October 13, 2019
18th Sunday after Pentecost
“And as they went,”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
When I was a little girl, when the boys were sitting at the feet of the rabbis, I tried to sit as near as I could, for those occasional moments when the noise lessened, when I could hear the rabbi’s teaching. I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but I so wanted to learn. I still want to learn.
It was while I was secretly learning about the history of my people that I learned about a commander of an army, a man by the name of Naaman. It is said that he was a great soldier, valiant and brave, but he had leprosy.
Where we live, there are many skin conditions that fall under the name of leprosy. Even mold and mildew can be called leprosy. Those with this affliction are usually secluded from the rest of the population, just in case their disease is contagious. To the afflicted and unaffected alike, it is a terrifying disease.
Probably every rabbi teaches the story about Naaman, the man who had stolen a young Hebrew girl to become his wife’s slave, a girl who suggested that Naaman go to the prophet in our country of Samaria for healing. Somehow the king got the letter and thought that he, himself, was the prophet. How foolish we humans can be sometimes, thinking that we are so much more than we are, because the prophet wasn’t the king, but Elisha.
The story about Naaman is important, because Elisha told him to go to the filthy, smelly, foul Jordan River and wash himself seven times in it, and he would be restored. Who, in their right mind, would do that? Everyone knows that keeping wounds clean is the way to treat them. Naturally, Naaman tried to get out of such a “cure,” suggesting that the clean and clear waters north of the Jordan, in Damascus, would be more logical for healing.
Isn’t it true, that sometimes our lives would be so much simpler if we just did as God requires of us, rather than trying to wiggle out of what seems strange to us? Naaman learned that lesson, when he dipped himself into those dirty waters. And who can know the mind of God? Perhaps it wasn’t the waters that cleansed Naaman, but the act of doing what he heard the prophet of God tell him.
I bring up that story, because it has great bearing on the story you’ve just heard, about the ten lepers. My brother was one of them; the one who went back to give thanks. This holy book doesn’t tell you, but between you and me, my brother’s name is Dathan. Dathan and I have always been close, and what happened to him that day has had an impact on our lives ever since.
As Samaritans, we’ve always worshiped the same God as the Hebrew people, using the same first five books of your Bible, even though our people disagree about the place where God wanted the holy temple built. Jews said the place was on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Samaritans say it is Mount Gerizim. This disagreement has been one of the fundamental reasons that the Hebrew people look down on us Samaritans.
Regardless of the faith of the people, there have been specific rules to deal with leprosy, rules and traditions intended to keep fear and rumor from becoming the greater evil. Back in the book of Leviticus, if a priest declared a person to be unclean, that person was to live alone, outside the camp, estranged and apart from those who loved them and knew them. Only a priest could declare the person clean and able to rejoin life. That is where your Bible described Jesus meeting the lepers - outside Jerusalem.
When Jesus told the ten to go and show themselves to the priests, the ten would have to enter the place where they had been banned - to go to the temple, where the priests were. They would have to convince the guards at the gates to allow them entrance into the city that had scorned them. Did Jesus really know what he was asking of the ten?
And here is the incredible thing: “And as they went, they were cleansed.” They didn’t have to wash themselves any particular number of times, or perform any certain cleansing rituals. They didn’t have to mix up any mud or dirt for smearing and they didn’t have to say any particular chants or words. The ten men must have been rather confident in Jesus. They must have been, or they wouldn’t have been going.
So here’s the thing. My brother was the only Samaritan. The others could have anticipated Jesus healing them, would have felt deserving, because of who they were. But Dathan was the outsider, the one with no expectation of entitlement.
Regardless of a person’s make-up, anyone can come to feeling entitled. Even one’s own people can fall into the trap of entitlement, with expectations of being treated well - in one way or another. Regardless of skin color, gender, nationality, or any other potential dividing characteristics, at any one time or another, we can fall into the trap of thinking that life should go well because I’m a good person and I deserve life to go well. No matter how much money we have or don’t have, how smart or talented we are or aren’t, we can fall into the trap of taking our blessings for granted.
I would love to think that because my brother returned to Jesus, to thank him, that Dathan is a superior being. But he’s not. He’s still the same brother who knows how to pull my chain, irritate me and warm my heart to its core - in just the course of a few words.
But I wonder: what if we were to shed that arrogance, laying it down and greeting every grace and bonus and gift with wonder and amazement? What if we faced that which seemed ridiculous and trivial and counter-intuitive as something that has been set before us for that which would make us whole, restoring us to inclusion?
Because exclusion is the insidious part of leprosy, isn’t it? Separation of the heart and proximity from those we love and care about - even if it isn’t phyical. Because if we embraced every moment as miraculous, practicing viewing the world that way, we might become more impervious to heartache. Yes, hearts would still get broken, but they could heal so much easier and better. If we shed our arrogance, and laid down the burden of expecting everything to be fine, it would be easier to see God’s leading and the lessons God has for us. With every breath, we could begin the process of being glad, taking in the confidence that God wishes us well and that it shall be so.
If this is our approach to the world, arrogance can turn into hopeful hope. I truly understand that it seems impossible that the world could be so changed. But look what happened to my brother. Dathan was undeservingly afflicted. But he was also made whole as he made his way to the the priests - before he got to the priests. His fullness of heart and gratitude took him back not only to thank Jesus, but to praise God. Dathan’s wholeness was full when his thanksgiving and praise were completed.
It is my prayer that Dathan not only continues to be an example for me, but for all who hear his story. So shall we pray? Holy and Eternal God, we thank you for your leading and guiding, even when we deem it to be beneath our human dignity. We ask for your forgiveness for those moments when we think we know so much better than you. Thank you, too, that that which afflicts us doesn’t define us, and that you decree your blessing on us even in this moment and the next one to come. Help us to work through the things we think would grieve us, to see our life in your presence as flames of glad thanksgiving, alight with your love, healing us as we go. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.