by Peter Hausmann
November 16, 2014
One doesn’t run into lepers much these days, least ways in our parts. But Zombies, America can’t seem to get enough of Zombies on TV and in movies in the past few years. Zombie’s are what I usually think of when I hear the word leper in the bible. People corralled in chain link concentration camps, flaking faces, fingers and limbs dropping off like a Dairy Queen chocolate dipped cones in July. The other weekend I briefly got to be a Zombie as I joined up with a number of friends and strangers in down town Durham, We tattered our clothing, painted our faces white, put black under our eyes, applied fake peeling skin, and for the final touch, squirted a grainy faux blood onto our mouths, around our eyes, and out of our ears. Then we began our lurching parade through down town. Odd as it sounds up here, people pretend to Zombies in Durham, pressing faces against barber’s windows and dragging our feet in front of the post office, moaning, all the while trying to not laugh. People smile, point, and pretend to be afraid and are sometimes disgusted. And we get to play a little bit with the fear of being something so other do repulsive that no one will talk with you, let alone touch you.
Imagine if that was the way people looked at you day in and day out. Cringing, curled lips, frowns, fear, curses and hate. Lepers were third or fourth class citizens. They were required to mark themselves so they could easily be identified. Leviticus 13:45-46 reads, “The priest has to pronounce him unclean because of the sore on his head.” “Any person with a serious skin disease must wear torn clothes, leave his hair loose and un-brushed, cover his upper lip, and cry out. Unclean! Unclean! As long as any one has the sores, that one continues to be ritually unclean. That person must live alone, he or she must live outside the camp.” Sounds an awful lot like how we put Ebola patients in isolation chambers, for our safety and for theirs. The distance preserves life in the case of communicable diseases. But leprosy isn’t communicable. But then again neither are most of the things we use to keep others in their place. And distance is how we treat most anyone who is different—stay away. From the older, from the poorer, from the uglier, from the darker, from the sicker, from the less popular. This, this is us. THAT, that is them. And we are not THAT. But God seems to move toward all those thems out there only to say, come near.
Unclean! Unclean! The ten zombies-lepers shuffle toward Jesus. Meeting the requirements of the law, letting Jesus know they are near. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Do you suppose there were other Lepers nearby? Were these just the loudest? Or most desperate. They out of however many managed to get Jesus’ attention, without getting shooed away by his disciples. “Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
Such a strange passage, with so much packed into it. Note where Jesus is, again we find him outside the gated community of Israel. He passes toward Jerusalem on the edges of Samaria and Galilee. Samaria is where the THEY’s of the time live. The Jewish cousins who watered down the gospel too far. Generations before they had split off from the heart of Jersualem, and then got their religion mixed up with other local superstitions. They weren’t just seen as poor knock offs of Judaism, they were considered hostile threats to the ideal Jewish way of life. And so they end up on the edges. Strike One.
Most travelers would go out of their way to avoid the Samaria highway. But not Jesus. Here on the wrong side of the religious tracks lurch up ten leper-zombies. One of whom is a Samaritan, moving toward a rabbi. Strike Two. And shame upon shame upon shame, a leperous Samaritan approaching Jesus. Strike Three. You’re out!
But the ten lepers don’t care about hat shame in this moment, they just call out to Jesus. He turns, looks at them. Then says this strange thing. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Priests? The priests in that day took precedence over the doctors. At least with regard to skin diseases. They were the ones who decided who was sick and who was well, who was in and who was out. If you got a rash, rather than going to the Duke clinic, you’d go to the temple, if the priest looked at you and decided it was more like elephantitis than eczema, then you were banished to the leper camp. No socializing with your old people. Just Gone. Whisked away. The ultimate “you’re dead to me.” Like an obedient ebola nurse you would stay put, until whenever your skin condition cleared up, you could go, show yourself to the priest. If he judged that you were clean, then you’d be let back in to the club, into temple, into life, back to your family.
These guys start for the temple, “And as they went,” it says, “And as they went, they were made clean.” They were made clean. Now some scholars talk on and on about when the cleaning happened, was it because of their turning to go toward the temple. In that act of obedience they are cleaned. Or were they cleaned along the way. Or were they cleaned when Jesus said so. I’m not sure it matters so much. Its like many of Jesus’ healing stories. An encounter, a call for help, Jesus’ pronouncement of whatever the healing is, making well, seeing, cleaning, all these seem bundled up together under the category of Gifts from the King to show that the kingdom is here and now.
Any other time and that would be it, except for the apostle Mark, whose Jesus would add a “and don’t tell anyone who did this for you.” But not here. He Just listened to them, looked at them, and sent them to do what they were supposed to do. That’s all he does for them, cleanses them of their rashes, yes, but then just tells them to do what the old testament says to do. Go see the priest. If you’re clean, he will let you back in. Their obedience isn’t even to Jesus here, it’s to their bible.
