Working in the church affords me a great privilege to accompany people on their journeys through complex and chronic health conditions. It reminds me continually how fragile and precious life is; how isolating illnesses may be; and how hard it is to read these well-known Biblical stories of miraculous healings, knowing that your own disease will never be cured.
Have you ever experienced a situation when you felt not only like an outsider, but also kind of “unclean”? For example, I recall a childhood incident when I emerged onto a playground having just recovered from chickenpox. I still remember how dismayed I was to notice the moms literally pulling their children away from me, as I was still bearing the scabs of this condition - so reversible and minor, as far as illnesses go! That was 30 years ago, and today, of course, the matter of communicable disease is at the forefront of our existence. At the slightest display of potential COVID symptoms, children are removed from schools, and parents - from workplaces. The mass media continually fosters the attitude of mutual suspicion, maintaining that “anyone could be infectious”. Within reason, it is not a bad thing to utilize our knowledge and common sense to try to stop the spread of infection; it is part of our calling to “love our neighbors as ourselves”. But have you thought about how lonely and indeed “unclean” hundreds of thousands of people now feel on a daily basis? Thankfully, for most of us this is a short-lived experience, as our test results come back negative, and we resume our everyday lives. But imagine what it would be like to have no hope of ever doing so. Among other learnings, this pandemic has caused us to reflect on the power of social alienation based on a physical state.
Now, in ancient Israel, the ritual uncleanliness was actually not primarily based on public health concerns (contrary to popular belief!). Instead, illnesses and physical imperfections represented a movement -- a movement from the state of being in God’s presence, towards being in his absence; from "life" into "death". Purification rituals reversed this movement, and symbolized the return from death into life; from enslavement to freedom; from evil to holiness. This was accomplished through offering sacrifices: e.g., the recovered lepers in our today’s story would have to kill one bird and sprinkle her blood, and then let another bird fly into an open field. But Jesus, a Jew in every aspect but this, often behaved as though the ritual laws never applied to him. He knew that “the Father and he are one”, and as such, death held no power to separate him from God’s presence. To demonstrate this, he deliberately healed people by touch, rather than word. His self-sacrifice and resurrection is what mystically enables the movement from death into life for the entire humanity. And so what I would like to emphasise today, is that the ancient stories of miraculous healings were never intended to be read simply as those of physical cures. Instead, these are the stories of restoring spiritual wholeness as manifested by “right” relationships: first with God, and second, within communities.
Our Gospel readings today involved such a healing – a movement from death into life, from isolation to inclusion, from grace to gratitude. In the story, Jesus is said to be heading towards Jerusalem -- i.e., towards his resurrection, and our restoration in wholeness. Along the way, he happens to pass through a no-man’s land between the Samaritan north and Judean south; the rift between which went back to the collapse of Solomon’s kingdom 900 years prior. In this kind of a liminal space, the outcasts from both societies had found their refuge. Hoping for alms, yet knowing their place, the lepers called out to him for mercy. Jesus surprised them and promised them something much better than mere copper coins. What did a Jewish person who recovered from a skin condition have to do to become fully restored into life and worship in their society? They’d have to go to the priests and offer a sacrifice (remember the two birds?) to symbolize their passing back from death into life. So, Jesus tells them to do just that, without actually doing anything to bring about the result. But, faithfully and obediently all 10 go.
Then, they were in for the second surprise. The actual healing occurs on the way, not in the temple as they might have expected. We don’t know whether only one of them noticed the change while still on the road (can you imagine what that was like?), but only one had returned to Jesus, and he was a Samaritan. Of course, I would imagine that at some point the 9 Israelites have also noticed that they were healed, and were probably even thankful, but they perceived the old ritual as the requirement to seal the deal, and ensure their return to normal life. Whereas the Samaritan had nothing to gain from the ritual purification that awaited at the temple. Worse than a foreigner, a leper or not, in the Jewish eyes he would always remain an apostate from the Northern Kingdom, and had no place in their society. So it’s surprising that he even went with the 9 Israelites to begin with.
The Israelites’ desire to pursue the traditional route to wholeness through the established rite was understandable, but it had closed their eyes to a greater insight. The Samaritan was not invested in the system, and so he was free to return with his thanks to the true source of his healing - to Jesus. He was free to appreciate the new insight: that the love of God does not depend on our rites and our faiths, transcends all boundaries, and creates no outcasts.
Our faith can never heal our diseases. But what it can do, is open our eyes to our own everyday encounters with God’s love, each in itself a miracle. When we find ourselves on the margins, alone, in the no-man’s land of rejection, may we be comforted by the freedom to see the things that others do not notice, which results from having nothing left to lose. And when we feel whole and strong, able and privileged, may we never cease to learn from those whom we perceive as less fortunate - the ill, the poor, the bereaved. And as we read in our Deuteronomy lesson, whenever we feel blessed, and our lives are filled with good things, let us not forget to turn back towards God as the source of it all, and give thanks for this abundant grace.