Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Story of Thanksgiving: Where Are The Other Nine?

Note: While this is written from my Christian perspective, I believe this essay raises issues for people of all faiths or of no faith at all.

Luke 17:11-19

Jesus was passing along the border of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, ten men who were lepers stood far off and lifted their voices to him, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." When he heard them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were healed. One of them, a Samaritan, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorifying God he fell upon his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Jesus answered, saying "Were not ten healed? Where are the other nine? 18 Are there none who return to give glory to God, except this foreigner?" 19 And Jesus said to him, "Arise, and go on your way: your faith hath made you whole."

This little story about Jesus and the lepers is about a time of great personal crisis brought on by a horrible, incurable disease. And there is no "big deal" in life quite like being really ill, whether it is a sudden onset sickness or a chronic and incurable disease.

Serious illness is one of the worst things life can throw at us. It is not only the pain and physical misery that has to be endured; it is also the mental anguish, first of not knowing what is wrong, and then of knowing and wondering if anything actually can be done about it. All of that mental anguish is a function of being confronted with the truth of our own mortality, or of a painful morbidity that we might have to face for the rest of our life. Death is no longer an abstraction, something that happens to someone else. It is something that is happening to us. It is a time of our greatest vulnerability to the one thing we can't avoid: our own decay and death.

Serious illness is an all too graphic reminder that this life is fragile, finite and short. Even though we know that to be true on an intellectual level it is often only on our sickbed that we finally figure out that our personal earthly life is terminal. At its worst, serious illness is a foretaste of what it is like to have the world go on without you.

Perhaps that is why, when we are well, we often avoid those who are seriously ill. We may send a card or call, but we find it hard to visit. And the more seriously ill a person is the more reluctant we are. I remember that when I was a hospital chaplain back in the early 90s I would watch visitors stream in to see someone who had hernia or gall bladder surgery, or a broken leg. But I would walk down the hall to the AIDS ward and sit quietly talking to those folks and never see them get a visitor for days on end. In those days when science was just confirming how AIDS and HIV were transmitted the general public was afraid that they would catch their death from someone who had that affliction. Literally.

The many stories of Jesus and his dealings with those who had grave illnesses tell us that he understood this fear of death that we try so hard to cover over. This story of Jesus and the lepers takes place as Jesus is on the way to his own death, a death which he has foretold, in Jerusalem. Yet, on that journey he took the time to heal others. In this case, he was dealing with lepers. Ten of them to be exact.

It is hard for us to understand just how awful leprosy was in those days. Leprosy was a sentence of death, a slow, disfiguring, incurable death. But long before lepers died physically, they were essentially dead to anything approaching what we would call living. They were cast out of their homes, separated from their families, forbidden, literally, to come anywhere close to healthy people. In fact, they often lived in caves along the main caravan routes in colonies of other lepers, bound together in their dance with death, calling out for whatever alms they could get for essentials like food. They lived off the scraps of society because to society they were nothing but scraps.

When they moved about they were required to shout "Unclean! Unclean!" so that healthy people could avoid being in close proximity. Meanwhile, the relentless disease ate away at their bodies, distorting their features, even as it ate away at their pride and whatever dignity they had before they contracted the disease. Long before these unfortunates were physically dead, they were dead to their families and their community, even forbidden to practice their religion with those who were deemed "clean".

And so, into this setting comes Jesus, walking along the border between Galilee and Samaria. One of the ten lepers was even more of an outcast to a Jew than were the nine others, for he was a Samaritan. Samaritans were hated as a half-breed, syncretist race who held to a corrupt, compromised religion. That this hatred was ill founded did not really cross the minds of the Jewish leadership. And so, in the eyes of a Jewish rabbi like Jesus it should have been hard to imagine anyone lower than a Samaritan leper.

And thus the scene is set. We see Jesus walking along and, standing far off, the lepers beg Jesus for mercy. What did they want? What could they expect? Did they hope for a few coins, some bread or dried meat? Did they hope for a blessing or perhaps a kind word. Could these lowest of the low actually hope for a miracle?  And why would a Jewish rabbi help them at all, knowing that the priests had condemned them to this life. How could he afford to do anything contrary to custom and law?

Well, Jesus does not break the law nor does he do anything that indicates that there is a miracle afoot. He makes no gestures of healing, does not touch them or come near to them, does not say anything to them that would indicate that he is doing anything for them at all. He simply treats them as if they are healed. And so he commands them to go and show themselves to their priests.

But, why would they? They are a mess, covered with sores, their features distorted, some beyond recognition. Why go to the priests only to be rejected yet again? Had they not suffered enough rejection for ten lifetimes? After all, the priests held their lives in their hands. They decided who was clean and who was unclean. They decided how severe the uncleanliness was and how the affected person was to deal with it.

