Plans to treat early-stage Alzheimer patients with three new drugs have brought hope and joy to thousands of people in the UK this week. The prayers of sufferers and carers, it seems, have been answered. In the US, researchers have identified a microRNA (whatever that is) that may allow for better control of cholesterol in the blood. This is good news for victims of hear attack, strokes and artery disease. The prayers of sufferers and carers, it seems, have been answered.
At any given moment in time, there are probably tens of thousands of people around the globe praying for physical healing from God and, not least, a new medical discovery that can alleviate pain or prolong life or lead to a full recovery. And, of course, people will travel vast distances in the hope of healing. What is known as Medical Tourism is big business…India, Thailand, Singapore, Turkey and Mexico are among the top destinations where people travel for both elective and other surgeries.
250,000 a year go to Singapore alone. The cost of surgery in India can be 10% what it is in the UK. Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina and Brazil are catching up fast…
And who can blame those who go abroad to seek medical help? We would do anything we possibly could, wouldn’t we, to alleviate suffering either for ourselves or for those we love.
Well, in Jesus’ day, there wasn’t quite the opportunity for Medical Tourism on the same scale as today but the story we have heard from Luke’s Gospel contains a similar idea.
As Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, ten lepers came to him for healing. Presumably they had heard tales of miraculous healings. Presumably word had reached their leper colony of the incredible acts of this travelling holy man. Why wouldn’t they want to go and see him for themselves?
But that wouldn’t have been as easy to achieve as we might think. Lepers were segregated into colonies: ostracised from the mainstream of society, punished for their sins, so it was believed, by God striking them down with this deadly disease And there were strict rues and regulations about where they could stand and how they could present themselves in public. For example, in Leviticus 13 it says: “A person who has a dreaded skin disease must wear torn clothes, leave his hair uncombed, cover the lower part of his face, and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ (Quite frankly, that sounds like a lot of teenagers I know…) But in Numbers 5 it says that, “Everyone with a dreaded skin disease…must be sent out, so they will not defile the camp, where God lives amongst his people.” In specifics, it is thought that lepers had to stand at least 50 yards downwind when they were coming anywhere near the clean people of society.
So here we pick up Luke’s story again that “Keeping their distance, [the lepers] called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” And then we get that beautiful biblical phrase that we have thought about before through our sermons together. It says, “Jesus saw them…”
I love that phrase so much…
Jesus saw them…
So many people would have looked at them.
So many people would have judged their appearance.
So many people would have stared and turned away in disgust at what they had seen.
But Jesus saw them which is to say, he looked below their exterior, he looked below their disfigurements and he saw the beautiful person beneath.
Jesus saw them…just as he sees you and he sees me and he said to them “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
That was part of the Jewish law of the day: if a leper was cured, they had to go to the priest and get a certificate stating officially that they were now clean. Only when they had a certificate would they be allowed to go back home.
So the ten lepers set out to see the priest and, to be fair to all ten, there is an act of faith here because, as of yet, none of them had been healed and yet they obeyed Jesus’ words to head off to the priests as if they had been healed. And because of their faith, we are told that, “as they went, they were made clean.”
Well, we cannot imagine the celebrations that must have ensued. They were clean again. The disease was gone. Their separation, their isolation from society was at an end. They could go home and return to their husbands, wives, parents and children. The nightmare was over!
And of course, as a result, that which bonded them together as a unit was now gone and they were free to go their own ways. Perhaps a little bit like army buddies who may have spent months, even years, living together, working together, sleeping together but when they are discharged they go their own ways and resume their separate lives. As united as they had been as lepers, they were probably quite glad to go their separate ways and begin rebuilding their shattered lives.
And so the company of ex-lepers split up and we are left with two questions:
First, what happened to the other nine?
Second, why did the tenth leper go back and say ‘Thank you’?
Let’s think about these two questions:
First of all, what happened to the other nine?
We need to be careful not to read something into this passage that simply isn’t there…
There is no reason to believe that the nine lepers who didn’t go back to Jesus were just rude and ungrateful. It doesn’t say that and, actually, it would be silly to infer that. Of course they would have been grateful! Of course they would have felt indebted to Jesus! He had transformed their lives and restored them to wholeness! And after all, they were following his order to go to the priests…
The truth is that, rather than standing in judgement over these nine and harbouring a thought in our hearts that they were ungrateful, perhaps we need to show them grace and rejoice with them about their healing and what a difference it made to them…
It’s a bit like Christmas morning when you have children. I remember Rebekah desperately longing for a new house and car for Barbie and Ken: I’m not talking about last year, you understand - this was a few years back! And Christmas morning came and she unwrapped her present and it was the house and car she had wanted and she just gave out a scream of delight and immediately started playing with her new toys. She didn’t even stop to say “Thank you” - not because she was an ungrateful child but because her delight was so enormous that she was completely caught up in that moment. And my delight was not in receiving her Thanks but in watching the pleasure she was getting from her new toys.
