On the way to Jerusalem Jesuswas going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “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?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
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; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” ~Luke 17:11-21
Imagine it. You are just going through your day, trying to live your life, to be yourself—even your best self! And then, one day, something changes. You are infected, or affected. You have something “wrong” with you that is obvious, to everybody, the whole entire world. And, for the first time in your life, you are shunned. You become an outcast. You are no longer one of the crowd, you are the person standing in the middle when the crowd recoils, and steps back, and some people cover their noses and mouths, and others pull out the hand sanitizer, and still others actually turn, and run.
Imagine what it is to be a leper.
There’s leprosy, and then there’s Biblical leprosy. In our day, we know of something called Hansen’s Disease, actual, clinical leprosy, which has specific markers—bacteria that cause it, means of transmission, symptoms such as skin lesions that make it recognizable, and, thanks be to God, antibiotics that cure it. They are available at no cost from the World Health Organization. So this condition, most often connected with extreme poverty, is becoming more and more rare.
Biblical leprosy is something else, a different disease entirely. Actually, several diseases. In the Bible, “leprosy” is a catch-all name for skin conditions that were not actually contagious at all, but which still caused people to be cast out from the community. This is because they made the people who were afflicted ritually unclean. In other words, those who had “Biblical leprosy” couldn't participate in the religious life of the community. They couldn’t gather with others of their faith to pray. They couldn’t go to the Temple to offer sacrifices. And they were forced to live outside the city, apart from their families and friends, because, even though “Biblical leprosy” wasn’t contagious, being ritually unclean, according to Biblical law, was contagious.
Imagine what it was to be a leper.
There aren’t many leper colonies left in the world. People have a better understanding of science, and medicine. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are outcast, who feel terribly alone, and who find themselves consistently on the outside of life looking in.
In today’s scripture passage, of course, Jesus cures ten lepers. It’s a miraculous healing times ten, and there’s no doubt that it is meant to tell us something about this kingdom of heaven/ kingdom of God Jesus keeps telling us about. In God’s kingdom, there are no lepers. There are no people left on the outside.
But there’s more to the story than that.
When the story begins, Jesus himself is a kind of outsider… he is traveling in the region between Samaria and Galilee. He’s on the border, in the almost-yet-not-quite-there zone between two peoples who have been in a pitched battle with one another for close to 1000 years. Jews and Samaritans are religious and ethnic cousins, and, you know how it is: family fights are the worst kind. Jews think Samaritans are not really Jews, because they don’t like some of their worship practices. Samaritans feel like the family lepers—they are outcasts, and they are mad about it.
When Jesus enters the village, we’re not sure which side of the border he’s on. When he is approached by ten lepers, all we know is that they are outcasts, misfits in their own societies. And they ask him, straight out, for healing. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us.
When the lepers ask for mercy, they are asking to be released. They are asking to be made free from this disease that causes them to be outcasts among their people.
Jesus heals people all the time, but you may have noticed those healings take place in different ways. In one story, he takes the hand of a woman with a fever and lifts her up, and in another story, he reaches out his hand and touches a leper. Jesus makes a paste with mud and his own saliva, and places them on the eyes of a blind man. People are healed by simply touching Jesus’ clothing—the hem of his garment, the fringe of his cloak. For some, healing comes by rebuke—Jesus rebukes the demons that are holding them hostage.
Not so here. The lepers approach Jesus, keeping their distance, and they cry out for mercy, Then, Jesus simply speaks words that presume the lepers are already healed: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This is in obedience to the law—Jews who are healed from their ritual uncleanness have to have it verified by a priest in the Temple. But think of it: these people who have been cast out from the community—these misfits from the leper colony—they are going to the very people who, in effect, have kept them out, the people who interpreted the laws that said, “You cannot come in.” And they now can show themselves and say, “Let me in.”
Imagine. Imagine being an outcast, being a misfit, and then suddenly having the doors that were closed to you, open. The arms that were folded against you, reaching out in embrace. The faces that had been turned away from you, smiling upon you. It’s a dizzying thought. But there are no outcasts in God’s kingdom. There is no one to whom the arms of God remain closed. There is no one who cannot be made whole. There is no one who is not welcomed in.
