By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 13, 2019
Luke 17:11–19 (ESV)
11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
I find the narratives about leprosy very interesting in scripture. Today we do not hear a great deal about this disease, which is odd since it is something spoken of often in scripture. The disease is a bacterial infection that damages the nerves causing numbness in the affected parts of the body. The most common symptom seen is pale or pink patches on the skin. As the disease progresses and the numb areas increase in size and scope other infections often enter the area and because the individual cannot feel pain in the area the infections often become worse and cause additional damage. When we think of leprosy, we often have the idea that the disease causes deformities and the loss of fingers and other parts, basically the image of a zombie. These stereotypical symptoms are not actually caused by leprosy but are the results of secondary infections that took hold because of the lack of feeling in those areas. I do not want to make light of the disease; it is very serious and even today they do not know much about it. But leprosy does not have the same terror that it once had. It is a bacterial infection which means today we can cure the disease. What was once a death sentence now can be managed although much of the damage it causes remains.
While I was reading about this disease, I did find out some very interesting facts. In the 1980’s there were approximately 5.2 million cases of this disease, at the end of 2016 this was reduced to 173,000 cases globally. What is more interesting is that in 2016 there were 216,000 new leprosy cases, across fourteen countries, and over half of those cases were in India, of those new cases 43,000 were cured that same year. And over the past twenty years over 16 million people have been cured of this disease that was once considered a death sentence, and 200 cures have been here in the United States.
Even though we can now cure this disease, it is still shrouded in fear and disgust. This is largely because it most often occurs in impoverished areas. Those that live in extreme poverty have the greatest risk, mainly because of high population density and malnutrition. Those in extreme poverty are at greater risk and they are also more likely to succumb to the disease because they have less access to proper treatment. The lack of means does not only increase the risk of this disease but most diseases and is one of the reasons many people avoid contact with poverty-stricken groups and is often a leading factor used to limit immigration because we fear illness.
The thing about these fears is that they are largely unfounded in fact. Yes, there are epidemics that occur, but most of these can be limited with proper hygiene. And most epidemics today are virial not bacterial in nature. Which brings us back to leprosy, 95% of those exposed to the disease will not contract it, which means even though it can be spread through close contact between people it is hard to contract. And although they need to do greater research in the ways that leprosy is spread, they are concluding that it is spread through upper respiratory systems and not through contact with skin. And once treatment is started a person is no longer a threat after 72 hours. This is amazing.
But what is more amazing is what we find in scripture. Those that were found to have this skin disease were quarantined outside of the community. This quarantine limited the contact that those who had the infection had with others. This limits the spread of the disease, but what I found most interesting was how those infected were supposed to act when they were approached by others. According to Torah, they were required to warn approaching individuals, and to warn them they were required to cover their upper lip and yell “unclean”. So often we focus on the quarantine and fail to see the other aspects mentioned in the law but requiring them to cover their upper lip means they are limiting the potential of the spread of the disease through the upper respiratory system. I find this fascinating, because the law tells us how the disease is spread.
Jesus is walking toward Judea from Galilee, and on the road, they come across ten individuals with leprosy. These individuals make the proper announcement while they are at a distance, crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” These individuals know who Jesus is, they had heard stories of the many miraculous deeds performed by Jesus and they believe that he can cleanse them.
I want to pause for a moment here so we can reflect on this for a moment. These ten individuals had a problem. They came to a point where they realized that nothing, they could do could change their situation and they needed mercy. They lived in a time where many believed that illness was a curse brought upon them by God’s displeasure. These individuals were cast out of the community, rejected and unseen. They had no physical contact, no encouragement, and the only interaction they experienced with others was often highlighted in fear. Even their families rejected them. These people were literally living lives without hope.
But why were people afflicted with this disease so feared? This disease was not pretty. Because they could not feel pain, they would often injure themselves without knowing it. They would lose mobility, and infections would cause ulcers as the body attempted to heal the individuals would become scarred and grotesque. Some say that people were afraid to look at these individuals because they were a visual and physical reminder of the wages of sin. They were the living dead. And it is often the colonies of these afflicted ones that became the image of hell, because they were cast out of the communities, on the outside. It was in these areas where the community would cast out their garbage and as the garbage would pile up fires would be set to it, and it would burn seemingly forever. These individuals were living in hell and were without hope. Yet, when they saw Jesus approach, they took a chance.
They did not simply yell, “unclean.” I am sure they probably began by stating this, because the travelers knew they were lepers. But they did not simply leave it there. They cried out to Jesus to have mercy on them. It is common for outcast to make requests for mercy, because they live on the generosity of others, but most scholars believe that since they addressed Jesus by name, they were not simply asking for alms but were requesting that Jesus make them clean.
And Jesus saw them. We all have struggles at times. Amid those struggles we often feel alone and unseen. Sometimes we almost hide from those around us because we do not want others to know that we are struggling. When we are caught in this loop of despair we withdraw and wither, we become self-absorbed and wonder if there will ever be a time where we will be happy again. While we struggle alone someone sees us, they make eye contact, and at that moment we are seen. We are left in our hopelessness until that moment, the moment someone else looks at our eyes a door opens, and we can begin to share. If you have even taken the time to speak to those that are homeless, one of the greatest struggles they have is that they feel unseen. That perception of invisibility is tough to deal with, and they begin to feel as if they are less than human. And those of us that happen to notice them standing with their sign struggle too, we do not like looking at them, we avoid eye contact because once we look at them, we have a choice to make.
