Sunday, October 10, 2010

Making Well, Doing Well

Making Well, Doing Well

copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Luke 17:11-19

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him, keeping their distance...

“[They] approached him, keeping their distance.” This is a neat trick, sounding for all the world as though it is taken from some book named The Oxymoron Lover’s Guide to the English Language.1 How does one go about “approaching someone at a distance”? But approach and distance are what this passage from Jesus’ ministry is all about. There have probably been a million sermons preached on this passage declaring that its purpose is to tell us that is important to be thankful. But while that is not necessarily untrue, this little story declares so much more. It astounds us with the presence of one whose very life was an offering of thanks. I think it is more like the story of the Prodigal son than any other story, and Jesus, like the running father in that story, bridges the gap between God and these lepers, estranged children of God, by means of his own person.

I. Approach

We need to start by picturing this little episode from Jesus’ ministry for the brave act that it really was... On everyone’s part. Those ten men were suffering from one of the variety of skin ailments that the Bible calls leprosy, and which we know as a wasting disorder, most likely the one which modern physicians call Hansen’s disease. Today, unlike Bible times, it is a treatable but still potentially disfiguring disease, which continues to be prevalent in many underdeveloped countries that are under-served by modern medicine. The effects of the disease on a person are sometimes horrible to encounter. And no one much wants to look on them today, any more than they did in Jesus’ day.

Not only might it have been distressing to have to see or associate with lepers, in Bible times it was forbidden. The Israelites were so serious about this that there are two full chapters about it in Leviticus, the all-purpose religious manual of regulations used by Israel’s priests. Most of the material in those two chapters boils (no pun intended there) down to a couple of proscriptions:

  • “After the priest has examined [a person with symptoms of leprosy], he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.” (Leviticus 13:3)
  • “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46)

So, first of all, lepers were refused the only means of grace available to them: access to religious rituals and the worship of the people; and secondly, they were denied human companionship of any sort: “He shall live alone.” This second provision proved impractical, since there were a lot of lepers, and none of them could associate with non-lepers, so they naturally lived with one another in what became leper colonies, generally on the outskirts of communities, where they could position themselves by the city gates and beg for charity from passersby.

Even speaking to Jesus, beyond the required shout of “Unclean!” was an act of unspeakable bravery, but the lepers in our story took the step. Who knows why? Perhaps they had heard about Jesus’ healing ministry, perhaps they were just desperate. What more did they have to lose? Would they be banished? They were already banished. Would they be put to death? Their lives were already a kind of living death. For whatever reason, they made their presence known to him, though at a distance. What is more, they knew him to be the person that all the world would one day know him to be and called out to him that way: “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!”

II. Distance

Here we see they had crossed the personal distance by calling out to Jesus, even if they had not crossed the spatial, physical distance. Like a person making an old-fashioned long-distance call to an estranged friend, because to appear, unannounced, at their door in person might be too overwhelming, they called out to Jesus, approaching him while keeping their distance.

In fact, there is distance written all over this passage. Personal distance, ritual distance: estrangement seeps out from under the edges of this story like the aroma of rotting eggs. Arm’s length, please! Whew! Go stand over there if you want to talk to me!

At least one of the lepers was a Samaritan. This should probably not come as a surprise, as Luke prepared us for this by telling us that they were headed to Jerusalem by way of the region between Samaria and Galilee. We probably need no reminder that the Jews of Jesus’ time despised the Samaritans. There was centuries-old ritual and religious distance between them for sure, as well as enforced physical distance.

I recall the story of the black South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once walked by a construction site on a temporary boardwalk that was wide enough for only one person to pass. A white man at the other end recognized him and sneered, “I don’t make way for gorillas.” At which the archbishop stepped aside with a deep, sweeping gesture, saying, “Ah, yes, but I do.” In our own day, concerned as we are about who is foreign and who is not, who is a citizen and who is not, we know about artificial distances created between people and peoples.

The situation of the Samaritan leper was then something like a double whammy. The reason the Samaritan leper could find himself in the company of Jewish lepers was that once he had been denied the comforts of family and community and synagogue and companionship, then there is that last-resort, the companionship of other sufferers which may still be available. Misery loves company, they say. They called out to Jesus alright, a brave act. But they kept their distance, clearly they knew their place, and their lives were filled with distance-keeping, both spiritually and physically.

But, more clearly by now, we know that Jesus did not keep his distance from them. Like a hurdler in the spiritual Olympics, Jesus cleared the spiritual distance between the lepers and himself before you could say “On you mark; get set...” Jesus did not keep his distance from them, at least not the distance that stands between the heart of one person and another, the pain of one person and another. There was no hesitation in his actions or his words.

Several chapters back in the gospel of Luke, Jesus sent 70 of his followers to the towns and villages, a sort of advance team getting the countryside prepared for his visit as he made his way to Jerusalem. Here is what Jesus told them to say to the folks they encountered as they went, his prescription of nearness as the antidote for the disease of distance: “Say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you,’” he said.2 I assume there were plenty who kept their distance, but their own distance-keeping didn’t matter, this entire journey to Jerusalem was God’s sign and signal that Jesus was taking up God’s business of coming to us, of coming near, of collapsing the distance that we erect between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the presence of God.

He gave them an instruction that was literally impossible to carry out according to the law. Here is what I mean:

III. Go and show yourselves to the priests

What’s that? According to the ritual laws in Leviticus, lepers who believed themselves to have been cured were supposed to show themselves to the priest so that the priest could certify that they were cured and ready to be returned to the worship life of the community. The showing was to come after the curing, not before. But here we have ten fingerless, noseless, disfigured, ghastly-looking lepers reaching out to Jesus – with maybe seven total digits among them – and he tells them to go show themselves to the priest. But what about the cure? Where, first, is the cure?

I find it amazing that every single one of those sick people turned on their heels, or what was left of their heels, sensing immediately that this word of Jesus was to be trusted, without hesitation or a second thought. Luke says, “And as they went, they were made clean.”

IV. Go on your way, your faith has made you well

I want to say a word about this phrase. It may have caused almost as much misery as it has cured. Millions pray for cures from disease and misery and are not cured, so is their faith too little? That would be a harsh lesson, following on Jesus’ declaration to the disciples last week that any amount of faith is enough to make miracles, even faith small as a tiny mustard seed. The word Luke used does not technically mean “well.” If we read the passage this way, it turns last week’s lesson on its ear, declaring that mustering as much faith as we can is the key to experiencing God’s grace. It does an injustice to those who have faith, deep faith and yet are not made well, like Saint Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, who suffered some physical affliction throughout his ministry, in spite of many prayers.3 Who can dare say that what stood in the way of Paul’s cure was the possession of insufficient faith? No, Jesus’ word has a broader meaning in the Greek language, and it is better translated as, “Your faith has made you whole.” A truly spiritual person responds to God’s will in more than mere obedience, though obedience is the first step of faith. There is another step, and the Samaritan leper took it, as an example to us all.

One preacher, a woman who is a breast cancer survivor, has said, “gratitude brings buoyancy. It is the antidote for fear. Gratitude flips despair on its back and says, ‘You’re not robbing me of today.’” And she is right. It is gratitude that gives the day – any day – meaning. The ingrate lives in the same foul, meaningless, plodding world day after day, but a touch of gratitude changes everything because it accepts the changes God is bringing about in us, day by day, inside and out.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 There is no such book, as far as I know. But it does sound like a fun idea for a book doesn’t it?

2 Luke 10:9

3 see 2 Corinthians 12:7

4 "Windfall" by Barbara Sholis, Christian Century, October 5, 2004, p. 20