts it this way in Romans. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10)
So, we are all ostracized from the community with God because like the lepers who have to shout out the warning we are unclean, unclean!
But when we see Jesus, when we recognize what he has done for us, when we give him the opportunity to touch us to changes to transform us, we can be cleansed, healed, made whole, not just on the outside, but through and through. Then Jesus may tell us what he tells this man at his feet, what he tells the woman we talked about last week, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)