That Gospel lection is a story we know so well. We see Jesus healing ten people with leprosy. Jesus cleansed ten lepers, and told them to go to present themselves to the priest at the temple to have their healing verified, as stipulated in the Law. They went on their way. Nine would have gone to the temple in Jerusalem, not very far away, but one would have had to present himself at the temple on Mt Gerizim, where Samaritans worship - even today. That would have been a journey of about 120 k.
The story takes a twist when we are told that one returned to thank Jesus. And who do you think it was; none other than the Samaritan.
Let us think for a moment… let us imagine… what might have happened to the other nine, the healed lepers who did not return and give thanks. It is of course speculation. We don’t know what became of those other nine. We can only guess. Yet it is the scripture itself that invites us to guess. It is Jesus who invites us to speculate; it was he who asked, out loud, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?” No answer is given in scripture. It is up to the reader to wonder, to imagine, to speculate, to guess…
Here are a few possibilities:
Leper #1: This could be his story? When he saw that he had been made clean, his first thought was his family. How long had it been since he had last seen them? For many years, as a leper, he had had no contact with them. Like all lepers and other unclean people, he was forced to live outside the city boundary and keep his distance from all others. But now it would all be different…
He ran home, anxious to embrace his wife for the first time in many years. But upon arriving, he discovered that she was now living with another man. He asked her to return to him, but she only cried, “I can’t. I thought you were dead.” And she shut the door.
So he ended up cursing the healing he had received. Just being healed wasn’t enough. He wanted his life back.
Leper #2, when he saw, as he walked toward the temple, that he had been healed, started walking faster, running even, eager to return to the city and get on with his life. On his way, he passed by some men who themselves had leprosy. They kept their distance, but of course he could not avoid the sound of their cries.
Nevertheless, he kept on the path, ignoring as best he could their cries. He had no mercy. Having been healed of leprosy himself, he wanted absolutely no reminders of his former life. Thus, his life became one of denial and avoiding realities.
Leper #3 believed that he was someone special, since he had been healed by Jesus. After all, there were a lot of lepers who were not healed. Why did Jesus pick him? Surely, he said to himself, it was because Jesus saw something special in him.
If Jesus saw something special in him, then surely others would, too. He lived his life expecting people to treat him as someone special. He expected to have a job handed to him, a well-paying job that didn’t require him to work too hard. He actually got such a job, once, but it only lasted one day. As soon as the boss saw how lazy he was, and noticed his overblown sense of entitlement, he fired him.
Unable to find a job after that, leper #3 was forced to resort to begging. Thus, he lived as an outcast; his life after the healing being not all that different from his life before.
Leper #4, having been a leper for so long, didn’t know how to make the transition to a new life. He felt uncomfortable talking to people. It had been so long since he had taken part in a normal conversation. Rejoining society proved very difficult for him, and soon he was plagued by doubts: doubts about whether he really deserved to be cleansed; doubts about whether he really belonged within the city walls with everyone else.
Maybe Jesus had made a mistake? Life in the city was so new, so different, so bewildering and confusing. Eventually, he went back to living outside the city, among the lepers. “Why are you here?” they asked him; and he said, “Because I don’t know how else to live.”
Leper #5 did a little better at adjusting to society and fitting in. He managed to get a job, become a manager, and eventually become quite rich. He built a large house, and had a large wall built around his house to protect his wealth.
Having gone from the bottom of society to the top, he was always afraid of losing everything and falling back down to the bottom. So he hid himself within the walls he built, along with his money, never going outside, always fearful, and living every bit as much an outcast as he was before, the only difference being that now his exile was self-imposed.
Leper #6 felt that, because he was cleansed, he should devote his life to easing the suffering of others. He wanted to dedicate his life to this cause, which he believed was now his life’s purpose. He promised himself that as soon as he got himself together, as soon as he got his own life back on track, as soon as things were going smoothly for him, that he would begin the work to which he felt called.
However, things never did go quite as smoothly as he wanted. He felt that his life was always almost — but not quite — on track, and he never did get around to fulfilling his life’s purpose.
As soon as leper #7 saw that he had been healed, his first thought was to return to Jesus and give thanks. But then he started to doubt. He said to himself, “What do I have that is of any worth to give in return as an expression of my thanks? What can I do with my life that would honour the God who healed me? I’m really not very useful at all.” And he fell into a deep depression.
Leper #8 was excited and happy that, having been healed, he could now rejoin society. While he had been a leper he was deeply affected by both those who stared at him and those who averted their eyes. He so wanted to be accepted among mainstream society! Having been healed, he eagerly sought to prove himself and find the acceptance for which he longed.
He soon discovered, however, that some people will always find a reason to judge and criticize. He sought their approval and acceptance, but they said, “So what if your leprosy is gone? You’re still not one of us. You still don’t belong. You’ll always be different.”
Seeing himself only through the eyes of his tormentors and bullies, while being unable to see himself through the eyes of the God who had cleansed and healed him, he went out and hanged himself.
Leper #9 noticed that all of those who were healed were, like him, Jews; all except one. One was a Samaritan.
He wondered why Jesus would bother healing a Samaritan. The more he thought about it, the more offended he became…. and the more he decided to prove, through his own life, that only Jews were worthy of such attention.
He devoted himself to being the best Jew possible, as if to prove that Jews were better than anyone else, especially Samaritans. However, he became known as an arrogant, judgmental man, full of bitterness. He became a person around whom no one wanted to be. This just made him try even harder, which in turn made him even more bitter. Along with the bitterness, hidden deep within him, was a real sense of loneliness.
When we hear Jesus ask, “Where are the other nine?” I think we tend to hear a tone of judgment and criticism in his voice. It is as if he is asking, “Where are the other nine? They should be here!” I am sure that instead it was with a deep sense of compassion that Jesus asked that question. “Where are the other nine? I wanted their healing to lead to a life of wholeness, but I fear that it has not.”
The tenth leper – the Samaritan – alone returned to give thanks. He alone returned to praise God, even before he went to the priests to be examined. And he alone heard Jesus say to him, “Go on your way; your faith has made you well. Your faith has made you whole.”
Do you notice how being made well, being made whole, comes after this tenth leper returns to give thanks? All this comes after he returns to praise God. All this comes after he places worshiping and praising God first on his priority list, ahead of even showing himself to the priests, as Jesus had told him to?
This principle applies to our own lives. You might have seen yourself in one of those imaginary scenarios I painted – it might have applied to a situation in your life. Remember wholeness comes with praise and thanksgiving.
May God bless you this week as you give him thanks for every aspect of your life.