Text: Luke 17:11-19
Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. If, indeed, the point of worship is to offer to God our praise and gratitude for God’s goodness and compassion towards us, what better Jesus story to highlight than the story of the tenth leper. The image of the healed leper returning to the one who had cured him is a powerful reminder that our greatest response to God’s love is one of gratitude and thanksgiving. There is no debating that one of the lessons we are to take away from this story is a lesson about gratitude and offering our gratitude to God. There is also no debating that Luke also wants us to understand that there is a difference in being cleansed or cured or healed, and being made well or whole or even saved. Those are the obvious lessons of this story. Both are exemplified in the actions of the tenth leper. But I am wondering if there are there other not-so-obvious lessons we can take away from this story? Do the other nine have something to teach us as well?
Before delving too deep into the not-so-obvious lessons of the text, I want to acknowledge two things about this text that stand out to me. First is the question that Jesus asks the tenth leper when he returns to offer his praise for being healed. Jesus asks what seems to me to be a pointed, and in some ways a disingenuous, question: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” One could argue, and rightly so, that the other nine were doing exactly what Jesus had told them to do. He had commanded the ten to follow the law—to go and show themselves to the priests. It was the only way they could be accepted and integrated back into the community. The priests were the only ones who could pronounce the lepers clean, thus giving them permission to reenter society. We have no indications in the story—no reason to believe—that they were doing otherwise. They didn’t stop by the local dive for a celebratory beer. They didn’t run home to see family first. By all indications they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. So, why the question to the tenth leper?
The other standout in this story—one that has troubled serious students of the biblical text for decades—is Jesus’ final statement to the tenth leper: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Preachers and self-proclaimed religious healers have used this one verse to heap spiritual abuse on those who are physically vulnerable. Their message: if one has enough faith they will be healed; and if they are not physically healed it is because they don’t have enough faith. It is an insensitive and manipulative interpretation of scripture. And it is not true. People of deep faith and belief get cancer and die. They die because their physical body is racked with illness and disease. Not because they don’t have enough faith or belief. People—good people—suffer in this life. Not because they don’t have enough faith or belief, but because suffering is a part of the human experience.
There is an interesting play on words in this text. Jesus doesn’t say to the tenth leper your faith has cured you or healed you. No, Jesus says: “your faith has made you well.” The more accurate Greek translation would be “your faith has saved you.” It is important to note that the meaning of salvation is “to make whole.” It is not about saving us from something (like hell) or making sure we get into heaven. Salvation is about finding wholeness in this life. It is about healing our hurts and disappointments. It is about reconciling our differences and making peace within our souls and out in our world. It is about knowing that we are God’s beloved. Salvation is about liberating our selves to be the person God created us to be. When Jesus said to the tenth leper “your faith has made you well” he wants to make clear that there is more at stake than mere healing or being cured in body. What is at stake is body and soul. It would be disingenuous of us to pretend that the cleansing of the lepers was insignificant. Physical healing, whenever possible, is significant. And yet, in the story of the ten lepers, Jesus points us beyond our physical well-being and asks us to consider our spiritual wholeness. Are our souls at peace? Do we know ourselves as God’s beloved? Do we know that God’s love is larger than our mistakes? Do we believe that love is stronger than hate and compassion stronger than judgment? I don’t know why Jesus said to the tenth leper “your faith has made you well,” but I don’t think it was an attempt to say that the other nine did something wrong. I think it was an honest reminder to the tenth leper and, thus to us, that being made well is not just about physical healing but also about spiritual healing.
It strikes me that theologians have interpreted this story within the familiar dichotomy of good and bad—trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong. In holding up the example of the tenth leper we have been critical of the other nine. We praise the tenth leper for getting it right and we criticize the other nine for getting it wrong, although they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. I want to suggest this morning that maybe it is time that we look at this story through some other lens than that of right and wrong. What if there isn’t a right and wrong in this story? What if what the other nine did was just as important as what the tenth leper did? What if we used our energy and imagination to consider the possibilities of how the other nine went on to show their gratitude after being pronounced clean by the priests?
Here’s what I imagine they did. I imagine that when they saw someone hungry, they gave them something to eat, because they knew what it was to be hungry. I imagine that when they encountered someone thirsty, they gave them a drink, because they knew what parched lips felt like. I imagine that when a stranger knocked on their door, they welcomed them in, because they remembered what it was like to be outside and alone. I imagine that when they saw someone cold because they didn’t have a coat, they gave them one. I imagine they took care of the sick by taking them food or helping them get to the doctor or simply sharing a visit from time to time, because they still carried the memory of the physical pain of being diseased and the spiritual pain of being isolated. I imagine they visited those who were in prison, speaking to them words of hope and compassion. I imagine they held the hands of those whom society deemed untouchable—the despised, marginalized and forgotten—because they had lived the life of the condemned. I imagine they took to the streets in that region between Samaria and Galilee and marched for the rights of those whose rights were being denied. I imagine they occupied their Wall Street. I imagine they stood at the back door of their churches and handed out lunches to the working poor. I imagine they sat on boards and committees of their sacred and civic institutions trying to make their communities a better place for all people. I imagine they studied peace and worked for justice. I imagine they lived into their personal histories of pain by showing love to the world in every way they could.
We have no reason to believe that the other nine didn’t express their gratitude for being made well. So instead of thinking that the other nine did something wrong, or didn’t do something right, why not let ourselves imagine all the possibilities of how they expressed their gratitude for God’s love and mercy. Maybe such imagination will open the door to the healing we need in order to be made well, whole, and even saved.
So how will we take this text into our lives? How will we use Jesus’ words? Will we read only at the surface, and use this as one more parable to reward ourselves for being right, or judge ourselves for being wrong? This is what I know about this story. I am not always able to turn back and begin from a place of gratitude. Sometimes I need the priests to pronounce me clean before I can fall on my knees and be made well. Sometimes I need the validation and the comfort of company that the nine offer. And yet I trust that Jesus can bless that path as fully as he blessed the one. None of us are outside this story. We have all been touched in some redemptive way. Some of us are here today ready and able to stand in a place of gratitude. I offer you the blessing of knowing that you are made well through your gratitude. Some of us are here today seeking a place from which we can turn back and offer our gratitude—still seeking to feel God’s joy and God’s love so that we may feel well. I offer you the blessing of knowing that you are not doing it wrong; and that you, too, are made well through your seeking.