The Tenth Leper
Gospel Lk 17:11-19
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”
At Sacred Heart Church Deacon Jack gave the homily. His theme was that the Jews of that time and to a lesser extent Catholics and others today put form over spirit. In other words they followed the steps of the rules of their religion rather than their heart. The Jewish religion of the time, he illustrated, had a step one for leper cleansing, a step two, a step three and so forth. It was these steps to which nine of the cleansed lepers fled to.
“Where are the other nine, “asks Jesus? The answer is they were in church or the Temple following the rules and regulations of the Jewish religion. Why should they pay any homage to this rebel Jesus, asks Deacon Jack, who is ripping the Sadducees and Pharisees and priests of the Temple? But in obeying their religion they are more concerned with steps 1, 2, 3 and beyond then in actually giving some thanks, some praise and adoration of the Lord.
And the Leper who returned was a Samaritan. And Deacon Jack reminds us that Jews hated Samaritans. So while the Samaritan was a leper the other nine were able to forgive his foreign, heretical ways as they were all in the same boat. But as soon as they ten were cleansed then the Samaritan once again became an outcast. Once again, says Deacon Jack, this demonstrates the adherence to rules and regulations that may not necessarily be the will of God and most surely violate the spiritual practice of holiness, that is, that relationship with the Creator taking all precedence over any man-made rules of religious adherence.
Bishop Tony Howard of St. Clement gleans from this passage a message of being thankful. But also he signs on to the chapter on this subject from Robert Farrar Capon’s book “The Parables Of Grace.” Here is what Bishop Tony read to us from this book as part of his homily:
The nine, who presumably had no such faith as the Samaritan, were not one bit less healed than he. What difference is Jesus trying to pinpoint between him and them with this terse, if not gruff, reply? Well, I can think of two ways of coming at it, one more or less doctrinal and the other based on the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The doctrinal approach looks at the lepers as an illustration of the resurrection of the dead: just as all the dead (not merely the just, the holy, and the good) are raised by Jesus, so all the lepers (not just the perceptive and thankful) are cleansed. But for the lepers to enjoy, to accept, to celebrate the power of their resurrection from the disease…well, that cannot happen until they see themselves not simply as returned to normal life by some inexplicable circumstance but precisely as lepers cleansed by Jesus – that is, as living out of their death by the gift of someone else’s life. So too with the resurrection of the dead: it is not the return of corpses to their previous living state; it is an eternally new creation arising out of an equally eternal death – just as, if you will, our old, natural existence is a perpetual, moment-by-moment emergence out of an equally perpetual nothing.
Which brings me to the approach based on the Prodigal Son. The nine lepers in this story are like the son when he formulates the first version of his confession to his father. like him – as he sits by the hog trough in the far country – they realize they are dead. But also like him, their idea of resurrection is just a matter of revival, of return to some form of ordinary life. The prodigal makes plans to get himself hired on as a servant; the nine lepers, possibly, propose to go back to the garment district and find work as pressers,
The Samaritan leper, however, is like the prodigal when he makes his confession the second time and leaves off the part about “make me a hired servant.” For just as the prodigal suddenly sees – when his father kisses him before he confesses – that he can only be a dead son who has been raised to a new life, not a hired hand trying to fake out an old-style life of his own, so the Samaritan realizes that it is by his relationship to Jesus, and by that alone, that he now has a new life out of death as a leper. It is not, you see, that either of them is told to forget about the death out of which he has been raised, or to put it behind him, or to “get on with his life.” That was what the nine lepers, and the prodigal in his first self-examination, had in mind – and it is, unfortunately , what far too many Christians think about their risen life in Jesus. But the prodigal’s startlingly new life (Party!, Party!, Party!) is, by the very words of the parable, based squarely and only on his death (“Let us eat and be merry: for this my son was dead and is alive again”). Death, in other words, remains the perpetual reason for the party and the abiding ground of the new creation – for the prodigal, for the Samaritan leper, and for us.
And what a gift that is! It means that contrary to all the cartoons of heaven as a place where we shall sit on clouds wearing bedsheets and flapping irrelevant angel wings – as a place, that is, where none of our real history, and certainly none of the diseases, defeats, derelictions, and deaths of our history can find a home – contrary to all that, everything about us goes home, because everything about us, good or evil, dies in our death and rises by his life. The son’s prodigality goes home, the Smaratan’s leprosy goes home; and so does your lying, my adultery, and Uncle Harry’s embezzling. We never have to leave behind a scrap! Nothing, not even the worst thing we ever did, will ever be anything but a glorious scar.
And that is a gift, because it means we don’t have to deny one smitch of our history. The nine lepers go away with their lives unsaved precisely because their lives as lepers have been put behind them and denied. All those years…just gone – into unsalvageable oblivion, into irretrievable discontinuity: “Who, me? A leper? You must be kidding, buddy. I’m a pants presser.” But the Samaritan goes away with his life saved because, like the prodigal, he has not put his derelict life into forgettery. At Jesus’ feet he sees himself whole: dead and risen, an outcast and accepted, a leper and cleansed. And he sees himself that way because, like the prodigal, he has not hated the light and he has not lived the lie of trying to keep his wretchedness away from the light; rather he has done the truth (John 3:21), and come to the light with the whole sum of his life, so that it might be clearly seen, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, that everything he ever did, good or bad, was done in God.