I’ve created a new niche genre of movie: films which feature the curing of leprosy. And my favourite film in that niche is Ben Hur. The original, 1959, Charlton Heston, version of course. The scene toward the end of the long movie, when Christ is being crucified and Ben Hur’s mother and sister are in the cave, faces covered in loathsome boils and the lightening is flashing and suddenly, they’re cured. It is a memorable, striking and powerful scene at the end of a memorable and powerful movie. We all remember it. And I often recall it when I read about leprosy in the Gospels and other places in the bible.
Leprosy is still a disease that conjures up all kinds of horror and concern. In biblical times and for much of recorded history, it has led to fear and isolation. Lepers were considered to be contagious, and were to be banished from communities lest they pass on their "dreaded skin disease" to others. But now we ought to be more informed. Leprosy is not the contagious monster of ancient times. It is an easily controlled and well understood bacterial infection. It is contagious, but no virulently so. It does cause disfigurement, but it can be treated. It can be cured. But it still serves as a metaphor for fear and alienation.
The passage in Luke 17:11-19 is well known, and a very graphic account of how things used to be, and, if you transfer the metaphor to another set of feared diseases or behaviours, is sadly still with us now. In ‘those days’, lepers were shunned, banished from society, as we recall in Ben Hur, to live as best they could from begging outside of habitation, to survive on scraps and through the charity of others. To be declared a leper meant that you were no longer accepted: you were unclean.
So, when Jesus meets ten lepers, between Samaria and Galilee, immediately the readers are aware of the danger, the cultural and personal tensions that are present in the encounter.
Forma start, there’s the ever present Samaritan tension: once again, Jesus is on the edge of what is culturally and politically acceptable. And then the leprosy, a second layer of isolation and exclusion. This story isn’t about how wonderful it can be for people to volunteer to travel to foreign lands and look after people with Ebola or to live with those who have nothing in poverty. Yes, those actions are admirable, but if we are honest with ourselves, its not something everyone can do or even desire to do.
The story of the ten lepers is much more down to earth: it depicts the tensions we can experience on a daily basis in our own neighbourhoods, when we turn away from those who aren’t quite like us. And, like so many of Jesus’ stories and parables, there are a multiplicity of points of view.
Consider yourself as the traveller with Jesus. You step back from the lepers. He walks towards them. Immediately you are challenged. You wish to move by, he speaks to them. You are challenged by Jesus desire to be with those who you would ordinarily shun.
Consider yourself to be a leper, any one of the ten. You run away because if you don’t you’ll be in deep trouble. You need to be given permission by a priest to be able to step forward and be seen even. But that’s what happens: this ‘rabbi’ steps forward. He’s not a priest, but he heals you and tells you to go to see a priest to be properly ratified as clean. And you are clean! You have lost that appalling stigma of your society. You can be part of the mainstream.
Consider you’re one of the nine: you run to the priest. And why not. What a day!
Consider that you’re the one who turns back. You fall to the ground, and thank Jesus for what he has done. One of the ten. And, you are the alien, the double outcast. Leper and Samaritan! You turn back and give thanks. All ten are still cured, but somehow you’ve seen the heart of the issue: that God has made you whole, new, alive.
- When we turn to the leper, we are turning to Christ.
- When we welcome the leper we are welcoming God
- When we see ourselves as healed of our alienation, we are new again with Christ
In our behaviour we reveal our nature and the nature of God in us!