2 Timothy 2:3-15
The small village lay at the northern edges of Palestine, where two ancient fraternal enemies, divided and eternally bound by both religion and tradition, co-existed in an uneasy truce woven of exhaustion, poverty and despair. The prosperity known along the trade routes of the Empire had never reached places like this. The future for most people was mere subsistence, scratching out a living in a dry, barren land from a few animals and the uncertain crops that grew abundantly one year and disappeared into dust the next.
Outside its sorry gated entrance sat ten men, their bodies tattooed by disease into a mass of sores, splotched white and red, a sign that they were sinners of an altogether other sort: the worst of the worst, bearing a curse from God they would carry to their early, desperate graves. Banished by law and fear, their only comfort was in the presence of each other. Despised by God and their own people, they lived to die, the sooner the better.
Yet even the lepers had ears, and they had heard of the healer who wandered through the land. They knew the stories of the Galilean rabbi who, by the sheer force of love, opened the eyes of the blind and made the lame walk. They had even overheard the tale of how he had touched lepers and made their skin pure again. And one day, they saw him, with his entourage, laughing at some joke about priests or politicians, and their broken hearts rose in hope that he would see them too.
The law said that, if you were a leper, you could never come close to another human being, lest the sin spread from your cursed flesh to theirs. You could only shout to them to stay back, out of the contagious zone, to go on about their lives as if you didn’t exist. People were only too glad to comply. But desperate hope is hope nonetheless, and for the first time in a long time, they dared to believe that life might return to them. “Jesus,” they cried out, “master! Have mercy on us!”
He had been watching them of course, for no one, no matter how outcast, was ever invisible to him. He stopped, and his friends took a couple steps back. Leprosy was incurable, and legend had it that even being close to one of these people could spread the curse to you. He looked them up and down, the torn and dirty remnants of their clothes clinging to the frames of starving bodies. He spoke the words they longed to hear: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Moses, the great prophet, had given the law about lepers, and said that, if one had, through some miracle, been healed, he or she should call for a priest and display the evidence of soft, pure skin. The priest would come outside the gate to determine whether the curse had been lifted, and if so, offer a sacrifice. After a week, if the curse had not returned, the lepers were declared clean, and allowed to return to life in the community.
The ten men ran off, calling for a priest to come look, shouting that they were healed, that they were forgiven, that they were human again. Jesus watched them go and started back towards the village when was a tug at his robe. He looked down in the dirt at the man laying prostrate before him. It was one of the lepers, his skin now supple and clear, glowing beneath the rags that covered him.
“Thank you,” he said. “thank you. You have given me back my life.” The man spoke with a slow Samaritan drawl.
Jesus shook his head wistfully, “Funny, I thought there were ten of you guys. And the only one who took time to give thanks was the foreigner. I guess that’s about right.” Jesus reached down and pulled him up. “Bless you my friend. It’s your faith that made you well.” The man bowed, and ran off, not to see a Jewish priest, but into the hills, back to his people, leaving Galilee far behind.
We don’t really know what the disease the Bible calls leprosy was, but there are reports of it from very ancient Egypt, and whatever it was, people believed two things about it: that it was highly contagious and the people who got deserved it. They had done something wicked, some secret sin of heart or flesh, which burst out on their bodies to reveal their inner evil. And so laws were given, in every ancient society, and those with skin diseases were kept far away from the rest of the community, lest their sin spread to everyone else.
Lepers had no rights, no family, no community to turn to other than each other. It was perfectly fine to hate them, and to blame every problem in society on the vileness of their presence. Jesus, on the other hand, took a special interest in lepers, and broke the prohibitions against touching them. He honored them as fully human and welcomed them back into the family.