The story is not over. As you know. One leper—an ex-leper, you might say—remains, for the purpose of giving praise to God, and giving thanks to Jesus. And… it was a Samaritan. And then we remember that this is the gospel that keeps pushing us on the issue of outsiders. This is the gospel that keeps reminding us that the last shall be first, and the misfits are the ones who are the first to get the good news about Jesus, and that the outcast is probably the guy who stops to bandage you up when you’re bleeding at the side of the road, and then to help you into the backseat of his old battered up Chevy so that he can drive you to the emergency room.
As Jesus reminds us: the kingdom of God is among you. The kingdom of God is within you.
It’s just so easy, in this culture of angry noise, to miss that.
The Samaritan returns to thank Jesus—he’s the only one. And there may be an easy explanation for that. After all, the Samaritan is not likely to go and show himself to the Temple priests, because the Temple in Jerusalem is not really his home congregation. Who knows, he may not even have a home congregation. He may never have found one, because he may never have been welcomed anywhere. But he knows one thing. He knows that Jesus welcomed him. He knows that.
What if the ultimate sign of misfits is that they know how to be grateful? That they know, in the moment, what truly matters to them, and they don’t mind bucking the crowd and turning in the exact opposite direction that everyone is going in order to be where they need to be at any given moment?
What if the ultimate sign of misfits is that they bother to say thank you?
Author Brené Brown speaks and writes about the remarkable link between gratitude and joy. Gratitude and joy seem to reside together, in a wonderful feedback loop that keeps restoring and refreshing and reinvigorating itself. She writes,
Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice. And both joy and gratitude were described as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.[i]
What if the mark of the Christian misfit were an unabashed practice of gratitude?
Another writer recommends a bunch of different practices to help us stay in touch with our gratitude. I think the idea is this: it’s not that we’re not grateful. But our lives can be so filled with challenges, and the prevailing noise to which we’re exposed out in the world can be so alarming, or annoying, or appalling, it can be easy for our gratitude to get buried under layers of emotional and psychic garbage. Mind you, it’s not that many of these things that have our attention aren’t important—elections, and hurricanes, and all the people whose lives are at risk from all kinds of situations. But our hearts are important, too. Our ability to cut through the… stuff that distracts us from knowing, as it is said, who we are and whose we are…that is incredibly important. A world of grateful, joyful people would look remarkably different from the world as we know it today.
So here are some practices recommended by writer Molly Mahar.
1. A daily gratitude calendar. This is a twist on a gratitude journal. “Create a daily calendar that you update each year with one thing for which you are grateful. Each year adds another layer of thankfulness and allows you to savor your past.”
2. Share gratitude at the dinner table. It’s always good to give thanks for your meal, but it’s equally good to give thanks for something that happened that day or week. This works well when you are welcoming people to your table who may be from a different faith tradition. “It’s a beautiful way to connect before you share a meal.”
3. Give thanks for the hard stuff. For this one, timing matters—we usually need some perspective on the really tough challenges and losses before it’s possible to imagine being thankful. Give yourself that time. But when you’re ready, try taking a moment to reflect on what the challenges of your life have taught you. Is there anything there you can be grateful for? What have you learned about yourself? How have the hardships helped you to grow?
4. Thank the service people… the person who pours your coffee (or makes pretty designs with the foam on your latte!), the person you give your bank deposit to, or who you see taking care of the flowers in the park. Ask them their name (or look for it on their badge), and say thanks for doing such a great job, or for always being so pleasant, or for giving you your caffeine, or just for being a part of your daily routine.
5. When you see your friends, share the highlights of your week. Sometimes it can be easy to slip into dive into complaints with our friends, until it seems like all we ever experience are frustrations, annoyances, and things that tick us off. But every week—every day—gives us something to be grateful for, even if it is literally the air that goes in and out of our lungs. Take a deep breath and tell your friends what has made you grateful this week.[ii]
When we practice gratitude, we are more joyful. Think of the Samaritan ex-leper, loudly praising God! What if a beautiful movement of grateful misfits began, that covered our whole hurting planet with joy? Not a movement of denial, that refused to see what was bad or painful—but a movement of healing. A movement that caused people to be even more ready to reach out, to open their arms to one another, and to bring one another hope?
Imagine what it could be, to be a joyful, grateful misfit.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
~ ~ ~
[i] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.
[ii] Adapted from Molly Mahar, 9 Unusual Ways to Practice Gratitude, Stratejoy, http://stratejoy.com/2013/03/9-unusual-ways-to-practice-gratitude/