Ten lepers, suffering from a terrible disease, outcast, untouchable. Contagious not just in terms of their disease, but religiously contaminated too, and condemned to a slow, painful, lonely death. Ten lepers, knowing their contamination approach Jesus, just close enough for him to hear their plea for help, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ What faith they all had! That in the hopelessness of their condition, new hope was found in the presence of Jesus, the Master. And so Jesus with a heart full of compassion answers them. What will he say? “Your faith has made you well”, perhaps? “Be freed from your disease!”? No… “Go, show yourselves to the priests”. Why on earth would they do that? The last thing that they would want was for someone to look on their disfigurement? To understand why they were sent to the priests you have to read a bit of the Old Testament which prescribes what to do when a person is healed from a defiling skin disease. The book of Leviticus says:
“These are the regulations for any diseased person at the time of their ceremonial cleansing, when they are brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been healed of their defiling skin disease the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the defiling disease, and then pronounce them clean. After that, he is to release the live bird in the open fields.”
They were to go to the priests to be examined and for the priests to determine whether they had actually been healed, and to give thanks to God for their healing. Jesus sends them on their way to do this without having actually pronounced their healing, without any healing having actually taken place. It is only as they go that they were healed. What faith these people have! Not only do they come to Jesus and plead for mercy, they trust his capacity to heal them and act on his command without any evidence of a healing having taken place. They all went to give thanks to God for his mercy to them. These were all good people. Religious people. People of faith. And their faith healed them!
But one leper, seeing his cleansed skin, turned back. Didn’t he care about being declared clean by the religious authorities? Didn’t he want to thank God by offering sacrifice? Why this ingratitude, not conforming to the demands of the law in giving thanks for his cleansing? But one leper turned back —a Samaritan we discover, someone whose nationality as well as his disease had made him an outcast. This foreigner, this heretic, whose errant beliefs separated him from the people of God, he is the only one who truly comprehends what has just happened to him. The law hasn’t made him clean. Religion hasn’t made him clean. Jesus has made him clean. Only he understands that God is uniquely present, not in the temple, but in Jesus. In Jesus God’s kingdom has broken into the wold with healing and peace for all. And so he gallops back, praising God and falls at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks to God for his gift. It isn’t that the other nine healed lepers were ungrateful, but they didn’t see where their gratitude should be directed. They go away healed but the one who returned experienced an even deeper healing.”Get up and go on your way”, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” That phrase can be read “your faith has saved you” – the leper hasn’t just been cleansed of his disease, he has found an inner healing and illumination by realising that Jesus is the location of divine power and healing and light.
All faith, even the most limited or misdirected faith, has the capacity to heal. It makes us more trusting, more open to that which defies explanation, more thankful. But what the gospel calls us to is an ongoing conversion, a greater, truer faith. We are called to have a faith which causes us to throw ourselves on the ground before Jesus Christ and to give thanks to him for the healing and salvation he brings. This story is much more than an exhortation to write thank you notes for presents. It is a story which seeks to turn our thanksgiving in the right direction, to Jesus Christ. Not all of us who are helped by Jesus find true faith. And sometimes the truest faith is found in the strangest places.