09 October 2016, Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
Jer. 29: 1, 4-7; Lk. 17: 11-19
“Widely believed to be the world’s oldest disease, leprosy is also one of the most stigmatised … [the] stigma surrounding leprosy sees entire families robbed of their job opportunities, education, marriage prospects and their dreams shattered. Fear and misunderstandings surrounding leprosy, such as the disease being a curse for some alleged misdeed, are widespread. In turn they fuel a vicious circle that begins with those affected hiding the first suspect skin patches in order to avoid being shunned by their families and becoming a social outcast.”
This is a quotation from the website of The Leprosy Mission, a Christian charity that strives to break the chains of leprosy, a disease with over 200,000 new cases each year, and empower people to attain healing, dignity and life in all its fullness. Today, while the stigma still exists, it is possible to treat leprosy and halt the progress of the various disabilities associated with it using a combination of drugs. In Jesus’ time, no such treatments were available; the only healings recorded in the Bible are super-natural.
In this morning’s gospel reading we have a group of ten lepers approaching Jesus. “Keeping their distance,” Luke records, “they called out, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” ‘Their distance’ is an important reference to the social isolation experienced by the group; calling Jesus ‘Master’, and asking for his mercy may be an indication that they expect and have faith that Jesus can do something for them; perhaps it’s just desperation?
If we develop the idea that this was a demonstration of faith in Jesus, where might that faith have come from? Perhaps they had heard news of Jesus’ other healing miracles. Perhaps they were familiar with accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures about men of God healing leprosy. Something made them cry out, and something made them follow Jesus’ command to go to the priests, who would not effect a healing themselves, but would confirm that healing had taken place – the first step in reintegration to the life of the community. The ten lepers were not healed before they set off, but were healed “as they went”. It is unlikely that they would have set off to see the priests, with the associated risk of more shame for them and their families without faith that Jesus had the power to heal them. The ten lepers may have been desperate, but they also demonstrated faith.
And so we come to the one who turned back; the Samaritan, the foreigner, whose singling out suggests that the other nine lepers were Jews. On being healed this man begins to praise God, thank Jesus, spontaneously, with a loud voice. This is the appropriate and expected response. He has been set free from the horror and isolation of leprosy and his response is to worship.
In naming the Samaritan, it is likely that Luke is making a theological point about God’s mission in Jesus extending beyond Judaism, but the more universal point is perhaps the scarcity of gratitude. Ten are healed, only one is thankful.
In many of Jesus’ interactions with his own people, the Jews, you sense that they are going through the motions in their religious practice. This is evident in today’s story. The nine Jewish lepers are healed and, without fanfare, they troop off to the priests to comply with their religious practice. Going through the motions, but without thankfulness. Elsewhere in the Biblical account Jesus’ interlocutors go through the motions of applying the law without displaying justice, or righteousness, or love.
The one however, the Samaritan, he gets it. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well,” Jesus says to him. The Greek here implies more than just physical healing, but a wholeness, a healing of body, mind and spirit; a wholeness that comes not just from receiving God’s mercy, but responding to it with thankfulness.
I have a short story about a certain young man grew up in India, where his parents were missionaries, who at the age of nine he was sent to boarding school in England. Five years later, while a 14 year old student there, he received a telegram informing him that his beloved father had died of Blackwater Fever. The boy cherished fond memories of his father, a man who had a great love for people and a great love for the natural world around him.
A short time after he received news of his father’s death a letter arrived by ship for the teenager from his father. Its words impacted deeply. “God means us to delight in his world,” his father said. “Always looking to God with thankfulness and worship for having placed you in such a delightful corner of the universe as the planet Earth.”
That young man was Paul Brand, a brilliant medical doctor, a life-long member of the leprosy mission, and who did pioneering work in the treatment of leprosy.
Sisters and brothers as we meet to receive Jesus’ healing touch in the sacrament of the Eucharist, may we look to God with thankfulness and worship always, and through our response to Jesus may we be made whole.