A Tale of Ten Lepers (A sermon on Luke 17:11-19)

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

I remember hearing of a rural vicar in England whose bicycle went missing. The man relied exclusively on his bicycle to get around his little parish, and he knew things like bicycles didn’t just disappear into thin air, so he put two and two together and figured out that someone in the parish – most likely one of the young larakins in his flock that he’d had words to – had stolen it.

He came up with a plan. He’d preach on the 10 commandments on Sunday, and when he got to’Thou shalt not steal’, he’d pause and look carefully around the congregation, to see if he couldn’t pick out a red face and so identify the culprit.

The plan seemed to be going well. He prepared his sermon, Sunday came, and he started working his way through the commandments, planning to reach his crescendo at the 8th commandment –’Thou shalt not steal’. The only problem was that when he reached the 7th commandment – ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ – he remembered where he left his bike!

Having a good memory is a great asset. I’ve got a terrible one. ‘One too many hits in the head’ is my excuse, but it’s an excuse that it wears a bit thin after a while.

Of course it’s not remembering as such that’s important, but remembering the things that need to be remembered, like wedding anniversaries or you’re partner’s birthday

You can try the line, “Honey, how do you expect me to remember your birthday when you never look any older?” but … it doesn‘t work. The best chance you’ve got is if you have the experience that Ange and I had a few weeks ago where we BOTH forgot our anniversary (till late in the day at least) which is a reflection of the fact that we’ve both taken hits to the head. It’s one of the many advantages that comes out of being a family of fighters.

The truth is, of course, that there are even more important things to remember than birthdays and anniversaries. Because I have a strong association with our local RSL club, I am often in dialogue with persons who take very seriously the concept of ‘lest we forget’. For the truth is that we do forget.

We forget that the life of freedom and prosperity we enjoy as a community today is very much a legacy from those who went before us, through the blood and suffering of two world wars. We forget what we owe those who have gone before us, just as we forget them.

This is indeed part of the pain of funerals I believe – that a funeral is the beginning of a process offorgetting somebody! I know we say at the funeral, “we will never forget Aunty Heather and all she did for us”, but who are we trying to kid? The truth is that we begin the process of forgetting even on the way home from the funeral.

Now I know it’s not that brutal, and I know that there are certain people we will never forget and maybe we never forget anybody completely, but even so the reality is that when we lose a loved one, that person starts becoming less a part of our ongoing lives from the day we bury them. Yes, years later we will still raise a glass to them and relive fond memories, but the truth is that over time, we do forget, and there’s something really awful about that. We want to remember … but we can’t!

It that what it was like for these leprous persons we read about in Luke 17 – that they really wanted to remember but somehow couldn’t? Jesus’ comments don’t give us any insight into the reasons for their forgetfulness. And in truth, it is hard for of us to really get inside the heads of these guys because it is hard for any of us to imagine what it must have been like to be living with leprosy in those days.

Jesus was in no-man’s land, we’re told, when He met these people – in some undefined place in the region between pagan Samaria and good-old Galilee – a place that may not have been on anybody’s map – a place where lepers lived!

“As he entered a village,” we’re told, “ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And we understand why they kept their distance – because they were ‘unclean’.

Now I don’t now if you’ve ever met anyone you would consider ‘unclean’. I’ve worked with plenty of people whose body odour was such, or where the stench of alcohol was so strong, that they genuinely were unclean, but I’ve never met a leper.

We 21st Century Australians take it for granted that we are never likely to come into contact with leprosy. I’m told there are still cases in Australia – mainly amongst Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory – but we know that we are never likely to find lepers living within reach of this community.

Of course, the disease is not referred to as ‘leprosy’ any more, but as ‘Hansen’s disease’, after Norwegian physician, Gerhard Hansen, who discovered the bacteria ‘Mycobacterium leprae’back in 1874. Since that time things started improving for victims of the disease, and especially after a vaccine was found in 1940.

