Ten Lepers Leaping
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
“Ten Lepers Leaping”
Jesus first knew they were there by the tinkling of the bells that the lepers wore around their necks. The sound of the bells was quickly drowned out by their voices: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” The wind caught at their voices, and they cried out all the louder so that he could hear them from that distance. Lepers were required by law to stand at least 50 yards away if they were windward of a healthy person.
Lepers were surrounded by a wall of shame; isolated from others not because of anything they had done, but because of their very wrongness. Layer upon layer of laws and regulations that forbade touch and closeness between lepers and healthy people reinforced that wall of shame. The deep, aching question that worried them in their isolation was this: Has God abandoned me?
Separated from the “healthy” world, the lepers banded together to form their own ragged community. Their country, their religion, their belief system did not matter. In leprosy, they were united. Leprosy was their country, leprosy was their family, leprosy was their identity; the lepers had become their disease. Avoided, ignored, outcast, unclean, the leper’s bell rang the music of abandonment with its plaintive refrain: Has God abandoned me?
In the leper, the specter of death stood unmasked. Even the barriers erected around them could not stave off the primitive terror that they aroused in people. Eventually people would not see them at all, would block them out completely. All they heard was the tinkling of the warning bells.
“Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us.” Jesus turned and looked at them, swung his head around and found them with his eyes, saw them with his heart, heard the question asked by their distanced presence: Has God abandoned me? And his heart broke for them, for the pain that they endured, for the shame that ate them alive, for the loneliness that he could almost smell on them. His heart broke for them. Jesus understood that the thing the lepers needed most was to be healed of their deep aloneness.
“Go,” Jesus said. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The priests held the power to pronounce them officially healed. They held the keys to the gateway back into society, into relationship. “And as they went they were healed.”
Yet only one leper returns to thank Jesus. We expect to see ten lepers leaping with joy and thanksgiving, but there is only one. Jesus asks a simple question: where are the others? Perhaps we hear his question through the filters of the voices of our mothers, who taught us to write thank-you notes for a gift or a kindness. And we think guiltily of all of those thank you notes that never got written or even spoken. Or worse, we think of the endless missed opportunities of thanking God for God’s abundant gifts to us.
Jesus merely raises the question: “Where are the others? Was only one found to come back and give thanks?” Jesus asks the question, and we read our judgment into his question, ready, as we are to dismiss them as ungrateful wretches.
But Jesus’ question haunts me. “Where are the others?” If we engage in our imagination, these nameless lepers suddenly begin to take shape in our minds. The nine other lepers start to develop story lines and to have histories and to become more and more human to us. If we are so quick to judge by appearances, to write someone off by their actions or their words or their inability to articulate a proper thank you, then we might miss out on a story that moves our heart with compassion. If we are quick to judge, and don’t look beneath the surface to find out what is really going on in a person’s life, then we fail to make connections, to build community, and perhaps we inadvertently contribute to further isolating a person who might wonder if God loves them.
Where are the others?
In his book, The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell speculates about the reasons the nine didn’t return. He suggests that one didn’t return simply because he was afraid. What Jesus had done frightened him, and he ran off to find a place to hide until he could adjust to being healed.
Another didn’t return because he felt offended. He expected that he should be required to do something to earn his healing. The months and years he had spent praying and fasting didn’t seem like enough. Surely he had to rub away that shame by finally earning his healing through enough perfect action.
Maybe another ran away because his status of being healed was too confusing to him. His whole identity had become shaped around his status as a leper, and he didn’t know who he was if he was a healed person.
The fourth leper didn’t return because she was so overcome with joy that she ran wildly through the streets shouting about what had just happened to her. She stood in the town square and said over and over again: God has not abandoned me!
Bell imagines that the fifth leper had become so bitter that he had stopped saying thank you to anyone. People made him beg for every scrap he got, they gave grudgingly, the thanks they demanded was more about celebrating their generosity than about being kind. The leper was so filled with resentment that he couldn’t find it in himself to say thank you to Jesus.
And maybe the sixth leper was a woman who had been separated from her family for so long that she couldn’t wait to see them again. She had missed out on holding her children when they were young, and the thought of touching their sweet faces again sent her running through the streets like a horse heading for the barn.
What stories do you imagine for the rest of the lepers who did not return? One didn’t think Jesus had anything to do with the healing? Another had legal business to tend to? Yet another wanted to race to the bedside of a dying parent before it was too late?
Bells’ interpretation of the story challenges us to move beyond our quick judgments of others. He reminds us that “condemnation comes more easily to us than investigation.” He writes “…if we take the time to investigate the reasons why people act as they do, we would find that they have to act the way they do and that such action in the light of the circumstances is quite understandable and totally forgivable and even completely reasonable and just as it should be…”
“Where are the others,” Jesus wonders. You get the feeling that he really cares, that he really wants to know the rest of their story. And that maybe he wanted them to come back again so that he could look them directly in the eye and say it clearly, just in case they didn’t understand: “God has not abandoned you. God has come to heal the deepest shame that has kept you in prison for too long.” Maybe Jesus wanted to look them in the eye to make sure that they knew that God had come to love them. And that even when they didn’t say a proper “thank-you” that God understood why. Because God is quick to investigate, to look for the whole story, and slow to condemn.
And the one who returned to say thank you to Jesus; what was his story? We can only guess. But what we see is a person who may have been de-formed by a disease, but who was also formed by his suffering into a person characterized by gratitude and compassion. The grateful leper’s status as an outsider has made him sensitive to other outliers, like Jesus.
Remember, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. As he moves toward the cross Jesus becomes more and more alone; more and more of an outsider. In returning to thank Jesus, the leper mirrors the truth: “God has not abandoned me.” The leper’s gratitude becomes an act of companioning Jesus on his way to the cross. His thanksgiving confirms for Jesus that even he is not alone. The outsider the foreigner the Samaritan, the stranger, the other, comes to be with Jesus.
On the cross Jesus himself wonders if God has abandoned him. I hope that in those last moments of his agony, that Jesus caught a glimpse of the face of the grateful leper- shining with the unshakable knowledge that God does not abandon us, that God’s love is forever. May we know that too.