Cleansed, Healed, and Saved

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October 13, 2019

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Please note: At the Tenth Annual Cathedral Gala, attendees submitted words into a drawing to be included in the sermon: triskaidekaphobiaperfunctorybailiwickmellifluous, and grits.

"When he saw that he was healed, [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him."

But how did he know? What enabled him to see? And – most importantly – of what was he healed? The story of the ten lepers is one which I remember from classes on the Bible when I was a small child. As part of a good, middle-class upbringing in polite society, I think that in the long-ago era of my childhood this intriguing episode from Luke’s gospel had a particular popularity in children’s formation, because it was often held up as simply being a story about the universal blessing of having good manners – of knowing how important it was to say a nice ‘thank you’ to your elders and betters.

And in this simple account of the story we have just heard, the only thing missing in this straight-forward, moralistic tale was the presence of two other lepers. Because, when Jesus was trying to give us universal messages in the context of a bunch of people, it was more usual that he did so in a group of twelve men, not ten. Nobody has a definitive answer for why there are only the ten lepers mentioned in this story. I guess it is possible that as he was putting the finishing touch to this narrative, Luke had a momentary touch of triskaidekaphobia, and couldn’t face the customary thirteen people staring at him from his manuscript!

But all of this is to relegate this curious, powerful and subtle narrative to the level of the glib and trite, and to make the message all too superficial. And I’m afraid that such a trap has beset not just well meaning Sunday School teachers from generations long ago – if you fail to read this story with fairly close attention, it is still too easy to think it is only about the necessity of saying ‘thank you’.

After all, the conversation in the entire story is pretty limited. The ten lepers shout out from a distance the briefest of requests – six words in our translation this morning, and a mere four in the original Greek in which Luke first penned this story. And, from nine of the ten, that’s all we hear, and, indeed, all we see – they are gone, no sooner than they appear. Only one of the ten comes back to say ‘thank you’ – a statistic which clearly does not impress Jesus. I can still hear my teacher saying from some fifty years ago, “And so, little children, you’d better to remember to make Jesus happy by being polite and always saying thank you!”

But, while I am all for good manners, whether on the lips of children or grown ups, this reading of the story simply doesn’t answer the questions which Luke is trying to make us ask. Indeed, perhaps the real question is to ask what this remarkable man, this foreigner, was actually saying ‘thank you’ for. Some of you will know the famous prayer attributed to the golden-mouthed saint we call John Chrysostom, often said at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer in our Anglican/Episcopal tradition. It is the prayer which says, Fulfil now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us… - well, when you read today’s gospel properly, you may well think it was the inspiration for this prayer.

For these lepers, in a manner that is utterly perfunctory, ask Jesus to have mercy on them. That is their request – that is their prayer. And, in response, Jesus sends them off to the religious authorities, and, as they journey, Luke tells us that that they were made clean. And that is a good illustration of the fulfilment of a petition as was genuinely best for them – it wasn’t, however, the literal answering of the request that they made.

For, like so many others who shared their affliction, these ten lepers were nobodies. Consumed by a disease which, before the modern era of antibiotics and scientific medical care, was not merely a death sentence, it was an ugly, and protracted death sentence – and for many of its victims, it made life pretty deathly, well before anyone actually died.

You took note, I am sure, that this story takes place in the region between Samaria and Galilee. These ten children of the one God are exiles from any and every community. They dare not even approach Jesus, for Luke tells us that they are Keeping their distance.

It is no wonder that the prayer on the lips of these ten was for mercy. For nobody was in the habit of showing these guys mercy. They were excluded and unwelcome, living on whatever scraps of food would come their way at the edges of society, unjustly viewed as fearsome (for while leprosy is contagious, extensive contact is needed for it to pass between people), and thus treated with utter hostility and prejudice. A bit of mercy would have been a welcome respite.

What they did not ask for – in a literal sense – was to be rid of their disease – presumably because their pre-scientific mindset simply could not have comprehended that such a thing could be possible, which – without the Son of God happening to pass through – it wasn’t. 