The World Health Organisation had set a target for the complete elimination of leprosy by year 2000. Unfortunately though there are still around 3 million people suffering from the disease worldwide, and currently there are about half a million new cases diagnosed each year! Indeed, in some areas of the world it is on the rise, most notably in the United States, where Hansen’s disease seems to attack particularly those already weakened by illness, such as those suffering from AIDS.

It just seems so unfair that people who are already suffering and who are often socially isolated should be the ones to fall victim to a disease that causes further suffering and, potentially, further social isolation!

If you know how leprosy works, it takes over areas of your respiratory system and even more so your skin, where it deadens the peripheral nerves. Most of the disfigurements associated with leprosy are secondary results of this deadening of the nerves.

  • A stone in your shoe will rub a hole in your foot before you become aware of it.
  • You’ll put your hand on a hot-plate not realising it is on and get major burns.

Ironically, Hansen’s disease is actually one of the least infectious of contagious diseases. Also ironic is that the easiest way for the disease to advance is through poor nutrition. The irony, of course, is that the traditional way of treating lepers was to isolate these not-very-contagious people, and leave them to fend for themselves, where they would quickly become malnourished, and so the disease would advance more rapidly. This meant that the move from regular society to the leper colony was almost always a one-way street.

The decisive and somewhat brutal procedure for dealing with lepers had mapped out for the Hebrew community by Moses in the book of Leviticus:

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body, and if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease; after the priest has examined him he shall pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13:2-3)

I cannot imagine that there could have been any worse nightmare for those people of old, than being examined by a priest and being declared ‘unclean’! It would have been a fate worse than death, I think. Imagine waking up one morning and noticing a pale spot on your skin. You’d try to ignore it probably, and then you’d notice in the shower a few more spots perhaps. And you’d try to wear long sleeves to disguise it. But sooner or later your husband or your mother or some one at school or at work would notice these spots, and there would be the inevitable trip to the priest … the examination … and then the terrible diagnosis – unclean!

So the terrible descent into hell would begin. Your belongings would be bundled up. None of your family would dare to kiss you goodbye. Your neighbours would shut themselves in as you made your final walk down your street, away from civilization, towards the colony of lepers who would be your companions for the rest of your life.

With this disfigured and rejected group you would eek out the rest of your existence, as you yourself gradually became more hideous and disfigured until you died a lonely death. And none of your family would come to bury you! They might not even know that you had died. And they might not want to know, as you were probably the shame of your family, with the community still wondering what wicked thing you did to deserve such a fate.

Leprosy must have been a hellish fate for so many Ancient Near Eastern men and women, but not for these 10 men who found Jesus!

These men stood at a distance and called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus, who was a friend of lepers and who on other occasions touched lepers, in this case just calls back, “go show yourselves to the priest!.”

Why did He tell them to go and show themselves to the priest? So that the same character who had declared them ‘unclean’ might now declare them ‘clean’, so that they might be re-admitted to the regular community. Of course, at the time He tells them to do this, they are NOT clean. And so He asks them to exercise some faith.

And it seems that this is exactly what they do – lurching off confidently in the direction of the synagogue.

We can only imagine that they must have made a fair bit of kafuffle – marching down the main street of the village towards the synagogue – a street where they would not have been welcomed at all! These people were outcasts from the regular community. They were not welcome in the regular community. And even if in fact they had been cured of their dreaded disease, with their disfigured bodies and their ragged clothing, this group would not have looked nor smelt like they belonged in the regular community! And yet on Jesus’ command these boys march confidently towards the centre of town, demanding an audience with the priest!

It was a typical sort of Jesus thing to ask of them, wasn’t it? They had to step out in faith in order to receive the gift He was offering them, but it did mean that by the time they realised they were healed, Jesus was nowhere to be seen.

