I want to continue to build off this idea we’ve been exploring for a few weeks that following Jesus isn’t about avoiding something, it’s about becoming something; it’s about allowing God to do something within you that transforms you into something beautiful.
And today, we’ll see this through a story about a colony of lepers who cry out to Jesus as he is making his way to Jerusalem. But before we get into this story, let me remind you what leprosy is.
Leprosy is a horrendously debilitating and painful skin condition.
- It starts with red open sores that become porous, causing great discomfort and pain.
- Over time, it causes nerve damage and when the nerve endings are damaged, you eventually start losing appendages and limbs.
- This is a horrendous disease that some have described as living death.
In the first century context, and to some extend our context . . . people with leprosy were quarantined for health purposes because it is highly contagious.
- They weren’t allowed to live in the city.
- They couldn’t enjoy the things that we take for granted, going to the store, having a meal with friends, traveling freely, or even worshiping God with other people.
- They were completely cut out of the community.
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, some religious people would proclaim lepers to be cursed of God and beyond any mercy or kindness or hope. So, when they needed compassion . . . they didn’t receive it.
Now . . . the Bible does speak of this leprosy in Leviticus 13:45–46, “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease, they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
Imagine that, banished from the community, forced to live in the wilderness. You had to dress distinctively, you couldn’t ever fix up your hair and if you were anywhere near other people, as you approached them, you would have to cry out your identity, “Unclean, unclean, unclean.”
Sometimes people would carry rocks in their pocket just in case they were anywhere near a leper, they’d throw rocks at the leper to drive them away . . . Can you imagine the horrific suffering and alienation and loneliness that come with this condition?
Well, once excluded from family and friends, lepers sought out the company of other lepers in the wilderness where they would comfort and care for each other, as they suffered and died in exile.
It was a small leper colony such as this that Jesus encountered on his way through the Samaritan wilderness: Ten lepers, dressed in tattered rags, their bodies covered in lesions, crying at the top of their lungs.
But for some reason, when Jesus approached they did not cry out, “Unclean”, as they were supposed to do; instead they cried, “Jesus, Master, have pity upon us”.
What’s interesting is that there are only two groups of people throughout all of scripture who refer to Jesus as master; the 12 disciples who had traded in their former lives in order to follow Jesus and now this group of lepers . . . hang on to that for a minute.
Jesus tells the lepers, “Go and show yourself to the priests” . . . What he’s referring to is Lev 14.
If a leper had been healed . . . the leper would schedule an appointment with the priest— the spiritual mediator between God and the people— and they would meet in a place outside of the city, and the priest would come to verify the healing of the leper.
If the leper had, in fact, been healed, the priest would declare a healing and then take two birds, one would be sacrificed and the other would be set free.
- The sacrificed bird represents that through the shedding of blood our sins are forgiven,
- The bird that is set free represents our sins that are taken away.
Then the person would have to bathe and their whole body would be shaved, including their eyebrows. Symbolic of this, “You’re like a baby. You’ve been born-again. God has given you a brand-new life.”
After this, they would be allowed to meet with people again, and there would be a week-long party . . . Could you imagine what that would be like for these lepers?
- If they had been married when they got leprosy, they haven’t seen their spouse in years; haven’t held their hand, haven’t snuggled with them.
- If they were a parent when they got leprosy, they haven’t been able to see their children grow.
- They haven’t had dinner at anyone’s home. Not hugged anyone. Not been invited to a party. Not sat down to eat a meal with anyone. It’s been years, maybe decades.
And now they get to be in community with the people. And they would celebrate and catch up with everyone and “What’s going on in your life, how are things going and what have I missed?”
And then at the end of that week-long celebration, they would bathe yet again, and they would shave yet again, showing full and total healing and cleansing and forgiveness.
And then the priest would take three lambs and offer three lambs for sacrifice; one for a guilt offering, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering to make up for all the years of missed sacrifices.
After the lambs were sacrificed, the priest would take some of the blood and he’d place it on the man’s ear and on his thumb and on his big toe. Symbolizing: You belong to God now, listen to him. You belong to God now, serve him. You belong to God now. Walk in his ways.
Back to the story . . . Jesus tells the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.”
This is an odd request because going to the priest is something you do after you’ve been healed but at this point, they hadn’t been healed, nor had they even asked for healing . . . they wanted pity . . . but Jesus was offering them more than they were even asking for.
