Can a Leper Change His Spots?

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“There is so much more meaning in reality than the soul can take in . . . This, then, is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves” — Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

I’ve been thinking lately about the ten lepers that Jesus healed, and the one that returned to thank him. The story is in Luke 17:11-19, and at first glance it seems oddly out of place in the narrative of that chapter. It is one of those pericopes,the nuggets of stories that make up so much of the weight and heft of the Gospels. They are like pearls on a necklace: cut the string and they scatter in every direction, losing value as they bounce away. But scoop them up and place them next to one another and they gain a certain nobility of place.

Jesus and the disciples are heading south to Jerusalem, coming through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As they enter a village, ten lepers, keeping the prescribed distance, call out to him in desperation, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them and answers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And Luke adds laconically, “And as they went, they were made clean.”

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Who do we identify with and why? One of my professors in graduate school told us that in reading the parables, for example, we should stand in the audience which Jesus was addressing instead of standing next to him, basking in our self-righteousness and our proximity to the Master.

If we stood in the audience hearing Luke’s gospel read out loud in gatherings, we would instantly and instinctively react to the prejudice behind this story. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, hated each other with a religious passion that ran deep, generation after generation, like Irish Catholics and Protestants used to. Luke places the event at the border of Samaria and Galilee, a flashpoint of possible conflict or perhaps a neutral zone where peace could break out. The roving band of lepers, cast out with curses from their villages, find a bond of mutual misery together. Jesus is their last, best hope.

Perhaps his notoriety had proceeded him. Perhaps a sympathetic relative tipped them off that Jesus and his disciples were on the road. In any case, the exchange between Jesus and the lepers is brief, decisive, and effective. They ask, he responds, and they are healed when they move.

Nine of them are Jews: we know this because they immediately set out for Jerusalem to be certified as clean by the priests—a journey of several days. So . . . no time to lose.

The verse doesn’t mention how long it took for them to realize they were healed. But one of them saw the new flesh, pink with life. He spun around, praising God loudly (loudly enough for the other nine to hear?), ran back and threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. The one who returned was a Samaritan. Luke points it out in a way that cannot be mistaken, and Jesus rather caustically asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Jesus’ sense of irony rings through this. Here are his own, his people, off down the road without a backward glance, while a traditional enemy, one not deserving of respect by tribal measures, comes back to praise God and thank God’s servant. It’s enough to make a person erase the lines in the sand.

Luke raises the contrast between those getting on with their lives and those who, unexpectedly, in one glorious moment, see God like a fountain springing up from within the eyes of this man. The nine were no less healed in their haste, but having received much had perceived so little.

New Testament scholars tell us that Luke’s gospel was intended to show how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was open to everyone, strangers and foreigners, as well as Israel. That would include us, readers searching the stories for points of contact, people of an era that desperately claws at the slope down which it is plummeting headlong. If there is a “still, small voice” of God to be heard we will have to remove our earbuds first.

Here we are, over 2,000 years later, picking up a Gideon’s Bible in a Motel 6, flipping it open to a random place and finding this story. What could make us pause, finger tracing the words, long enough to turn from the window and sit on the edge of the bed? Northrop Frye says in Words with Power, that “Experience is of the particular and the unique, and takes place in time; knowledge is of the universal and the assimilated, and contains an element withdrawn from time.” Both are needed: the expected flow is from experience to knowledge. Could it be reversed? Could knowledge of an event long ago on a dusty road create an experience that blooms within us? Isn’t that implicit in every story written down and sent into the world?

Abraham Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, “The soul is endowed with a sense of indebtedness, and wonder, awe, and fear unlock that sense of indebtedness.” Look both ways and hold hands when you cross the street together, say please and thank you, clean up after yourself, be good to each other, and don’t tell lies. These are some of the universals, and as we mature we realize how much we owe to others, the indebtedness that has not only kept us on the way, but has made the way even possible. “Oh, the debt I owe,” sings James Taylor in ”Watchin’ Over Me.” “I said oh the damage done/How’m I gonna pay that debt I owe.”

Jesus looks at the man at his feet: “Get up and go on your way,” he says, “your faith has made you well.” What was freely given was freely received. All of the ten asked, all were healed. One came back to thank the Master. What does this act reveal?

An indebtedness acknowledged to an enemy of one’s people renders that enmity chained. And in turning back, the Samaritan not only offers thanks, but sees in the man before him the God of all people, lepers and Samaritans included. Like the others, this man’s body was restored and his social curse lifted; unlike the rest, his faith opened his eyes to the wonder of a meaning he now carried that was greater than himself.

And we may respond, also, to a story with a life beyond its telling. Abraham Heschel writes, “We cannot survive unless we know what is asked of us. But to whom does man in his priceless and unbridled freedom owe anything? Where does the asking come from? To whom is he accountable?”

Our leprosies may be the means for seeing how great is the height and depth and breadth of the love that sets us free.

“We journey through a narrative,” writes Northrop Frye, “and then we stop and confront what we have read as though it were objective. It is not objective, because it is already a part of ourselves. There is a further stage of response, however, where something like a journeying movement is resumed, a movement that may well take us far beyond the world’s end, and yet is still no journey.”

Photo: Alex Woods, Unsplash.com

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