We don’t know, of course, at exactly what point in the process the realisation of their new-found wellness hit them! Was it not until they rolled up their sleeves for the priest that they saw their skin was no longer mangled and spotted? Or perhaps, as they walked to the synagogue, did one of the lads have to ask the others to slow down because he realised he had a stone in his shoe, and then simultaneously all of them recognised that feeling had returned to their limbs!

No matter at what point the healing actually happened for these guys, what we do know is that Jesus Himself wasn’t there when it happened, and so we can appreciate that they couldn’t just spin around and fall at Jesus’ feet. Did Jesus really expect the ten to seek Him out to thank Him? It appears that He did!

A guy named Charles Brown suggested offered a rather cynical list of reasons why nine of the ten failed to return:

  • One waited to see if the cure was real.
  • One waited to see if it would last.
  • One said he would see Jesus later.
  • One decided that he had never had leprosy.
  • One said he would have gotten well anyway.
  • One gave the glory to the priests.
  • One said, “O well, Jesus didn’t really do anything.”
  • One said, “Just any rabbi could have done it.”
  • One said, “I was already much improved.”

I think that’s probably a bit harsh. And I think that probably fails to take into account the incredible nature of the moment that this healing must have occasioned for these men. After all, these men had families, to which they could now return. Perhaps some of them had children that they hadn’t seen for years? No doubt some of them had been skilled craftsmen in their earlier life, and they could now return to make a meaningful contribution to the communities that they had been forced to leave. Now they could go back home and sleep in their old bed again – a soft bed. They could eat and drink with their old friends again. They could have a life again as a respected member of their family and community.

My guess is that these guys forgot to go back and thank Jesus for the same reason we forget people, as we come home from the cemetery. We move forward with life, and so we never really find the time to look back!

And it’s a mistake, as the example of the one guy who did remember makes clear.

And of course, as if Jesus Himself wrote the script, it’s not the Christian guy who goes back in gratitude. It’s the Moslem guy (or his Ancient Near Easter equivalent). And just as the lepers had displayed themselves to the priest, now Mohammed the ex-leper is displayed before all of us as the model of how genuine believers behave. “Get up and go on your way”, Jesus says to him. “Your faith has made you well!”

do you take this story? It’s not a parable with some fixed message. It is a story. How does it speak to you?

It’s a healing story, reminding us of the wonderful power of Jesus to heal.

It’s a story of someone from a different religion who shows us how to believe.

For me, it’s primarily a story about forgetting and remembering.

St Paul’s conversion story is recorded so often in the Bible! I suspect that it comes up so often because Paul used to tell it so often. Why? Lest he should forget!

Blaise Pascall (the mathematician) wrote ‘The year of grace 1654. Monday 23rd November. From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight. Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God.’

When did they find this writing? In 1662, after his death. He had sown this journal entry inside the lining of his jacket. Why? So he would never forget!

If our story this morning is anything to go by, perhaps nine of our ten of us do forget the most important people in our lives and perhaps nine out of ten times we do forget the good things that happen to us all too quickly?

I suspect that for myself, 90% of the time I walk around totally forgetful of how fortunate I am, and of all the good things God has done for me. 9 out of 10 mornings I do not wake up giving thanks for my lovely family, my good health, my spiritual community or for my life in Christ. 9 out of 10 mornings I get up thinking about how much work lies in front of me and how much I need a cup of coffee!

I forget! And I suspect that you do too! Do you remember what it was like before you really came to know Christ? Do you remember what it was like before you felt the presence of the Spirit of God animating your life and giving you direction and purpose? Do you remember what it was like before God placed you in a spiritual community of persons who do not judge you, but who love you as Christ loves you – not for what you have accomplished, but simply for who you are?

We want to get on with life, and we should move forward with joy, but we must remember too to look back in thankfulness! Moving forward in faith while looking back in gratitude – that’s the picture the Gospels give us of abundant life I think.

Moving forward in faith while looking back in gratitude – lest we forget.

Lest we forget all God has done for us. Let we forget all that He has given us. Lest we forget all the riches that we have here. Lest we forget!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2007.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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