Preached at the 8.30am BCP Communion and 10.00am Parish Eucharist on Sunday October 9th 2022.
OK – let’s think about what we’ve just heard this morning. Ten lepers come to Jesus. All 10 are healed. But only 1 appears be grateful.
Simple story, right? What has the scripture revealed to you afresh this morning – you should be grateful- OK.
Is that it?
Of course it’s not. I’d like us to spend some time this morning reflecting on those 10 lepers – about their life story and where we fit in God’s story this week.
Firstly – the group of 10 lepers. What do we know about them? It’s almost impossible to get a grip on how outcast these people were looking from 2022 – but those born in the first half of the 20th century and before would have understood this miracle and these people’s situation much more profoundly, because it was still happening. The first effective treatment for leprosy wasn’t discovered until the 1940s. People were still cast out. At the first sign of disease you were sent away from your spouse, your children, your parents, whatever your age – cut off from all you loved and all you knew.
If you’d like to know more I recommend the book The Island by Victoria Hislop about the leper colony on Spinalonga. Cut off from the mainland – a colony of sick people living and waiting to die-looking out across the water at the lives and loves that went on without them. The group of 10 lepers.
What else do we know? They came to Jesus looking for healing. Nine Jews and one Samaritan. If you remember from the famous parable these two ethnic groups did not mix at all. Religious differences -different ways of worshipping the same God. But they all came to Jesus asking the impossible.
Now Jesus is a Jewish prophet – those nine Jews perhaps have an expectation. Even if it’s only tiny – even just the size of a mustard seed. They do understand themselves to be God’s chosen people on one level – but they would also horrifically have understood their incurable condition to be a punishment for sin. So perhaps the nine come to Jesus with a little expectation – but believing themselves already to have been punished by God.
And the Samaritan? Does he just tag along with the group to go see their prophet and then as people so often do in the bible find himself responding in the moment to the presence of Jesus? Knowing something in his soul about what is possible here? Sensing God’s moving with and in and through this man?
One thing is certain. In the world view of the time the Samaritan has no entitlement by virtue of his religion. No right to expect anything. But when he is healed he turns back, with a loud voice, praising God. Jesus says “your faith has made you well” – and perhaps his lack of expectation, or of any sense that he deserves, or has earned this gift of healing , is one of the reasons that the Samaritan reacts to God’s grace with such overwhelmed gratitude.
I ask you to think what could draw spontaneous praise of God from your own lips in a public place, regardless of consequence and think about the level of his joy. He turns to Jesus in gratitude. Not because of his race or nationality, duty, obligation or cultural expectation – and we see through him that everyone can turn to Jesus. In the woman at the well and in the man who saves a stranger on the road and here, we see God opening up the possibilities for all people.
But I want us to think about the nine other lepers today too. When we hear Jesus say- “Where are the other nine?” I think we hear accusation don’t we? Ungrateful so-and-sos. Jewish people, asked their Jewish prophet for healing, and he doesn’t see them for dust. Pah.
So now a caution. This is one of the many passages in our new testament and Gospels that have been used in the Christian era to demonise and persecute Jewish people. To say we need to be careful is an understatement. We need to be very careful that we are not contributing to such persecution with sloppy reading of our bible.
So without othering the nine, let’s talk about the fact that the nine did not come back. Perhaps if we just try and answer Jesus’s question directly here “Where are the other nine?”
When they asked for healing Jesus didn’t say ‘You are healed’ and they said ‘thank you’. They asked, and then Jesus actually sent them away. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’ – and they were healed on the way. Jesus sent them. They were doing as they were told by Jesus – being obedient to his instruction. Goodness knows what was in their hearts, but would you dare disobey? As you walk the disease that has blighted your life drops from you. The prophet and healer obviously has God’s power at his command. You’d do as you were told, right? I think I would.
In the Jewish community one could only be classified as well, as clean, as able to mix with the rest of the community, on the priests say so. Jesus has sent them to overcome the last hurdle to their freedom. They cannot go back to the families they have been isolated from until they have been certified as well and clean by the priest. Jesus has opened the door – but to a new beginning, not an ending of the story.
I think there is a whole other sermon in how the nine might have felt. But we have a little time to think about their obedience to God, and also the risk of what they had asked Jesus. You know how you get used to things? How we don’t like change at the best of times. Even when we know change is needed, or necessary or even desirable, sometimes the status quo, even a status quo which is flawed, is the thing we know and are used to – comfortable and hard to move on from.
These lepers have grown accustomed to their isolation. So accustomed that the barriers of race and culture that existed between them back in the well-world have been broken down. They have been united by their suffering and travel together, with the comfort of company, and perhaps safety from attack too. Yet they dare to dream of healing – of scary change.
It might seem a no brainer for them to want to go back to their lives, their communities, their jobs their families. Our gut emotional response is to wish for that for them when we hear of the isolation of leprosy.
And yet……. What if you were sent away from your community 10 years ago and isolated from all you have known? Think now about your life – and what would have changed.
We could use the vicar here as an illustration.
If I was taken away from my life for years, my job would have gone. I would have been replaced. The Bishop would have been hugely caring and competent supporting this community through the loss of a priest to illness.
Because my job was gone- the vicarage would no longer be my home, it would be someone else’s. Because I had been completely cut off I would have no way of knowing where my husband and family were. Perhaps I would have to search for miles -going to places we had lived before, visiting friends who might no longer live where they lived and may no longer recognise me.
Perhaps my husband mourns and waits in vain for me. But this disease has no cure, there’s no way he’s expecting me back. Perhaps with no expectation of healing his mourning is over and he has made his peace with it, picked himself up and got on with his life- met someone else.
My children are 23 and 26. They don’t even live with their dad any more. I have no idea where they are, if they want to see me, if they blame me for my absence from their lives.
This is the reality for the nine – in fact for all ten. Not some sun-kissed image of reunions and perfect happiness. Their healing thrusts them back into reality, and more change than most of us would want to wrestle with in a lifetime. But their desire for healing is the desire to return to the struggle of life. To say that it’s still worth it, with all the heart ache and potential for further rejection – life is still to be grasped and lived and embraced. Our fear of change must not be greater than our love of life.
So they ask Jesus to make them whole.
Let us pray that we may be made whole in bread and wine today, whatever struggles and challenges we have brought here with us today.