Jesus and his posse are going through Samaria and Galilee, and they finally see a village on the horizon and they decide to enter there. They’re relieved to have found safety behind city walls and are thirsty and tired. But in the distance, they see shadowy figures moving slowly and at a strange pace. Some of the shapes are hunched over. Some limp. Some can barely hobble , lurching left and right as they try to move forward.
There are ten of these people, all of them wearing heavy black tunics. They cover their mouths and their disheveled beards and hair are swarming with flies and other insects. The disciples know immediately who these people are: lepers. Claimed by no one, despised by everyone, loved by practically no one. They generally wait just outside the gates of the city, trying to panhandle travelers. We’ve all seen them. They’re the ones who ask us for change on a busy street, the ones who pass out on the floors of subway terminals, whose clothing reeks of urine and filth. They’re easy to pick out because their leprosy is on the outside. They wear their disease for all to see. They have no permanent address and yet they are at home in every place.
In the Law it was written that those who had leprous disease—which meant any sort of skin rash, blister, discoloration as well as the more serious skin ailments—had to wear torn clothes and let their hair be left uncombed and dirty. They had to cover their upper lip and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” They were unclean and had to live away from others who were healthy, someplace outside the camp or city.
They were not allowed to actually enter the villages until they were healed of their rash and completed the purification rituals, which had to be followed precisely.
I have no firsthand knowledge of lepers, but I watch the National Geographic Channel often enough to have seen them. Some lose fingers and toes, some lose their noses and, left untreated, the victims can even lose their feet and arms. Leprosy eats away a person’s freedom, his relationships, his family life, and ultimately his hope.
Not all lepers in the ancient world had Hanson’s Disease– the condition we call leprosy today. Persons who had any skin condition were isolated from the community. These people were rejected by their family, by their religious tradition, by their clan. They were humiliated, sneered at, and were the butt of cruel comments and jokes. They were used as examples by the self-righteous that God elects some for salvation and some for damnation. They proved that God did not love every person, that sinners had no home in the religion, that outsiders need not apply for acceptance and love.
The ten lepers understood this all too well. They knew exactly how far they were required to stand from the public. So they yell, “Jesus, Rabbi, have mercy on us!” They wanted money because they needed food.
“Go show your selves to the priests,” Jesus yells back, and it’s interesting to note that both Jesus and the lepers are merely following established protocol. Lepers were expected to beg for mercy and Jesus’ instruction to them also follows the same traditional procedure for those who have been cured. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” That declaration could only have meant one thing: they were healed.
It wasn’t until they obeyed Jesus’ instructions and started on the walk to the local priests that they discovered that they were, indeed, healed. Eager to resume their lives, they hurry to begin the cleansing rituals so they can rejoin their families. But one of them responds differently. He’s running as best he can, like the rest, when he makes the discovery of his life. He is healed! He realizes that at that moment, out there in the dusty back roads of eastern Palestine that he’s cured. One minute he is running for the priests with the others, and then he stops and takes notice. He looks back toward the man who is responsible for the healing.
Rules or no rules, Tradition or no tradition, he turns around and runs back to Jesus and kneels at his feet. No one can be heard above his joyful weeping and heaving as he releases years of pain and suffering in this rush of gratitude. The uncontrolled emotion probably embarrasses the disciples, who are wishing the man would get it together and maybe just sing a hymn or write a nice thank you note.
“Where are the rest?” Jesus asks, “Weren’t there ten of you?” There is implicit criticism here. This is surprising because, after all, the lepers were doing exactly what Jesus had told them to do, they were simply obeying his command and following the traditions of their ancestors. He told them to go see the priests, and that’s what they were doing!
But, this story raises questions about how we worship God and how we express gratitude. We all agree that Tradition is a fundamental building block of a society; it tells us who we are, gives us a larger identity and shapes our values. Our tradition includes the stories, experiences, beliefs and values that have accumulated and grown over the years. In the retelling of the tradition, the stories live on and the tradition is given new life.
But we can be so locked in our tradition that we can miss the time of our lives right now. Tradition can block us from seeing new opportunities and challenges. The problem with the nine lepers was not that they followed their tradition. Jesus told them to obey what their tradition required. The problem was that they were so engrossed in keeping that tradition, that they missed the most important day of their life. Instead of stopping and embracing the new reality of the present with gratitude, they are hurrying to reconstruct a life that is in the past. They should have been moving forward, but instead they choose to move backwards. They were so involved in going through the motions of religion that that they failed to notice the abundance of God in the present moment.
I have a piece of my own tradition in my office–my certificate of ordination to the priesthood. It’s in a frame, behind glass. The words are special to me, even though it’s partly in Latin. This document is precious to me, despite the passage of time, despite the disappointments and challenges that are attached to the story behind this document. It’s a birth certificate of sorts. It’s a reminder that—regardless of the many years I resisted God’s call for my life, there is at least one piece of paper on the planet that attests to that one moment in time when I said, without reservation or fear, “Okay, I’m in!” to the God I had claimed to believe in all my life. That piece of paper reminds me of who I am and what I believe and where I am heading.
But I have other pieces of paper. They’re not framed, and they are covered by doodles and scribbling. They record phone numbers of people I need to follow up on; ideas for homilies; things I need to do; people I need to pray for. Sometimes I hear an amazing idea or a perfect English sentence listening to NPR in the car, and I jot it down on one of these slips of paper, while trying to steer my car with my knees.
I need both types of paper in my life. I build my life upon the tradition, but I want to be open to the immediate–to see God working in my life and the life of my family, and the life this parish at this moment. If I just fall back on my Latin document, I may miss the next greatest moment of my life. So I rely upon both kinds of papers.
At the end of this miracle story, Luke uses a Greek word, “sozo”, in that final exchange between Jesus and the leper who returned to give thanks. Jesus not only proclaims him “healed”, he also proclaims him “saved” or “made whole”. All the lepers were healed, but only one found salvation. All the lepers were given a chance at new life, but unlike the others who got wrapped up in their own lives to the exclusion of God, only one found grace. It was gratitude that led this person to look beyond his own religious traditions and expectations, beyond his own personal healing, and to focus on God as Source of all that is. His life could surely never be the same after that epiphany. Ten were healed of their infirmity, but only one became whole.