Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus heals 10 lepers. One comes back to thank him. Jesus asks, “Where are the others?” But that question remains unanswered in our text. When I was in college I read a short story by an Episcopal priest named Martin Bell in which he imagined where the 9 other lepers went after being healed by Jesus. I’ve decided to borrow his idea and ponder where the others might be.
The first, I suspect, is hiding. He couldn’t understand what was happening to him or to the others, and he was afraid. So he ran and hid.
The second was offended because she was not asked to do something difficult before she was healed. Much like Namaan in our first reading, she expected to be assigned years of fasting, prayer, sacrifice, and righteous living before she could be healed. Her motto was, “You get what you pay for,” and she had not spent a thing. It was all too easy, and so she walked away, offended by Jesus.
The third leper realized too late that he didn’t really want to be cleansed. He did not know what to do or how to live, or even who he WAS, without his illness. He had pleaded to be healed, but now that he was, he felt he’d lost his identity.
The fourth leper…well, the fourth leper’s reason for not returning is so simple it’s almost difficult to say. He forgot. That’s all. In his excitement and enthusiasm and joy he just forgot to return thanks.
The fifth leper was unable to say thank you to anybody for anything. Something happens to a person who goes through life being rejected and shunned, who has to beg for everything all the time, and then is expected to be grateful for other people’s pity, for a few coins tossed or canned goods offered. Something happens deep inside to a person who is always forced to show gratitude. So this leper was unable to say thank you, even to Jesus.
The sixth leper was a mother who had been separated from her family for years because of her illness. And now she was free to return home to her children and her husband. She didn’t come back to thank Jesus because she was running toward home, the way any captive creature would when released from its prison.
The seventh leper just didn’t believe Jesus had anything to do with his healing. Certainly a healing had occurred, but he didn’t believe in miracles or magic. He was certain there was a logical, scientific reason for what had happened to him, and Jesus was not it, so he saw no reason to go back and thank Jesus.
The eighth leper didn’t return to Jesus precisely because she DID believe that Jesus had cleansed her. She was sure that the Messiah had arrived and the Kingdom of God was at hand. She had seen it with her own eyes. Who had time to go back and give thanks when there was so much to share with others? So she immediately went and began to proclaim far and wide the good news that God’s Kingdom had come near.
The ninth leper, well, it’s impossible to say why he didn’t give thanks. He showed himself to the priest; his leprosy was cured; and he did not go back. Maybe you understand his reasons better than I do.
There were 10 lepers who were healed. One returned to give thanks.
What is the point of this story? That it is good to give thanks when we receive a blessing? That it is understandable when we don’t? Certainly God does not bless people just so that they will turn around and give thanks. God does not require our gratitude. God doesn’t demand a favorable response in order to bless us. Only one leper gave thanks, but Jesus healed all ten. We don’t learn until after he returns that he is a Samaritan, an outsider.
Is this story meant to shame us into giving thanks for what Jesus has done in our lives? I mean, even the outcast knows enough to say thank you. What’s wrong with us? No. Jesus is always about grace and never about shame. It’s more likely that we are invited to ponder this story so that we will think about 10 lives that were changed.
Or maybe that this story is intended to remind us to be cautious about judging other people’s behavior. There is always a story behind why people do what they do. And it is much easier to condemn a person’s actions than to investigate why someone would do what they did. Maybe the intention is to make us wonder what we might do if we were to encounter Jesus on the way and be healed by him. Would we go into hiding from fear? Refuse to believe? Get offended by cheap grace? Be so happy we’d forget to say thanks? Find we are lost without our illness? Feel unable to say thank you? Immediately publish the good news?…God knows what might happen!
That’s the real point of the story, isn’t it? God does know. God knows what ails each one us and longs to heal us. God longs to heal those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. God longs to free each of us from whatever holds us captive, from whatever alienates us from other people and our own truest selves. Jesus’ way always takes him into the paths of lepers. It always leads him to reach out to people who need his touch, who are lost without him. Jesus’ way always puts him among those who are unseen or unloved by others. Jesus’ way is to see, really see, who we are and what we need, to meet us in on our way, and to heal us, no matter what we do or don’t do before or after such an encounter.
All 10 lepers in this story were healed. But only one was saved, made whole—which begs the question, what does it mean to be saved, not some day in the sweet by and by, but here and now? What did it mean for this Samaritan leper in Luke’s story? Jesus brings him back into community, and he is saved because he sees that he can belong, live actively as a member of a community again. Not just any community, but the community of the Kingdom of God — where the ignored are favored. Where the disdained are redeemed.
This is our story too. We come here to this sanctuary to approach Jesus, to be healed. Here we are surrounded by others who have known real pain, real doubts, real fears. Here we connect with insiders and outsiders, servants and bigwigs, young and old, faithful and frightened. And what happens here? Jesus come to meet us. He heals us, and gives us over into one another’s care. There is no contract. No “I’ll do this, but then you’ve got to do that.” Just healing.
And as then, as he said to the one Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks, Jesus says to us, “Get up and go your way.” Or as we frequently hear it, “Go in peace; serve the Lord.” Like that Samaritan, we, too, will go on our way—healed. We have been renewed. We have been reconnected to God and to one another. This is the rhythm of our life: come to Jesus, be healed, return again to say thanks, go on our way. Repeat.
~Pastor Susan Schneider