It’s the ultimate symbol of the outsider: leper. Wherever there are people, there seem to be lepers. They’re the ones we like to keep at a distance. Those who are beneath us. The people we make unkind jokes about. We tend to treat them as if they don’t have feelings. Instead of referring to them by name, we label them, often with words that are demeaning and hateful. Who are the lepers in our world today?
When we call them lepers, of course, we don’t mean that literally. But we treat them much the way lepers were treated in the Bible. The physical disease was a small part of the pain a leper had to deal with. The real suffering was social -- being cut off from community.
Sometimes when I use my GPS and I end up off the beaten path, it shows my little car wandering around in a blank space where there are no roads. That’s the kind of place where Jesus encounters ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), and it’s exactly the place where you would expect them to be. They had to keep their distance from the general population because people were afraid that if they came in contact with a leper, they might become unclean, too.
According to Leviticus, lepers were supposed to cover their upper lip and cry “unclean, unclean” as a way to warn people to keep their distance. But these lepers in the story don’t do that. Instead, they seem to know that Jesus could help them because they call out to Jesus, “have mercy upon us…”
So Jesus, knowing what the Law demands, tells the 10 lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. Once they were declared clean, they could be rejoined with their families and regain the lives they lost when they became lepers.
They hadn’t yet been healed, but they did as Jesus said. They set out to find a priest. And while they’re on their way, they discover they have been made clean. Every one of them. I would imagine that when they realized what had happened, they weren’t walking to see the priest any longer. Now they were running!
All except one. He didn’t follow orders. When he saw that he had been healed, he didn’t run to the priest, he ran back to Jesus. Did that make him a better person than the other lepers who had been healed? I don’t think so. After all, the other nine were simply doing what Jesus told them to do; they were following the Jewish law.
And there’s the rub. They were following the Jewish law because they were Jews. But this 10th leper wasn’t a Jew. He was an outsider. Even if he had gone to show himself to a priest, he wouldn’t have been declared clean. He still would have been excluded from the community. Because he was a two-time loser. A leper, yes, and also a Samaritan.
Jews looked down on Samaritans. They were racially mixed, with Jewish and pagan ancestors. Although they worshipped Yahweh, their religious practice deviated from Judaism on a number of points and they were considered religious perverts, unclean, and Jews wouldn’t come near them.
Interestingly, in Jewish culture, between being a Samaritan and being a leper, being a leper was the worse curse. The 10th leper had been included in the community with the other nine. It didn’t matter that he was a Samaritan and they were Jews; they were all lepers, and they were all in it together. But once they were healed, the old distinction of Jew vs. Samaritan became important again. You may be able to think of times when you have also witnessed the same dynamic. In a time of trial, people come together who ordinarily wouldn’t have a thing to do with one another, and they form community. But then, once the trial passes, the walls that divide them quickly go up again.
Now, it may be that the Samaritan, who didn’t have any reason to show himself to a priest who only would have rejected him… it may be that the Samaritan returned to Jesus because he didn’t have any place else to go. It’s possible. But then, he did, no doubt, have a home to return to, and he wouldn’t have wanted to waste any time getting back there. He didn’t need to have a priest tell him what he already knew, he had been healed. He had his life back.
But before he set off for his homecoming, he had something else he had to do. He felt compelled to return to the one who had healed him and express his gratitude. Barbara Brown Taylor refers to the 10th leper as the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions. She contrasts the ones who did their duty by following the law with a rule-breaking, risk-taking outsider. She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love."
This reminds me of the story where Jesus is having dinner with some of the good upstanding men of the synagogue and a wild woman enters with a jar of expensive perfume, which she proceeds to pour all over Jesus feet. Of course, the men are appalled at her behavior. And Jesus explains to them that the woman is so over-the-top grateful because she realizes she has been forgiven for so much.” He’s suggesting that there’s a correlation between how grateful a person is and how much they actually have to be grateful for.
The Samaritan returns to Jesus because he recognizes how much he has received. Perhaps he has a greater awareness of how blest he was to be healed because he was twice cursed. Yes, he was healed, just like all the others, but he receives more. When Jesus finally sends him on his way, he says that the man’s faith has not only made him physically well, but also whole. There is a second blessing that comes from recognizing the original blessing and giving thanks. It’s the blessing of wholeness and salvation.
That’s how thanksgiving works. First we’re able to experience a blessing from God. And then, we’re able to recognize that blessing, and give expression to it. When the 10th leper saw that he was more than a Samaritan, or a leper, but a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful, it sent him back to give thanks. And that’s what the other nine missed. It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t recognize their healing as a blessing, so they missed out on the opportunity to be made whole.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a leper? Have you ever carried some physical or spiritual wound that has damaged you and alienated you from others? Have you ever been seen, healed, and welcomed home? Do you respond by turning around and giving thanks to the source of your healing, or do you continue on your way, oblivious to the one who has healed you?
The act of worship gives us the opportunity to be twice blessed. I think about how many of us at tend to take our blessings for granted as we neglect the opportunity to gather weekly to offer praise and thanksgiving to God -- the opportunity to receive a second blessing. How many of us wake up on a Sunday and decide to spend the morning in bed, or on the golf course, or working in the yard? And then I think about one of our church members at Holy Trinity, Larry Bollinger, who has been in the Mecklenburg County jail for a year and a half now. As you might imagine, he’d give anything to be with us for worship. Our faith community is something that he treasures deeply. In fact, every Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., he gets out his church bulletin and worships with us from his jail cell.
I’ve noticed at Holy Trinity that God seems to lead people to us who have been hurt by a church in their past. They have felt excluded or unloved or judged. Our pews are filled with people who have felt leper-ized by the world and they come to be healed.
Although I began this post by observing that wherever there are people, there are lepers, it is not so in God’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God is a leper-free zone. And, among so many who worship with us at Holy Trinity, particularly people who are new to our community, I can see an overwhelming sense of gratitude for that. They’re so thankful to be part of a church where they are loved and accepted and celebrated as God’s children.
The world may see us as lepers, or we may even see ourselves as lepers, outwardly or inwardly. But by the grace of God, that’s not who we are at all. We discover who we really are in this world by seeing ourselves as God sees us: beloved, forgiven, whole – blessed. When we recognize our blessing and express our gratitude, we’re twice blessed.
I had wanted to see the Grand Canyon my whole life. This summer I made it. And after imagining the moment for so many years, I found that when I finally got there, what I treasured the most was not that first moment standing on the edge of the canyon looking at the majesty of it all. What I treasured most was standing on the edge of the canyon looking at the majesty of it all with my daughter Gretchen. I turned to her and said, “Thank you so much for being here with me.” And I was twice blessed.
We all have opportunities to be twice blessed every day. It happens in those moments when we realize how much we have to be grateful for and we call a time out before moving on to the next activity. We take a deep breath of thanksgiving and recognize that it happened again. Just when we realize how much God has blessed our lives, there it is -- a second blessing.