Like every story of Jesus’ healing, there is more to this one than a disease miraculously cured. Luke is trying to tell us, not just about a medical problem, but a spiritual one. The nine Jewish lepers did what they were told: they went off to find a priest who could declare them healed and fit to be a true Jew. It’s not that the Jewish lepers didn’t have faith—who wouldn’t have, given that their skin had suddenly stopped itching and the bleeding sores had disappeared? It’s just that, without a thought, they went back to their rituals, never even stopping to wonder if a religion which cast aside people like garbage was itself was the problem. They were obedient, and they were oblivious. But the Samaritan leper, the one that would have been viewed by the people of God as doubly cursed—a foreigner and diseased—is the only one who grasps what is going on. He abandons religion, ignores the law, and comes back, right into Jesus’ presence, where Jesus says: “This is what faith looks like.”
While we don’t know what Biblical leprosy was, we do know what it did to people: it marginalized them, dehumanized them, stripped them of their dignity, and allowed the unleprous majority to justify its bigotry towards them. And Biblical leprosy still exists, wherever and whenever some group is marked as cursed and contagious. For those who follow Jesus in his call to heal the world, it remains the most difficult of diseases to eradicate. For its eradication lies, not on the skin of those we consider lepers, but in our own hearts.
After all, we tell ourselves, you know how lepers are, and how they will contaminate everyone and ruin everything we’ve worked for, if we let their curse infect us. They hate us because our hearts our pure and our skin soft, smooth and clean.
After all, we tell ourselves, you know how Muslims are, and how they will blow you up just for being Christian, and how, if we don’t wipe them off the planet, they will ruin everything we’ve worked for. They hate us for our freedom and our prosperity, they hate our religion and our God.
After all, we tell ourselves, you know how gays and lesbians are, how they will molest children and destroy families and traditional values, if we don’t root them out of our midst. They hate us for our piety, they hate our faith and our flag.
After all, we tell ourselves, you know how pregnant unmarried women are, and how, if they are allowed into our classrooms, they will seduce our young people into abandoning marriage and destroying our nation. They hate us for our morals and the vows that keep us together.
After all, we tell ourselves, you know how Mexicans are, sneaking across our borders, bringing their drugs and their gangs and stealing our jobs, getting welfare and free health care and having babies who don’t deserve to be called Americans. They hate us for our language and our heritage and our clean and orderly neighborhoods.
After all, we tell ourselves, you know how the unemployed are, spending their days in a drugged haze at our expense, growing fat with their government benefits, instead of working hard like we do. They hate us for our careers and our nice houses, our large screen televisions and our IPads.
You know how the national Church is, or the liberals, or the Tea Partiers, or all those other groups that we imagine are to blame for that increasing sensation of itching under our skin. Every time we see another patch of our own skin go red with blisters, we are certain it’s because some leper has brushed us too closely.
The story of the Ten Lepers is our story. Most of the time, we are the Nine, clinging to our traditional understanding of the world: rushing off, bursting with blessings, and forgetting where those blessings come from. We want to get as far away from the leper colony as we can—and we don’t want anything to do with the people who might infect us with their sinfulness. We, the healed ones, are on the lookout for the lepers, the diseased Others, who are surely at fault for whatever is wrong with us.
In the Second Letter to Timothy, St. Paul—or if you believe the modern scholars, one of Paul’s disciples—writes that “The word of God is not chained.” An unchained Gospel can heal us and the world around us. But a chained Gospel, which is only a thinly veiled magic show, with parlor tricks that mimic real healing, can only serve to keep us in our own leper colony, away from everyone else, blaming everyone else for our own rotting souls.
Jesus’ Gospel is an unchained Gospel, and it frees us for the faith which makes us whole. It allows us to see others for who they really are, and not just a stunted and perverse caricature, tattooed onto our own retinas. It allows us the freedom to give thanks, not just for our healing, but to spread that healing to world which desperately needs it. We can leave the leper colony we have erected for ourselves, but only if we are willing to get up and let our faith make us well. Only if we are ready to touch the unclean Other, and let ourselves be touched by them.