Yet Jesus, a rabbi, told them to go to the priests as if they were clean. And here is the first miracle: they obeyed. As I have said many times before, trusting obedience is the most rudimentary form of faith: to trust and obey may not seem attractive to us individualists, but it is the first step in faith. Belief "in" something or someone comes later. We do not know why they trusted Jesus and obeyed him. Luke does not say. But many of the graces of God are not explained. I believe that their trusting obedience had to come from some place beyond themselves. It could not have come out of any grace filled experience they had up to that point in their wretched lives. It was a gift of faith.

And so, uncured, they go as they are told to do. And, as they go, the second miracle occurs: they are healed. They trusted and obeyed before they were healed, and having done so they find that they are, in fact, healed.  And nine of them just keep right on going. Apparently they make no connection between their healing and the strange instruction of Jesus.  Like us when we are healed, sometimes we are so happy just to be well that we forget why it happened or who brought it about.

But one leper, the Samaritan, makes the connection between the healing and the healer. He comes back, praising God at the top of his lungs, throwing himself on the ground in front of Jesus and thanking him profusely: "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

And Jesus doesn't pick him up, dust him off and tell him some little comforting parable or saying to remind him of what just happened. Instead, Jesus asks two not quite rhetorical questions. "Hey, what happened to the other nine?" and "Did only you, a foreigner, see fit to come back and praise God?" Then Jesus tells him to go on his way because his faith has "made him whole" (or, "has healed" him).

Now, I know most modern Bible translations say that the man's faith "healed" him. But that is far too obvious a conclusion, and robs the story of its extraordinary power. I believe that phrase should read "your faith has saved you." Luke is trying to tell us something vitally important here and most modern translations are missing the point. The Greek word we see here translated as "healed," "made well," and "made whole" is precisely the word used throughout the New Testament for "saved."

And here is the point I believe Luke is making: we know that all ten were "healed," or "made whole." That is obvious. But only one came back. And that one was "saved" by having done so.  Only one, the Samaritan, turned back to the source of his healing and expressed thanksgiving: joyous, outrageous gratitude; thanksgiving directed at God through the instrument of his healing: Jesus. Only one felt and understood the source of his salvation.

So, what is the difference between the thankful one and the nine who do not come back to say thank you? The ten lepers were all dead people. Spiritually and socially, and, increasingly, physically, they were considered dead. And every one of them would have given just about anything to be made well again, to simply be "normal" and to live a normal life. And Jesus gave all ten of them that. So, what is the only real difference?

Just this. What Luke is really talking about here is the possibility of a spiritual resurrection: a resurrection that gives them a chance to restore relationship with God and not to be just "normal" like other people. And if they did not know that Jesus is about the task resurrecting people to more than just physical life but to be in right relationship to God, then Luke knew exactly that. Story after story in his Gospel portray this role that Jesus plays throughout his ministry.

Luke knew that all of the healed lepers were once "outside" of normal society, and he knew that all are made "insiders" once again by Jesus. But only one, the Samaritan, realizes a spiritual resurrection. This one is not only healed, he is "saved," delivered, made whole, not only in body but in spirit. He alone comes back to say "thanks." He alone realizes that Jesus has now established a relationship with him, and has renewed his relationship with God.  Most importantly, he alone recognizes that he is saved and was accepted by Jesus while he was yet a leper, while he was still sick, untouchable -- before he got well.

That is the true message Luke brings to us in this little story.

Personally I believe that Jesus is saying to the Samaritan, "Your acceptance of my embracing, life giving love, your faith in me even before you knew you were healed, and your recognition that the source of your healing is God; that faith has saved you."

As for the others they too got a wonderful gift for they were healed. The healing of the leprosy came with no strings attached. There was no requirement that they turn back and thank the one who healed them.  And, like us, there is little likelihood that they will. You see they are all back to being "normal." And give it a year and they will forget all about who healed them. After all, their skin is clear, their sores are healed, there is a mortgage to pay, children to raise, shopping to be done, and work to do to make all of that possible.

But for me there remains a certain pathos in that outcome for the nine. What a shame it is to have met the Lord and giver of life and to come away from that encounter only "normal."

What happened to the other nine should remind the Christian believer that we really cannot ignore the One who blesses us, and in so doing not recognize the source of life and the offer of life in Christ's name.

And for my all of my readers, Christian or not, I would hope that you come away from this essay remembering that we really do not get by in this life without the help of others. And when someone comes into our lives and comes bearing life giving, life sparing or life changing gifts, be that person divine or human, we need to ask ourselves: do we both recognize and give thanks for the gifts we are given; or do we take them for granted and believe that no thanksgivings are in order?

The choice, of course, is always ours.