And so Jesus sends them off to the priests. Because, of course, it was the priests who determined who was and who was not ritually unclean. Mercy – if it meant access to real society once again – mercy was their bailiwick and nobody else’s, which is why Jesus sends the ten off in such a direction. And maybe, as they obey Jesus’ instruction, and thus start walking into the nearby village, rather than skulking on its edge, maybe they think that what Jesus is offering them is advocacy - that he’ll take their side if they beg for mercy with the authorities who get to rule who is in and who is out. Maybe they think that this important rabbi, to whose words so many people have started paying attention, maybe they think he’ll argue for them to be better treated.

But, as they discover, that’s not how it’s going to work. For as they went, they were made clean. That wasn’t what they prayed for explicitly – but, Chrysostom-like, it is the answering of a prayer as is best for them. And we may assume, I think, that as the nine of them rolled up to see the priest, he will have looked them over, and realized that there was, in fact, no sign of anything requiring them to be branded as ritually un-clean, and so, in mellifluous tones, he will have pronounced them clean, and thus restored to the community from which they had been so grievously exiled.

And that, I guess, was, a satisfactory ending to the story – the story of the nine Jewish lepers who had asked for mercy and been given something more, as they nervously remained some distance from the Son of God, and, instead, got up close and personal with the priests of the Old Covenant. That was certainly a satisfactory ending for 90% of the participants in this gospel story.

But God’s ideal for God’s children – for any and all of God’s children – is always for a result that is more than merely satisfactory. Because it stands to reason that Good News must – surely – be better than merely satisfactory new. And thus it is that one of the ten opens his eyes… and opens his heart and his soul and his mind – and he discovers that he is healed.

And do not, not for one minute, think this is just sloppy writing by Luke. Do not remotely dare to think that these are just synonyms that the evangelist is carelessly throwing around without any precision. Luke is a master craftsman, and his language is precise, and thus it is that the Samaritan leper sees that he is healed. Like the others, he has been made clean from his leprosy, but – in his case – the result is that he sees that he is healed. And so the question we must surely ask if of what disease was he healed? How did he know this? What did he see that told him he was healed – healed, and not just merely made clean?

Leprosy, as we are so clearly reminded not just in this gospel passage, but also in that striking story from Second Kings, leprosy is an affliction that demands cleansing. Elisha and the great Syrian commander Naaman trade words about cleanliness, and cleanliness is what is given to the ten lepers. But this one – the one who is the outsider amongst the outsiders – the one Samaritan in the story - this one sees that he has been healed. And he sets us the task, or Luke sets us the task, to work out exactly of what it is that he has been healed.

And the answer, I think, is that he has been healed of his inability to show gratitude, to show real gratitude. He has been healed of his inability to praise God. It is, I think, the only reading that makes any sense of Luke’s entirely deliberate use of words in this story. And do not for a second underestimate just how important this story is, because the disease of which this leper is healed is a disease which, unlike leprosy, is just as prevalent in our own age and era, as it was in the varied ages of the books of the Bible. 

The latest book by the well-known Episcopalian theologian and author Diana Butler Bass bears the simple title Grateful, and is a fascinating and provocative study of the joys and the challenges of doing gratitude properly. And, at the risk of trying to simplify her message into one sentence, and if I have understood her writing correctly, she warns us of the self-centered perils that result from what you might call ‘transactional gratitude’, and she encourages us towards what she sees as a more appropriately theological and spiritually rich form of gratitude – a gratitude that is higher and so much more wonderful than the predictable feel of give and take.

If you want to get a sense of what she means, it is probably at its clearest in a quotation she uses from the first Republican debate in the 2015 primary season, when ten contenders to be the presidential candidate for the GOP gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, to be grilled in front of thousands of people.

At one point in the debate, Donald Trump was asked about donations he had made in support of democratic politicians urging liberal policies. His answer, as Bass demonstrates in her book, gives us a revealing insight into what happens when gratitude goes wrong:

 “I gave to many people… I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me…with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn’t have a choice because I gave.”  

And, it should be said, in utter fairness to the President, as he described this transactional process, he also said, “that’s a broken system” – and, about that, I think he is totally correct.

