Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 17:11-19

If they had waited for something to change, nothing ever would have. If they had waited for a miracle, they would never have seen it.

Healing of Ten Lepers. Stained glass window, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore.
Healing of Ten Lepers. Stained glass window, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore.

Ten lepers stood at a distance outside a village, separated by their disease, calling out to Jesus for mercy across a no man’s land. Maybe they only expected a coin, or some bread. Maybe they knew who Jesus was and had heard stories about him, had heard that he healed the sick.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he’s going to do anything. Instead, he tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests. They get the point, that they are going to get word that they are healed. All ten of them head off, though they are still lepers when they start walking: the story says that they were healed after they were on their way.

This is a story of borders and of barriers, of the walls we build to separate ourselves from other people and the walls they build to keep us out. It is about looking over the walls, peeping through the cracks, stepping into the gap.

Luke writes that Jesus was walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. The geography of the story is a little vague, but the point isn’t—Jesus was walking in the borderlands, the regions in between here and somewhere else, places where people dropped out or were shoved out, where people slipped into the cracks of society.

That’s where the ten lepers were standing, in the gap, a lost place, near a village but not part of it, one of the places that people in the mainstream only see from the corners of their eyes and forget, or never notice. Luke says that Jesus saw them all.

We might wonder who we fail to see. Some of them are hidden in the deserted places, the alleyways and halfway houses and other deserts that we build into our societies. There are the homeless and the poor, but other people who are in plain sight may be just as invisible, or at least when we look at them we are blind to their injuries and their loss. Sometimes it is because pain can be hidden so well. Sometimes we are more nearly like the priest in that other, more famous, Samaritan story. We see the man lying by the side of the road, but we choose to walk away.

This Samaritan came back. Out of the ten men who go off to find themselves healed, only this Samaritan turns around and comes back to Jesus. Now we might point out that the other nine were doing precisely what Jesus told them to do—go to see the priests, he had said, and they kept going. So why does Jesus welcome the one who disobeyed? Why does he question the absence of the other nine he had sent away?

Christ Cures Ten Lepers. Woodcut. From the Wellcome Trust.
Christ Cures Ten Lepers. Woodcut. From the Wellcome Trust.

That is a problem, isn’t it?

Maybe it is the difference between knowing the rules and knowing why we have them. If you understand the why, you don’t need the rules anymore.

A theologian might say that this is the message of the gospel—live in the presence of the Spirit of God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The Samaritan understood that the ritual didn’t matter; ritual was only a method to respond to God, and this man knew a better way.

A Samaritan and a leper, twice outcast from mainstream Jewish society, and he understood how to respond to God better than the rest of them. Maybe he understood precisely because of the walls that had separated him. For years he had witnessed life through the cracks, looking into life from lost places.

What might people whom we don’t notice see as they watch us? We may not want to know. That might be part of the reason we try not to notice them.

Meanwhile, what miracle are we standing still and waiting for? Maybe we should start walking, and see what happens along the way.