And as an act of faith, they turned toward the village where the priests live.
Now, we're not told how they discover that they are healed, but it probably doesn't take long. As one leper looks at the other and says, "Where is your leprosy? Your face is clear. The skin of your hands is soft and even." Then all of them begin to examine themselves and, sure enough, they ARE healed.
A celebration must have broken out. They probably jumped for joy and leaped as fast as they could to the temple . . . they had been as good as dead; now they were alive.
But one of the lepers, turned back to Jesus and he throws himself at his feet in utter humility and praises God in a loud voice as he thanked Jesus for what he had done. I was dead but now, I’ve been made alive. I was unclean but now I’ve been made clean. Praise God, Praise God!
The Greek word used in the text for giving thanks is eucharisteo . . . it’s the same root word used for Eucharist or as we say, communion.
Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?”
This isn’t a fair question, really. After all, the others were doing exactly what Jesus told them to do.
What’s unusual is not that the other nine were well on their way to the temple, but that one turned back to say thank you. Why didn’t he do as he was told? Was he more grateful than the rest? Was he more righteous? Perhaps he had better parenting.
The text gives us a clue . . . It says that he was a Samaritan; considered a half breed by the Jews and despised and condemned unclean by the religious leaders.
The other nine men are Jews and will be welcomed back into their community and pronounced “unclean” by the religious leaders . . . . But healed or not, the Samaritan remains a Samaritan.
And as a Samaritan, he had no priest to go to. He wouldn’t have been allowed to step foot in the temple. There might have even been a big sign over the front door saying, “No Samaritans allowed.”
Even the other nine with whom he had found community with would eventually deny that they know that stinking Samaritan.
But the irony is that because he had been rejected by the church and the people of God, he wasn’t weighted down by the expectations of fulfilling their law, and so he returns to the one who gave him healing and restoration and dignity and had made him beautiful, again.
And it is in this moment of thanksgiving . . . of eucharisteo . . . that we begin to see the meaning of this story. Jesus is the word become flesh to dwell among us . . . and he on this journey toward Jerusalem where he will shed his blood so that we can be forgiven and cleansed.
- Jesus becomes the replacement of the Temple – where God meets unclean people.
- Jesus becomes the replacement of the priesthood that alone can offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin and alone can restore lepers – “the living dead” - to communal living.
And the Samaritan got it . . . he understood what it meant to call Jesus, “Master”. This healing was about being restored to a relationship with God and in response; he falls to his knees in Eucharisteo.
The other nine lepers understood that they were broken and unclean. They understood that they were outside the community and needed to be restored. They understood that they needed a miracle, and they hoped that Jesus would give them a miracle.
Indeed once they were healed they went to the priest who would make a sacrifice for them and then require them to have a ritual bath and then require them to shave and to rid themselves of their old clothing and bandages. Then they could be good Jews again and be restored to community.
The nine lepers were so intent on fulfilling the requirements of the law that they failed to recognize the One who has come to give us life in all its abundance.
But it took a Samaritan to see that Jesus’ healing was about something much more than returning to an old life. It was about a whole new life with him.
The Samaritan got more than the other nine, because he was grateful for the mercy and the sacrifice of the one who came to cleanse and make beautiful, unclean people like you and like me.
Some of you would hear this story and you would say, “Unclean, that’s totally me.” I’ve done some very filthy, dirty, nasty, vile things. I should be walking around shouting, “Unclean, unclean.”
Some of you have had things done you. You’ve been abused, lied to, betrayed, taken advantage of, and you just feel dirty and filthy.
And you’ve tried doing all the religious rituals, but it just doesn’t seem to work. But the truth is that Jesus cleanses just like he did with this Samaritan leper.
And if you ask Jesus, “Would you please heal me and cleanse me?” He would say, “I will . . . be clean.”
In Christ you’re clean. You are no longer those things that made you feel so dirty . . . you’re clean, you’ve been made beautiful again and you get your dignity back and you are given a brand new identity to go live a new life as if you were reborn.
Your ear and your thumb and your toe are commissioned by the Holy Spirit, “From now on, listen to him, serve him and walk with him.”
And our response is eucharisteo . . . as we gather around this table once again to remember what Christ has done for us. I was dead but now, I’ve been made alive. I was unclean but now I’ve been made clean. I have been made beautiful, again . . . Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!