On the Healing of the Ten Lepers
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, January 16, 2022
Homily for January 16th, Healing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:12-19)
Today’s Gospel lesson offers us another intriguing story from St Luke. Similar to the healing of the infirm woman recorded a few chapters earlier, Christ’s healing of the 10 lepers is a story, again, not shared by Matthew, Mark, or John. But, Luke chose to include this chance meeting with a group of lepers for a specific reason. And, therefore, it’s worthy of our attention. Now, the verse which leads into today’s passage reveals to us the following: “And it happened as [he was] journeying to Jerusalem, that he himself was proceeding through the middle of [or: through the borders of] Samar′ia and Galilee.” (Nicholas King Translation of the New Testament. Luke 17:11) And I believe it’s helpful for us to hear this detail, so we can better understand what’s at stake in this story.
As Jesus and the disciples are journeying from Samaria and toward Jerusalem we see for the first time in Jesus’ ministry an encounter not with one leper, but with TEN! Now, Jesus had healed lepers prior to this encounter. That’s nothing new at this point, but being approached by more than one, much less TEN of them, is unheard of.
Now, according to Jewish law, a person with the onset of leprosy was required to present themselves before a priest in order to be verified, first, as having leprosy, but also for the purpose of being pronounced “unclean,” and then set apart from their community. That same individual is then required to be presented before the priest another time, once the disease has run its course, for the purposes of being verified as healthy again, and thereafter being pronounced “clean.” After this the individual can be restored to their community. There are two chapters which cover this entire process in the book of Leviticus, should one wish to know the all the painstaking details. Suffice it to say that when Jesus meets these 10 lepers on the way to Jerusalem, one of the reasons He tells them to “show yourselves to the priests,” is because Jesus knows the Jewish law. Asking them to stop, turn around and to “go see the priest” was a way of stating from the outset that they are already “unclean.”
So to those 10 lepers who cried out to Jesus for “mercy” in midst of their suffering, Christ’s directive to “see the priests” must have seemed incredibly disheartening. For we already know prior to this encounter that other lepers had been healed by Jesus. Luke records one such instance in Chapter 5, and in Chapter 4, Christ declares the start of his public ministry by announcing that “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli′sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na′aman the Syrian.” And for reference, Na’aman the Syrian wasn’t even Jewish! So surely these 10 lepers present before Jesus must have hoped He would a provide a healing hand. But then Christ does something — almost as if he was having a little fun with the whole encounter — He sends them away to the priests and then heals all TEN of them, only after they’ve turned and gone on their way. They set off toward the priest believing to be pronounced unclean, but then continue onward knowing they’ve been healed and ultimately, will be pronounced clean once again.
Still, I think there is more to unpack from this Gospel text. Especially with respect to the number ten as it’s given in this passage. For one thing, why are there ten lepers, and not just one? The story really only emphasizes one leper, after all, AND it is that very ONE who ultimately drives home the significance of passage. I do think the answer might lie within a certain component of Israel’s history.
There was a time when the nation of Israel was split apart and divided into a Northern and Southern Kingdom, and the 12 Tribes descended from the Patriarchs of old, separated into these two independent Kingdoms. 2 of the 12 Tribes went to the South, but the remaining 10 resettled into the North. Those the South worshipped in Jerusalem. But those 10 Tribes of the North centered their worship in the region called Samaria, and they built their Temple on a sacred mountain long held to be the site where Abraham nearly-sacrificed Isaac, and where Jacob famously wrestled the angel. The problem with this is that Jewish Law prescribed there be only ONE sacred site for the Hebrews to worship — and now suddenly there were two. And so the Northern Kingdom insisted their mountain was the one place of TRUE worship, and South equally asserted that TRUE worship could only happen Jerusalem. And so the North and the South each regarded one another’s place of worship as an abomination. And each detested the other with as much animosity as they could muster.
We see a relic of this tension when Jesus is approached by the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, and she says to Him, "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” In fact, Jesus doesn’t actually say this at all. Because He doesn’t care about political divisions. But what DOES He say to her, instead?
“Have faith in me woman; because the hour is coming, when you people will worship the Father, not on this mountain and not in Jerusalem. ... But the hour is coming, and is [here] now, when genuine worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. (Nicholas King Translation of the New Testament. John 4:21, 23.)
“They will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” —
By the time we arrive at the account of Jesus and the Ten Lepers in Luke 17, the Northern Kingdom had been ravaged by war, and the 10 Tribes were ultimately scattered. But it was the Samaritans as a people group who emerged from this region. And though they were devoted to the Law of Moses, Israel’s leadership regarded them as a people of uncertain and mixed origin, defiled by their ancestry, and held as little more than a schismatic sect — worse the Gentiles! But in the eyes of those Samaritans such disregard only emboldened contempt. So when Jesus is seen walking through the region of Samaria at the start of the today’s Gospel lesson, He would have been met with indifference, and even scorn by local Samaritans, because He wasn’t from Samaria, as the text tells us — He was headed to Jerusalem ... to that other place of Worship.” But similar to the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the Well, Christ is approached by these 10 lepers who who are in great need. But does Jesus say, “Sorry, fellas... you all worship at that other place. Bugger off.” Of course He doesn’t. He heals all 10 of them, regardless of where they are from, and He affirms that it is FAITH that makes a person well. And it is IN faith that genuine worshippers: “will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
This very phrase captures the essence in which St Paul exhorts the Colossian church in today’s Epistle reading. Paul tells them that when Christ appears — that is, when Christ appears in you (we’re not talking about end-times superstitions here). But when Christ appears in you, “then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: this includes fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness [or greed],” which the Apostle Paul calls idolatry! In other words, it is Christ who has restored us anew, in the same manner he did those 10 lepers in Luke 17! And the one who engages in idolatry is NOT the one who worships in this location or that location, or who practices in that church but not MY church, but the one who harbors passion, evil desires, impurity and greed within their own hearts!” For when we are so focused upon the actions of the other — that person over there who isn’t doing it right, who isn’t fasting properly, or that other person over there who isn’t Orthodox enough — then we have lost the focus on ourselves and our own worship — which is to be done in spirit and truth!
And what does Jesus say to the one leper at the end of today’s Gospel lesson? The text states: “... when he saw that he was healed, [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus's feet, giving him thanks.” And he was a Samaritan!
“Then curiously Jesus, says: "Were not ten cleansed? (And I do hope you’ve picked up that these 10 lepers are symbolic of those 10 lost tribes of Northern Israel - Luke’s Gospel is about the reconciliation and restoration to all of Israel after all) "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And what happens next? Nothing. There is no answer from this Samaritan in this text. There is nothing but silence. Why? Because this Samaritan seeing he’d been cleansed, is now worshipping before Christ who has appeared before him. It’s as if he doesn’t know the other 9 are even there. And Why? Because Christ has appeared before him. And “Christ is all, and in all.” Neither Greek nor Jew, slave or Barbarian, Northern tribe or Southern tribe, this Samaritan paid no mind to any of that ... for he was worshiping in spirit and in truth.
May each of us find the penitence, the humility, and the courage for our collective journey, that Christ may appear before each of us and say: "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”