The lack of gratitude shown by nine of ten lepers remains astonishing. As I’m sure many of you know, lepers were complete outcasts, the walking dead of their day.
They could have been suffering any of a host of skin diseases. There was the modern-day leprosy, now known more formally as Hansen’s Disease, a bacterial infection that in Jesus’ day led to large lesions all over the body. Other skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis could get you labeled a leper, too.
And once you were diagnosed as such, you were to keep your distance from everyone else. The Mosaic law didn’t prescribe a precise distance, but some rabbis thought about 50 yards, half the length of a football field, to be acceptable.
That’s why lepers lived and traveled in groups. The only meaningful human contact they could have was with each other.
As we’ve seen in our gospel story today, one of these groups encountered Jesus, humbly cried out for healing, and received the sought blessing. The healing happened as the lepers made their way toward the priests who would declare them clean. But only one, seeing the healing, returned to thank his healer. Oddly enough, he was a Samaritan, a man considered by the Jews to be unholy simply because of his birth.
And just in case we wonder whether God really expects gratitude from us, God Among Us, God in Flesh, Jesus, commented rather directly on the situation. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Consider the healing they had received. It was more than just physical. They were restored in many other ways.
They were restored to family. Some of them may not have been able to draw closer than shouting distance to family for years. The close embrace of spouse and children likely was returned to at least some of these lepers. For the ones who did not have such relationships before going into exile, the promise of such happiness now was in their futures.
They were restored to community and all its benefits, including the ability to worship with others, earn a living, and benefit from the protection offered by the larger group.
They also were affirmed in a kind of righteousness many people would have assumed they lacked. One of the subtleties of the laws surrounding leprosy was that the isolation imposed on lepers had little to do with community fear of cross-infection. There’s a lot of evidence lepers weren’t always forced out right away—for example, people suspected of having leprosy might have been allowed to complete a scheduled marriage or stick around for the holy days before being formally inspected by a priest and declared unclean.
In other words, in Jesus’ non-scientific time, skin diseases were seen as being a direct result of sin. The sinner had been marked. If you were healed, you were seen as being back in God’s good graces.
Healing from such an affliction was a big deal, a life-changing event, one worthy of deep gratitude. In the grand sweep of Jesus’ ministry, though, the healing of the lepers was a relatively minor miracle.
We have all been healed in far greater ways. It is a healing offered to everyone and accepted by many. Here’s a classic Bible verse every Christian should know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Left to steep in sin, we would rot away to nothing, vanishing from the sight of God. Whatever hell is like, it is nothing but despair. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, however, we are rescued and restored.
From the moment we turn to Jesus and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we see our healing begin. As we walk through life, the lesions of eternal death fade. Even though we may face a temporal death, we know we are walking toward eternal life.
And yet, do we return to give appropriate thanks? Do we rush to the places where God expects to find us?
Are we in worship as often as we can? Surely an eternal healing requires a regular routine of thanks and praise.
Do we thank God by responding fully to the calls he has placed on us, calls to discipleship and service to others? Surely the gift of eternal life calls for extreme dedication of this worldly life to God’s mission.
It is easy to take our healing and simply walk back to life as it was before. It is easy, but it is not right.