If Only One
Scripture - Luke 17:11-19
Lepers became part of my nightmares at an early age, after I watched a film with my parents & godparents directed by Federico Fellini. I don’t remember what the film was about, but I do remember the lepers. They lived in caves, out of which they crept like vampires, shielding themselves from the light, their heads covered with hoods, their whole bodies hidden under tattered clothes. The first sound was the tinkle of the bells they wore around their necks, but as they approached the camera – as they approached me – they began to cry out in their tiny voices. “Unclean! Unclean!” they cried, as they stretched out their hands for food. Their hands missing thumbs, missing fingers, which was horrible enough, but then they were on top of me & I looked up into their hungry, eaten faces – faces that have been with me ever since.
That is, thank God, the extent of my exposure to lepers, but not so for the people of the Bible. Leprosy was a dread but common affliction in those days, so common, in fact, that lepers had a prescribed social role, & a religious one too. The Book of Leviticus spends 2 whole chapters teaching priests how to diagnose diseases of the skin, how to pronounce lepers ritually unclean, & how to perform rites of purification should they be healed. As for the lepers: Anyone with an infection of skin disease must wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their upper lip, & shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” They will be unclean as long as they are infected. They are unclean. They must live alone outside the camp. (Lev. 13:45-56)
Leprosy was not seen, however, as a punishment for sin. It was understood instead as an inexplicable act of God, which made it even more frightening. If there was nothing you did to deserve leprosy then it followed that there was nothing you could do to avoid it, & so lepers were shunned – because their disease was contagious, certainly, but it was more than that. It was their pain, their loneliness, their unspeakable fear no one wanted to catch, & so they were kept at a distance, barred from the religious community, & declared unworthy of God. They were the unclean outsiders, not to be mistaken as having anything in common with the healthy insiders. Do you understand? They live over there; we live over here. We are not like them. God knows we feel sorry for them, but you must be sensible about these sorts of things.
None of this was challenged by the lepers themselves. They could not work, after all, & they depended on the charity of the insiders for their survival. So, they dressed as they were told, spoke as they were told, & did not cross over the line that had been drawn to separate them from those with unblemished skin. They were obedient. They followed their orders, & even when J, that renowned healer of lepers, came to town they did not break rank. They stood at the proper distance & said the proper things. Jesus, Master, they said, calling him by his messianic title, show us mercy!
So, he looked at them & saw what anyone would see, that they were eaten up with leprosy & needed all the mercy they could get. He did not touch them – there was no mud, no spittle, no talk of faith this time, just an order: Go, show yourselves to the priests. And they did, disappearing as obediently as they had appeared in the first place.
None of them asked why, but there was only one reason to go see the priests & that was to receive a diagnosis, a verdict: clean or unclean, insider or outsider, member of the community or beggar on the outskirts of town. None of them asked why, but as they went to do as they were told they were cleansed – the scabs went away, the color returned, the feeling came back into limbs that had been numb for years. And 9 went on to do as they were told, to have the priests in Jerusalem certify their cures & restore them to society.
But one did not do as he was told. One, when he saw that he was healed, cried out, turned back, & did not rest until he lay on his face in the dirt at Jesus’ feet, praising God & giving thanks. He made a spectacle of himself, even more so once he was recognized as a Samaritan, a believer in the Torah as far as he was concerned, but a Gentile & a foreigner as far as the house of David was concerned. He was, in other words, a double outsider – once by virtue of his leprosy & twice by virtue of his non-Jewish blood – a double loser lying at the feet of Jesus & thanking God as if God was somehow present in a man, & somehow revealed in the presence of that man. He was one of the unclean who saw what the clean could not see, & who refused to be separated from what gave him life.
It is hard to say what effect the tenth leper’s response had on Jesus. Something happened though, because suddenly, he started asking questions. Weren’t 10 cleansed? Where are the other 9? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner? He then turned to the tenth leper. Get up & go. Your faith has healed you. Or more correctly from the Greek, your faith has saved you.
When you stop to think about it, this is all very strange. Didn’t Jesus tell all 10 to go show themselves to the priests? And didn’t 9 do what they were told? Didn’t this one, in fact, not do what he was told, & even flaunt his disobedience with a great sloppy show of emotion? And weren’t all 10 healed? Then how come this one got special treatment, got told his faith had made him well? Weren’t all 10 made well? What is going on here?
Ten were healed of their skin diseases, but only one was saved. Ten were declared clean & restored to society, but only one was said to have faith. Ten set out for Jerusalem to claim their free gift as they were told, but only one turned back & gave himself to the Giver instead. Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; but only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love. I think there is a lot going on here.
There is a lot going on in the opioid epidemic, where today’s outsiders live. When a child’s life becomes ruled by substance abuse, everyone’s lives are affected – in bad ways. It would be a whole lot easier to prevent the addiction in the first place.
Today as you fast, pray, listen & respond, ask God to show you how we can prevent our children from ever becoming addicted. How do we keep a child from ever falling into the grips of opioids?
What can the church do in the lives of the children in our community (not just the ones in our church, but those that live all around us) that will prevent them from ever turning to drugs? Ask God to show you who are the vulnerable children in our community. Ask God to help you find these children & get to know them by name. Give God thanks for the adults who knew your name, who cared about your success when you were young.
Drug endangered children need loving adults to show them they are beloved children of God & are worthy of our time & concern. What if God answers our prayer? Are we willing to mentor a drug endangered child & help prevent them from becoming a prodigal son or daughter?
These children have no one at home to help with or encourage schoolwork, proper hygiene, proper nutrition, or acceptable behavior. These children are exposed to the violence & unpredictability of the illegal drug world, & yet we expect them to succeed in school. We wonder why they don’t attend our Sunday school.
In order to have a chance at a life that is not identical to their parent’s life, the drug endangered children in our community need a loving & caring adult to mentor them. A loving adult who shows the child they are valuable & special. What would it cost us to spend time in our local schools helping a drug endangered child learn to read or complete their math homework? An hour or 2 each week? Studies show that if a drug endangered child has a loving, caring adult from outside their family mentor them, the child has a much greater chance at success in school &, in turn, success in life.
Let’s not worry about how many of these children are in our schools. Let’s simply focus on the ones God puts in front of us. If each of us here today would give an hour or 2 each week, Shiloh could affect as many as 100 children for the better! 100 children!
It is not enough to open our church doors & wait for the children to come to us clean, well fed & well behaved. We must leave our sanctuary & find them! Even if it is only one!