Now Jesus is not out to bring a healing that only inculcates people into this transactional trap, no matter how well-intentioned it might be. Bass’ book begins with her incredulity at receiving a beautifully presented card on which were inscribed the words, “Thank you for the lovely thank-you note!”. True gratitude, so she reminds her readers, has to be about more than a sense of expectancy and fulfillment, or give and take. And it is a lesson which sometimes is best taught to us by the most unexpected people.

The arrogant Naaman, who was a man who clearly had no illusions about his status and seniority, is bemused to find himself in dialog with Elisha, described as being ‘the man of God’. Indeed, the whole journey has clearly been an utterly bemusing one for this autocratic and self-important figure. I picture him sitting at the breakfast table with Mrs Naaman, happily tucking into his bacon, and eggs, or his shrimp and grits, or whatever ancient Syrians had for breakfast. And as he is looking over the Aramean Tribune, and muttering a predictable curse about his leprosy, Mrs Naaman nervously mentions that the serving girl – the foreign serving girl, as if she could know anything worth knowing at all – this brazen serving girl has some mad idea that he should go and seek a cure from some religious crackpot in Israel.

And, when he finally rolls up at Chateau Elisha, the process only gets the more demeaning, when he, too, is cleansed, and, like the lepers who would come many centuries after him, cleansed by the simplest of commands and actions, issued remotely by another figure on whom the favor of the one God manifestly rests.

Sadly, as is so often the case, this wonderful story from the Old Testament has been hacked around by the all too simple whims of the compilers of the lectionary, and, as a result, we miss the vital denouement of this wonderful story. Not only have we had to suffer a bizarre cut of three verses, which causes the King of Israel to enter the story tearing his clothes without any explanation, but at the end of the story, Naaman’s words are cut off literally in mid flow. Let me assure you that if you open your Bible to the appropriate passage, you will not find a period after the words ‘except in Israel’. What Naaman actually says is, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused.

The lectionary compilers didn’t get it, but I hope we do get it. I hope we can see that there is more – much more – to both these stories than simply the ‘cleansing’ of lepers, be they a powerful general, or a group of despised and isolated ‘nobodies’.

And so, back in the Jesus story, this one leper finds that he is not merely cleansed, but he is healed, and as a result, with a loud voice (so we are told), he gives praise to God, and he offers gratitude – true gratitude – to Jesus. And it doesn’t stop there. Just look at what happens at the end the story…

For as Jesus commends this lowly outsider – the outsider who is most outside of the ten of them – as Jesus acknowledges how this one man of ten has returned to show his gratitude, he reveals the true blessing that has been bestowed in this remarkable exchange. For, as this one man is allowed to go – not, of course, to go back to appease the priests of the Old Covenant, but to go, as Jesus tells him, on your way… - to go where he wishes to go, Jesus tells him something even more utterly remarkable.

But it is so remarkable that English translators of this passage are consistently nervous about it, and, to my eyes, they have deliberately watered it down. For Jesus tells him that your faith has made you well…. Except, if you look back to the Greek that Luke actually uses, that is not what Jesus says. What he actually says would more regularly and normally be translated as “your faith has saved you.”

And, whatever New Testament scholars may argue, what we can see in Luke’s very expert Greek is that he has deliberately taken us on a verbal and theological journey as this Samaritan leper’s discovery of the Good News has unfolded. Luke has taken us from the cleansing word katharsis to the healing word iaomai, but now – at the conclusion of this breathtaking story – he has led the leper, and thus he has led us – you and me – to the word sozo – the word from which we get the English word salvation.

And he doesn’t even leave it there! Because Luke likes to explain, or at least, he likes to drop hints about what he is up to. Which is why if you read on, if you have a look at what happens immediately after this wonderful story, we read the following:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And if there was ever someone who discovered the truth of this remarkable fact, it was that Samaritan who was cleansed, healed and saved, all in one brief command of Jesus that brought the kingdom of God right into the midst of that scary border country where there had been no other kingdom or society to offer hope, or compassion or love. Is it any wonder that the only response today’s hero could make, as Luke tells us so clearly, was to praise God, and to do so with a loud voice.

And that is why, just before we leave church this morning, we will get to do the same, when we will sing – I hope with an equally loud voice:

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, and she who reigns with them in highest heaven. Eternal Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was – as that leper discovered so richly – is now – which is why we dare come here today – and shall be evermore. Amen.