In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, in today’s Gospel we encounter ten lepers lifting up their voices from afar unto Our Lord. They are the worst of the outcasts, the untouchables of the ancient world, and they are pleading for mercy in a time and a place where most people demand their invisibility and their silence. Even the mercy workers of the time, the Florence Nightingales of the First Century A.D., do not dare approach them. They are feared, for their physical deformities are monstrous and contagious. They are reviled, consigned in the minds and the hearts of most men to the place of demons, for their condition is presumed to be the outward manifestation of grave sin.
Alfred Edersheim, the nineteenth century Jewish cultural scholar who converted to Christianity in Hungary, was ordained into the Church of England, and was later installed as a distinguished Preacher at Oxford University, describes the plight of the leper and the association with grave sin. The Book of Leviticus defines sin as indwelling deep within us, much deeper than our skin, and in Edersheim’s words leprosy begins as a deep pain and numbness that seems to move up to the skin as if from a cauldron of sickness in the bowels. Leviticus defines sin as spreading in myriad ways to persons or situations formerly unaffiliated with the sin. Similarly, leprosy is an unctuously progressive disease as dirty sores and ulcers spread across putrefied flesh. A leper’s skin, especially about the eyes and the ears, begins to bunch with deep furrows in between the swellings, so that the face of the afflicted begins to resemble a lion’s. Fingers and toes drop off or are absorbed. Leviticus defines sin as isolating. The leper is shunned by the public on account of his ugly appearance, his putrid smell, his rasping voice. Leviticus defines the end of sin as fire, either purgation or damnation. The leper’s garments are burned, whenever encountered, along with the trash; and it is presumed that a dead leper’s flesh, already decomposing in public view before his final breath, is well on its way to hell and so unworthy of a proper burial. The disdain and the contempt that most people had toward lepers at the time did underscore the extent of their revulsion from sin, no doubt, but even more so their reaction highlighted the limit of their understand of mercy and their openness to grace. The presumption was the leper was beyond help, his grave sins beyond even divine forgiveness, his wretched soul beyond the touch of grace. Assuming the leper suffered as he did because of the sins of his fathers, the people presumed that he had been preordained to his rot. In this view, the leper is a creature of the devil, not a child of God, and his very presence suggests that even God cannot or will not straighten the scales of justice and mercy. The heavy hand of rebuke will always overpower the soft embrace of mercy, and the result will be a world forever prone to darkness and despair. In the mind of ancient man, the leper is a reminder that the world is ultimately irredeemable; a callous prison yard forever beaten down and subject to the heartless design of the Fates. The leper may cry out for mercy; but like the prisoner muffled by his warden and locked into a backroom somewhere, no one will hear him, and even worse no one will care. The way people reacted to the leper was as much a sign of their own general hopelessness as it was an indication of what they presumed about the leper. Deep down, they hated him, because he reminded them of the deep, underlying callousness of their own world.
Christ Jesus changes all this. He defies the presumptions most people have about themselves and about their world. Where everyone else looks away from the leper, He sees them. Where everyone else pretends not to hear their cries for mercy, He responds to them. He urges them to abide by the Law of Moses and to go to the Priests at the Temple. In essence, He is inviting them into the liturgical life of the chosen people of God. Everyone else, if they had bothered to speak to them at all, would have told them to fall further back into the desert, but He is telling them to seek refuge literally with God in His tabernacle. Christ Jesus says, “Go, show yourselves unto the Priests.” He does not urge them as much as possible to hide who they are: To cover up their wretched garments with cleaner robes, or to obscure their sour smell with perfume, or to hide their raspy voices by procuring the services of a spokesman. He tells them instead to go to the Priests and to present themselves as they are. The message is clear enough: We may doll up ourselves for one another, perfect our fake smiles and our polite pleasantries, but God Himself wants us as we really are, our warts, our blemishes, or darkest sins, those we have hidden deep inside of our hearts, and those like the leper’s that are impossible to hide from public view. God wants us as we are, because He wants us to know that we are loved as we are, and furthermore we can be cleansed no matter how much dirt and grime we have plastered upon ourselves. If a leper can walk into God’s tabernacle, then we can do so. No one is beyond reproach, and so the world is not irredeemable. We cannot redeem it, but God can, and He does in His faithful Son.
Christ Jesus sends ten lepers to the Priests. They are all cleansed of their disease, even before they arrive at the Temple. Only one of them returns to give glory unto God. He is described as a Samaritan, outcast from the Jews on account of the sins of his fathers, just as before this same man had been outcast from all of humanity on account of his leprosy. He is cleansed, but he is still a stranger, as even Christ Jesus describes him. He is redeemed, and yet he is still an outlaw. And yet his faith and his gratitude surpass all of that. God’s power can overcome even the most rigid of social, cultural, and legal norms. God’s love is boundless; and for those willing to receive it, and to show gratitude in return, there are no more strangers, no more outlaws, no more sad and poor folk forever consigned to the wrong side of the tracks. In the Father’s Kingdom, there is no cultural, spiritual, or religious Jim Crow, no haves and have nots, no elites and no servants, for the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The cleansed leper approaches Christ Jesus as a Samaritan, a stranger, but because of his faith he is made whole. Though he will arise and go his way, as Our Lord commands him, he will never again be a stranger to Him nor to anyone else in the Father’s Kingdom. Whatever his path may be going forward, he will be known as he is, and loved as he is, and so long as he does not stumble back into sin that path is going to lead him into the Father’s Kingdom, where whole men and women like himself do reside, and where love and life wash away whatever once had been ugly or profane. Pray, my brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, that we may see ourselves in this leper, first in his ugliness, in his isolation, in his heaviness of heart, but then in his faith and in his redemption. Let us learn to see ourselves for who we really are, and let us learn to offer ourselves unto God as we really are, and not as we may wish or pretend ourselves to be. We must be honest with ourselves if finally we are going to be cleansed. We must show gratitude and love for God, and for one another, if finally we are going to step out from the shadows of conceit like those outcast lepers and come to be known.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.