18th Sunday after Pentecost
God of the borderlands, you travel between the foreign and familiar; open our world to those we would exclude and despise; and liberate us when we are outcast that we might learn to praise your name with hearts that are whole and thankful; through Jesus Christ, the Rejected One. Amen.”
Exhausted, starving, frightened people. They drifted from garbage heap to garbage heap finding only rags to wear and scraps to eat. When the wind was right, their collective odor announced their approach and people scattered before them. They’d lost their homes, livelihood, family, friends and the entire community in which they had lived. They lost their dignity.
Lepers suffered from a disfiguring disease that created great hysteria among the people and were required to wear torn clothing and let their hair hang loose. They wore bells as an alarm and announced themselves by shouting “Unclean!” when they approached the boarders of the town looking for food. Now Leprosy in biblical terms did not always refer to what we know today as Hansen’s Disease but to a variety of skin ailments perhaps even something as relatively benign as eczema. If one suffered from what we now call psoriasis, you’d be wearing those bells as well.
The sight of healthy people running in such terror from this rag-tag group was ironic. The ten lepers had no strength; they were famished. All they had was each other and that was it. Perhaps worse than the physical deformity and loss of limbs for true lepers was the pain of utter loneliness and isolation. They lived as marginalized, disposable, exiles.
You may recall the hysteria that the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS epidemic brought to the 1980’s. The stories of how even professional, educated people treated those living with HIV are deplorable. Many of them were forced into isolation. Funeral homes refused burials. Family and friends abandoned them. Many died alone.
It’s easy to be disgusted by how human beings caused other human beings such suffering when it’s in the past. The tides of suffering humanity span the chronicle of our world, of global and American history. Today’s lepers don’t come with disfigured bodies but rather with broken spirits and a profound loss of hope.
This story of the healing of the ten lepers has been preached in many congregations over time as a paradigm for thanksgiving. The tenth leper who returns to Jesus, prostrates at his feet and offers praise to God for this healing is raised up as an example of how we should be grateful for God’s intervention and grace in our lives.
I have no argument with that. Medical science has proven that gratitude is good for us. Somehow, though, I don’t see this as the reason Luke chose to tell this story about Jesus. Jesus always had some reason for the way he taught and the illustrations and allegories he chose to make a point. His choice of the lepers suggests that he wanted his audience to be confronted with their fear and repugnance for the most obvious castaways in their society.
The ten would have been women and men. There could have been a child in the mix. The absurdity is that they are despised by their peers because of an affliction that is completely not of their own doing. They cannot change who they are. They had no control over the reason for which they were shunned and spurned. It was terribly unfair.
To stress his point, Luke introduces the tenth leper as a Samaritan—double jeopardy because Samaritans were hated by the Jews. The Samaritan was the ultimate outcast.
The real healing that the ten received went far beyond the transformation of their diseased bodies. The most profound and life-changing aspect of it was their restoration to new life, to the community that had banished them. I wonder if we might see in this story the gift, maybe the healing, that an encounter with another person or community can have, how it might even affect a major life change, gives us a new and refreshing perspective about ourselves, even, perhaps, open up a new world to us.
When Jesus told the Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.” I suspect that he was not speaking about leprosy but about a different kind of wellness. He was commenting on a society that would accept the nine after their cleansing but reject the Samaritan. He was teaching us that deep-rooted human divisions are a much more serious disease; that God does not want any of God’s children living in isolation or exile, forced to the margins of life.
There is a story of three young men who fought in World War II. While in Italy, one of them was killed. Out of love for their friend, the other two decided they would give him a proper burial. That night, while all was still, they carried his body to a nearby cemetery and began digging his grave. The local priest spotted what he considered suspicious activity in the parish graveyard and confronted them. “What are you doing out here in the dark?”
“Our friend’s been killed, and we want to honor him with a proper grave,” they explained. The priest was moved with pity. “Is your friend a Roman Catholic?”
“No Father, he’s not.”
“Then I’m sorry, but that means he can’t be buried in our cemetery. It’s consecrated ground. You’ll have to bury him outside the fence.”
Heartbroken, the two young men filled in the grave they’d begun and carried their friend beyond the fence. There they dug a new grave and buried him.
They returned to their camp but couldn’t sleep. The memory of their friend haunted them. All night they tossed and turned, fretting over what they’d done. So. the next morning before sunrise, they returned to the cemetery and moved the fence.”
And that is what Jesus did for those ten lepers, what he did wherever God’s beloved ones were excluded and ostracized, and what he asks us to do in his name: Move the fence. Move the fence. Move the fence.