Well, we cannot underestimate the joy and delight that lepers would have felt at having been healed; their lives would have been transformed and they would have been able to see their children again and be hugged and kissed by their loved ones. So perhaps, in the sheer moment of wonder and delight, they were so caught up in their transformed world that they simply didn’t think of coming back to say “Thank you” to Jesus.
I hope that this is a more charitable reading of the passage rather than inferring an ungrateful spirit on these healed people that simply isn’t there in the text…
The point is this:
There are many people who do not come to Jesus each week. There are many people in our community who do not come to worship God. And it is unlikely that this is through a spirit of ungratefulness! They probably love their lives. They are happy in their relationships. They are truly grateful for all they have. But they may not equate the blessings of their lives with the grace of God who is our Provider.
And so, if we begin from this more charitable perspective, the way we do mission and evangelism changes. We begin from a position of respect, acknowledging the good intent of those who are not in a relationship with Christ.
When Paul was in Athens, he modelled that for us in his sermon. He started with these words: “I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious…That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you.” This is perhaps a good and respectful approach to mission and evangelism. Rather than trying to convince people of what filthy, dirty, rotten sinners they are and that they must repent of their spiritual dis-ease, we can acknowledge that most people are seeking spirituality, that most people are seeking a transcendent experience but through their family life, through their appreciation of the arts through their love of gardening, their enjoyment of Sunday walks or whatever. And like Paul, we can say to them…what you are striving for is good but let us introduce you to the God who stands behind all this…
The truth is that expressing gratitude is often more complex than it first appears.
We do not know where the nine lepers went. We do not, in truth, know where many people in this community stand with God. But Jesus knows where they are. He knows those who are seeking. He knows those who are confused or preoccupied. He knows those who desperately long for something more but are too busy providing for their family or caring for an elderly relative or tending to a sick child.
Jesus knows who they are
And Jesus will seek them out…
But what about the one leper who returned?
Why did he come back? What was in it for him?
We have a very graphic and beautiful description of his return to Jesus. Think about the phrases used about his return:
“He praised God with a loud voice.” Previously, he had been silenced by the shame of his disease.
“He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet.” Previously he had to stand 50 yards downwind.
“He thanked Jesus.” Previously, he would not have had any social contact with him at all.
So why did the leper return to Jesus?
The truth is – we don’t know
Maybe he had grown up under the discipline of his mum telling him to mind his P’s and Q’s! and that he just did it instinctively but somehow, I doubt that…
I think the important thing here is the fact that the ex-leper realised that gratitude is worked out through relationship. If you are truly grateful to someone, you will want to build a relationship with them. And so the ex-leper returns to his healer not just to utter the words “Thank you” but to form a relationship with him. And the nature of that relationship is shown in his body language: praising God, prostrating himself, thanking Jesus. The relationship was one of utter dependence. What the ex-leper desired more than anything else was a deep intimacy with Jesus through which he could his love and respect for God.
And perhaps that is the lesson of the ex-leper to us too; that it is one thing to offer words of thanks to God for what he gives us. But the calling of the Christian life is actually a seeking after intimacy with Jesus; that we are to use the rituals and practices of worship - whether that’s prayer or sharing the Eucharist or singing hymns or whatever… - we should use them not as an end in themselves but as a way towards deeper intimacy with God through which we rejoice in our healing and our dependence on him.
The truth is, of course, that Gratitude is not an action. Gratitude is not something we do. Gratitude is a state of mind; it is a way of being. Just as the leper was transformed physically, emotionally and socially, so Jesus wants to effect a physical, emotional and social transformation in each one of us. As we receive his healing touch on our lives, so we are transformed in every way.
Perhaps today, if we come to Jesus and proclaim with the ten “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we too will receive the healing we need, we too will be transformed and then we too will live out the rest of our lives in a state of Gratitude that will transform how we are in our bodies and our minds and will impact our community too so that God’s name will be truly glorified in us and through us. That is our fervent hope and prayer.
We believe in the healing power of Christ brought to us through the Eucharist we are about to share together. And so we prepare to meet with Jesus now with expectant hearts, longing to hear his words: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”