As all of the healing stories in the gospels, this one packs a punch at more than just one level. This one takes place on the border between Samaria and Galilee. Samaritans did not enjoy a very good relationship with their Galilean neighbors. They were seen as outsiders, seen as “the other”. One of the ten lepers was himself a Samaritan. It’s interestings what kinds of communities “pop up” based on people’s needs. Normally, the Samaritan would not be hanging out with a group of Jews. Now that this group of lepers were all outsiders because of their disease, the playing field for them was leveled. There was nothing that separated them. I suspect hanging out together was a matter of safety for them, perhaps literally a matter of life and death. Because of the leprosy they had, they could not live with their families, could not work where they would be involved with other people, could not go to religious observances; they were in many ways, a community of walking dead. Anything they touched became “unclean” and other people feared catching the disease if they came too close. What they shared in common is that they were outcasts who were at the mercy of the kindness of others. They didn’t have anything to lose.
This group of lepers apparently had heard about Jesus and his ability to heal. Imagine how they must have felt when they saw him enter the village! “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They call out to him, respectful of the distance they must keep. We are told that Jesus SEES them, and SPEAKS to them. Normally, no one would speak to them out of fear. In the gospels, when Jesus SEES someone, it is a very big deal… to be seen by the Son of God, gives one a place to be, brings them from the outer edges of life, into life itself. He tells them to show themselves to the priest, and they will be made well… and not just well, but they will be restored to all aspects of their lives. It will be as if they were brought back from that place of being a living dead person. But here’s the rub… the nine who we can assume are Jews, go about their merry way, probably returning to family, to work, to society. What about the leper who was a Samaritan?
We are told he is the only one who gave thanks for his healing. He went back to Jesus, fell down in a posture of worship and praise, and gave thanks. A Samaritan, who even though he was now healed of his disease, was still an outsider, “the other”. Jesus recognizes him as a foreigner, but Jesus doesn’t tell him to go away, that he can’t be healed. He is healed just as the others are, and his former “community” has left him behind. They have decided to remember that he was an outsider. Jesus doesn’t treat him as an outsider, but as a beloved disciple who is loved by God just as the others are.
Luke’s writing in both the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts concerns itself with many things, but especially the bringing of the gospel to non Jews, to Samaritans and Gentiles, and here we see that played out. Here is an outsider, one who even though he is healed, is still despised by those who believe they are the only chosen ones of God; and it is this outsider who proclaims Jesus’ identity by falling down at his feet in an act of worship and thanksgiving.
Since today is the day when our Blessing of the Animals will occur, I thought maybe I would tell you something about St. Francis. In Assisi and the surrounding towns, people who lived in a leper colony had to wear bells to warn others that they were near. Like the lepers in our gospel this morning, they were outsiders and more than that, they were feared. Francis was no exception to that. Before he gave his life over to gospel living, seeing a leper would fill him with disgust and fear. But one day that changed. As he was riding near Assisi, he encountered a leper. His feelings of fear and disgust were definitely there; yet, something propelled Francis to get off his horse and kiss the leper. In a further act of compassion, Francis gave the leper some money. When he got back on his horse and turned to see the leper, the man was gone. Francis became convinced that the person he served and kissed that day was Jesus himself. Francis and his brothers continued to have a ministry with lepers, often begging alms for them and making sure they had food and clothing.
Francis’ encounter with the leper changed him, especially when he came to see that he was serving Jesus. All ten of the lepers in our story from Luke were changed by their encounter with Jesus… it’s fair to say that everything about them changed. The Samaritan was also changed, perhaps even more so than the others because it wasn’t leprosy that made him an outcast. It was where he was from; he didn’t have the right history to be an insider. Then along comes Jesus, who breaks down every single barrier that keeps the man on the margins.
Beloved, there are so very many people who live on the margins. Some literally crossed borders to come here searching for a safe place for their children; some live south of Marshall Ave. Some don’t have a place to live and beg on our streets all across the country. We all know people with mental illness, or who cannot seem to catch a break… The one thing that COVID taught us, I hope, is that isolation is soul crushing. Many are still trying to recover from all of that. Can we take that lesson, can we remember what it felt like to not be able to come to church or out for coffee? Can we remember the fear that we had even of those whom we loved because we didn’t know their vaccination status, or we were wearing masks when they weren’t? That whole experience was, I think, a “living on the margins” kind of experience for all of us. It gave us a taste of what those who truly live on the margins suffer; certainly the social isolation piece which by itself was threatening enough. Add to that, poverty, possible homelessness, issues of race, mental status, gender… so many things that push people further and further out to the margins, and when we find them, what do we do? We put them in cages. We lock them up rather than give them the mental health services they desperately need. Worst of all perhaps, we pretend they aren’t there. Their presence fills us with fear, possibly contempt, maybe guilt. If we can manage to not “see” them, then we don’t have to do anything.
Beloved, what did Jesus do with the lepers? Jesus saw them. He spoke to them. He allowed them to ask for what they needed rather than assume he knew. He offered them a chance of a new life, and that is especially true of the Samaritan, the outsider. Jesus destroyed all the barriers around that man by including him in the kingdom of God, a place that was previously unknown to him; and he gave thanks. He knew what Jesus did by healing him.
Today it isn’t lepers that scare us, but there are plenty of others whom we push to the margins… out of sight, out of mind? Perhaps we are afraid of losing what we have? Everything we do as disciples should be to glorify God and to help spread the kingdom. That means everything. We are baptized into his life and resurrection, and he gave us his Spirit to nudge us in right directions. Who are the modern day lepers for us? Whom do we fear? Whom do we need to truly “see”?
Jesus has given us everything. We need to be giving him everything.
Pg. 833 Prayer 62
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.