Except for the one. He’s not so obedient. You see, he didn’t completely follow that bible. It says that he is a Samaritan. All he knew is that he was sick and now he was well. He was the ultimate outsider but now he had a shot again. He was happy. Because of Jesus.
Over and again, Jesus in his mission to the Jewish insiders bumps into the half-dead outsiders, making a mess of our sanitized ways. Here, Jesus goes beyond mercy to outsider, when he seems to become angry with the insiders who ONLY do what the bible tells them to do. They kept on trudging back to the priests in order to what they used to have. Where are the nine? Were there not 10 who were cleansed??? But this ONE wakes up clean, and is so blown away: look at this, touch that, oh my god. Oh MY GOD! OH MY GOD. HE is jumping up and down like a crazy man, drunk in love, and he turns back, do you suppose he ran for the first time in months, years, stumble running to fall down at the feet of Jesus and giving thanks to God for the cleansing. Love. Passion. Zeal for the person, seems in this case at least, to trump “Doing the right thing.” What if they had said thank you before they left for the priest? What if they too had returned after waking up? Is that all Jesus wanted? I mean he cleansed them with a word and told them to go. But one. Only one paid attention. Only one noticed. Only one turned back to thank God face to face in Jesus. And to only one is it said, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. Or your faith has saved you,” in other translations.
Your faith has saved you. What faith? In ideas? The right doctrine? Words about God, Jesus, the bible? The Samaritan leper was already made clean. What was there to believe? Except to believe that this person did it. Jesus spoke, and he was better. So he goes back to see this person. He praises God from the feet of that person, Jesus.
I am more like the 9, I think. I for nearly 26 years. Oh my goodness, its been 26 years since I prayed “The prayer” No, not the Campus Crusade prayer, but the foxhole prayer started my waking up to Jesus: “Oh god, I can’t do this on my own I need your help” Since then I’ve been more or less a good guy, wanting to know God, and doing the things God followers do, mostly. Given my pledges, served on committees, prayed irregularly, yes, but I have prayed, shown up in worship. I’ve served the church. But passion? Face at Jesus’ feet passion? I’m more like the 26 years of marriage kind of love Christian than the freshly fallen in love kind of Christian. Until I experience some help anew from God in a time of trouble. That’s when I get giddy. Animated. Thankful to this person, Jesus.
Has it been in the schmutzy prayers I’ve mumbled after going a really long time without eating, like 7-8 hours? When I linger in the fear that the news sells me, that there might not be enough of whatever for me. Freedom, gas, Food, money, but I take that bite of food, And I believe again in God, not because I know I can go without, but because I have just gotten my daily bread. Then I feel the passionate gratitude of the 10th.
Or in the deep gratitude when the pain subsided even for only a moment after one of the most excruciating surgeries I’ve ever had? When I remember the pain of that surgical recovery. I believe again in God, not because I know he will prevent me from ever suffering, but because I am not in pain right now. Then I feel the passionate gratitude of the 10th leper.
Or in the awful feeling because of a failure at work that could cost 10’s of thousands of dollars, or a life. .. When I consider that my next mistake at work could get me fired, or get someone killed ( I am in construction after all) I tense up. And I believe in God, not because I think I will always make enough money, or always be employed and useful, but because right now, I have meaningful work, and enough in my paycheck.
When I tighten up in fear when think about what will happen if I reveal my deepest secrets to people around me. And I believe again in God, not because I think people won’t reject me like a leper, but because I remember that I wasn’t rejected by those closest to me when I most let them down? Then I feel the passionate gratitude of the 10th leper one on one with Jesus.
These are the moments I feel the passion of the 10th leper. When I can see, touch, taste that God has helped me. I’m a little embarrassed, because my faith is so fickle, so contingent. Not very spiritual, huh. But like the leper, is it enough? I am I saved simply when I acknowledge the giver of good things? Think about it, all ten were already cleansed. But the only one who was saved was the one who turned around and said thanks. That’s all he did.
There is room for me and for you in this Gospel, where we remember all that God has done for us, and we step out of the routine of counting money with the deacons, figuring out where to put the Christmas wreath, or showing up in worship, worrying about our health, our jobs, our death, to close our eyes and think of even one time that God gave us what we needed in a particular moment.
But Luke won’t this passage just be about “jesus and me” because of that one little line. “And he was a Samaritan.” Because this is also a gospel about the ways we cut off others. And that the God who cleansed, is also the God who crossed borders to make a point of going to THEM. The outsiders. God makes our boundaries permeable, between sick and well and outsider and insider. Calling all to be one under the same God.
And then to fall down at Jesus’ feet praising God.
Dear God, we pray for our Daily bread. Comfort us where we are in lack. Discomfort us where we have drawn lines. In your name. Amen.