October 9, 2022 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Luke 17:11-19
Before I tell you my story, I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions . . . three to be exact. This first one – it’s personal. I need to ask you, respectfully: please do not call me a leper. Don’t even call me a former leper, although that would be more accurate since Jesus already healed me. But I wasn’t a leper – I was a person affected by leprosy. My leprosy didn’t define me then – and my lack of leprosy doesn’t define me now. Sorry if I seem a bit touchy on this subject. But with a condition like leprosy sometimes – often, actually – that’s all people saw when they looked at me.
That leads me to the second misconception that I’d like to clear up: about what leprosy really is, because it’s probably not what you think. Modern-day leprosy is a condition called Mycobacterium leprae, also known as Hansen’s Disease, which mainly affects the skin, nerves, and eyes. The Hebrew word, however, that your Bible translates as leprosy is tzaraat. And tzaraat is a word that actually covers a wide range of conditions that could affect people, things like boils, skin infections, eczema, or impetigo, for example. Tzaraat, at its root, means being ritually unclean or defiled – it’s not a specific diagnosis. You may wonder what my actual diagnosis was, that I would be called a person with leprosy – but I’d rather not go into those details.
The third misconception is the perception that leprosy was a punishment for sin. People honestly and earnestly believed that people with leprosy somehow deserved it. You still hear that kind of talk today, though thankfully not as often. We have all known too many good people who have gotten terrible diagnoses and really rotten people who have had fantastic health. But in my day, in Jesus’ day, we didn’t understand illness scientifically. Illness was a spiritual problem, and if you were sick, you had done something to deserve it. And though I wracked my brain and searched my soul, I could never figure out what I had done that was so terrible that I deserved to live the kind of life I did with my 9 other fellow sufferers. Because one thing that you probably do get right about leprosy is that it was a miserable existence.
Because our skin diseases made us ritually unclean, we were forced to leave our homes and live as outcasts outside of town. The law according to Leviticus was that we had to wear torn clothes and let our hang loose – signs to anyone who might come near us that we were contaminated both physically and spiritually, and to be avoided at all costs. Even our families couldn’t come any closer than 6 feet. You know how hard that was during the height of COVID . . . . imagine a lifetime of that kind of separation. And any time anyone might be approaching us unknowingly, we were required by law to yell out “Unclean, unclean.” So the ten of us with leprosy there in that region between Galilee and Samaria – all we had was each other. And that was cold comfort for me because the other nine were all Jews, and I was . . . a Samaritan. I can make light of it now because it’s in my past, but let’s just say there was no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans. It was a gigantic family conflict really, and you know how bad they can be. We were all related . . . distant cousins, really . . . but a conflict between our ancestors and the Jewish ancestors had raged on for generations. And since I was the lone Samaritan in our little community of outcasts, that made me an outcast among outcasts.
So as Jesus, the Jewish rabbi and miracle worker drew near, I really assumed that nothing good would come of it for me. After all, I was doubly tainted – from leprosy and by my ethnic background. When the other nine cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” I called out, too – but sort of sotto voce, you know, not really thinking it would make any difference and not wanting to spoil the chances of the other nine.
But then this remarkable thing happened. Jesus came over to us, looked with love at the whole pathetic bunch of us, and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests so you can be certified as clean.” The other nine, in their excitement, started running toward town, but to be honest – I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Would a Jewish priest even certify me, a Samaritan, clean? Was Jesus even talking to me, or just to his countrymen? But then all of our skin ailments – all the different skin ailments of all ten of us started to clear up. Including mine. And I didn’t care so much about what the priests would say. I knew that the one I had to run toward with thanks and praise: the one who had seen me.
Because that’s the greatest miracle, you know. Sure it’s a miracle that our skin conditions were cured. Yes, it’s a miracle that we, who had had nothing to look forward to, had been handed back our futures, bright with hope. But for me, what put this miracle over the top was that Jesus had seen me – not my disease, not my shame, not my religious tradition, not my ethnicity, not anything external, but me.
And Jesus sees you, too, friends – each and every one of you. You may think that you’re not important to him. But you’d be wrong. You may think that he’s saving his really special gifts for someone more important, more worthy, more deserving than you. But you’d be wrong. You may think that he’s too busy to hear you when you cry out to him for mercy. But you’d most definitely be wrong. If Jesus saw me – a double outcast – then I know he sees you, his beloved sisters and brothers.
And so I wonder: Have you thanked the Lord? Have you praised God’s name? Don’t you know that no tomorrow is quite the same . . . because he is with you, to give you a future with hope? Have you knelt in prayer and rejoiced that, rain or sunshine, sickness or health, no matter what, our God is there? Because Jesus sees . . . and loves . . . you.