These ten individuals are as isolated as one can be. They are living through hell. And Jesus sees them. He opens a door of communication, and they are given the opportunity to interact not as the afflicted but as human beings. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” See us in our struggles and offer us hope.
Jesus sees them and responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
When someone is afflicted with this skin disease, they are removed from society and isolated. They are rejected and cannot be accepted back into the community again because they are unclean and contagious. They must remain outside the community until their affliction passes. They can only be accepted back into the community if the priest authorizes it. And if they happen to be freed from their affliction, they are to offer sacrifices to God. While they look at Jesus, they are still afflicted with their disease. They are still ill, even while they cry out to God until they turn in obedience.
They must listen to the word of Jesus and respond before the healing will take place. It is this cooperation between God and humanity, this relationship between them that fulfills the word. They had to turn and begin to walk toward the priest, because only a priest could usher them back into society. Often in our struggles we cry out to God, and we do nothing else. Are we listening for a reply? And when we sense a response do, we respond? Often, we cry out to God and ask for assistance in our struggles, but we fail to act.
When I first moved to Kansas City, I was a single father, and to be honest I was struggling. I had it in my head that I was damaged. I looked at my coworkers and I listened as they spoke about their girlfriends and wives and I sunk. I prayed a great deal. I did not want to live think I was too damaged for someone to love, yet I did nothing. I remember writing an email to a friend from my trip to Ukraine, we both were single and not happy about it. I had just started attending Willow Creek at that time and I was just starting to journey back to Christ and was praying about the seeming hopelessness of my life. What good Christian girl would want me I thought? And finally, after writing that email to a friend, I sensed something. A thought came to my head, “How can you date someone if you never ask someone?” So, I struggled with that for nearly a month. And finally, I had to answer that question, so I called someone from a family I really liked in church, and that someone said yes.
The healing begins when we start walking in obedience. The ten lepers listened to the voice of Jesus and they began walking toward the priest. They began walking away from that place as lepers, and somewhere along the path something happened. One noticed that he was cleansed, and he began to praise God, and he returned to Jesus. We are not told what happened to the rest of the men, we are told they were healed but nothing more. Did they notice they were healed? Did they go to the priests and start the process to be reintegrated into society? Or did they go back to the colony and return to the isolated life they knew before? We do not know. All we know is one recognized what happened. Only one.
This one, left the others and praised God loudly. He ran back to Jesus and he fell on his face before him. Imagine that scene. This man just moments before would be required to stand at a distance, yelling unclean while coving his upper lip and now he is bowed face to the ground at Jesus feet thanking him. And what is even more interesting this man was a Samaritan.
Jesus asks the man where the others are, he asks his companions where the others are. He asks if only a foreigner saw it fit to praise God for what happened? I find those questions interesting. This man even when cleansed from his afflictions is still an outsider, he is still unacceptable in the mainstream culture. Yet he is the only one that recognized the truth of what really happened.
Do we see God working? In our struggles are we aware that God is listening? Do we realize when He has answered? Or do we expect it because we are part of the church and that is what God is supposed to do? One of the most unsettling questions that is ever asked by those that oppose God is, “why do bad things happen to good people?” To be honest, I ask that question and I really do not know the answer. But I think it is because we are asking the wrong question. The real question is why do good things happen?
We get these ideas in our head that we are all good people, and for the most part we are. But Jesus asked a teacher of the law once, why do you call me good when only God is good? We all miss the mark. We all sin I know that we do not like to think of ourselves like that, but it is the reality. We all do things that interfere with our relationship with God, and we all cast wedges into our relationships with others. We believe we should be blessed because we are sitting here listening to a sermon on a Sunday, but do we realize that God is merciful and gracious. Every good thing we have is a blessing, and every bad thing that has happened is what we deserve, yet God is usually merciful. The other nine, went about their lives because they thought it was due them because they were children of Israel, but the outsider recognized that he was cleansed because of God’s great mercy.
Everything we have. Every skill we possess, every cent we obtain, every breath we take is God’s grace and mercy. We have some of those blessing because we were obedient, and some of those blessing we have because we happen to have been born in the right place at the right time. It is all a gift from God. Do we see it?
As I considered this passage, I recognized that often I live in a state of spiritual leprosy. I am often numb to what is going on and absorbed in my own struggles. I am not always thankful for the grace and mercy that I have been shown. And when I do see God working, I do not always express the praise I should. But I also realized that sometimes there are people around me that are struggling too. Do they know I see them? And do I show them the hope I have in God? Do I loudly proclaim the praises of God for his grace or do I just go on with my life as if I deserved it? Ten lepers were healed that day, and only one outsider was able to really see Jesus, and that faith saved him and made him well. It is when we fully look to Christ that we will be made well and find peace.
As we enter this time of holy expectancy let us consider the one and the nine. Let us consider our blessings and our struggles. And let us pray for mercy and praise for the blessings.