Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Luke 17:11-19

The Other Nine
Turlock Community Thanksgiving Service
First United Methodist Church, Turlock, CA
November 2004

One of the traditional passages that we look at each Thanksgiving is Luke 17:17, where Jesus says to the one former-leper who has returned in gratitude “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?”

Good questions. And I’m happy to be here to tell you tonight that we finally have answers. Through the modern wonders of DNA sampling, halo 2 technology, digital photography, and advances in historical research methodology -- we’ve been able to analyze ancient 1st century health department records and reconstruct census information – to come up with an amazingly clear picture of what happened to the other nine.

And in lieu of a sermon this evening I want to give you a brief overview of these people who were cleansed of leprosy by Jesus.

Now, I’m sure that you remember from high school health class that leprosy is a nasty disease of the skin – known to be highly contagious – and while it is easily treated with modern drugs, in the ancient world it was a hopeless condition.

Your flesh literally rotted on your body not only causing extreme pain in some cases but also disfiguration. And because no one wanted to live around people with the stench of rotting flesh and because of the contagiousness of the disease – lepers were banished to live outside the cities – where they tended to create colonies that were dependent on the charity of family and others who would leave donations at a distance and then run.

This is the background to Luke 17:11-13 (ESV) – “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’”

And, of course, you know the rest of the story – Luke 17:14 (ESV) – “When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’”

This was in keeping with the Jewish law. If you were healed of leprosy the priests in the Temple had to give you a certificate of health. They functioned as the health department.

Then vs. 14 adds – “And as they went they were cleansed.”

And you know that one returned to give thanks and the other nine did not. That’s background.

So what exactly did happen to the nine who didn’t return?

This is where our sort’a scientific study comes in.

Subject #1 was a 37-year-old male by the name of RON – and you remember that in the ancient world Jewish people did not have last names. Romans often did – but not Jews. So we only know subject #1 as RON (very Jewish name).

And we’ve determined that Ron’s family and friends heard about the miracle and rushed to the Temple, arriving just as he was walking out with his certificate of health. And after a major group hug they told him that in celebration of the restoration of his legs they were all going skiing at Bear. They even had his old board with them. And so they all jumped directly in the Suburban and headed to the snow.

Now, it’s not that Ron was ungrateful for what Jesus had done – that’s not it at all! It’s just that family and friends were top priority – which when you think about it is pretty noble. If you’re going to shaft God of the worship and thanksgiving which is due him – what more wholesome way to do it than with family and friends.

The second subject identified in our research was a 29-year-old Leper named CLINT.

Clint was an anomaly in the first century world – he was a non- practicing Jew – and he made no bones about it. Now, there were Jews who were not as religious as other Jews but they at least pretended to be as religious as they could.

Not Clint. All indicators are that he had a bit of a rebellious streak his entire life. His kindergarten teacher left a “doesn’t play well with others” comment on his permanent record. And that became a bit of an understatement as he got older.

He was his own person – an independent thinker – someone who didn’t mind challenging everything and everyone. So when Jesus told him to go to the priests – he took offense.

Shouldn’t people be free to choose their own religions? Why did he need to go see the Temple priests when he knew that they were all a bunch of phonies anyway. They just pretended to be better than everyone else. And he prided himself on the fact that he hadn’t set foot in the Temple in over 20 years.

No way was he going to start just because some wandering miracle worker told him to go – even if he did heal him.

Jesus should have been more respectful of his personal beliefs, he thought to himself – as he left the Jesus mob – at that point quietly seething at the insensitivity on the part of Jesus.

Our research identified a third subject by the name of JACKSON. He was the oldest of the leper company – and no one is quite sure how it all happened. But after Jesus sent the lepers to go see the priests and as they were healed as they were walking away – Jackson had a breakdown – a mental, physical, emotional breakdown.

As soon as he realized what Jesus had done and that he had a new lease on life – he felt overwhelmed by the implications – or should we say paralyzed. His head spun, his stomach churned, and his legs weakened. He plopped himself down under a big tree on the side of the path and entered into an extended period of blue funk.

You see, his whole identity had been wrapped up in his leprosy – HIS disease. That was who he was.

People brought him food, clothing, and pity. What was he going to do? He’d have to get a job and he hadn’t worked for years. No one would hire him – an ex-leper. On top of that he’d have to go back to his wife – who was a nag.

If there was anything positive about the horrid disease that had over-taken him – it was that it got him out of the house – gave him an excuse to leave with face. Now he’d have to go back and readjust to living in a stressful relationship.

And the thought of all that – was – well – just so overwhelming that Jackson didn’t even think of returning to Jesus to say thank you.

It kind of makes me wonder how much of my own identity is tied up with my “issues.”

The fourth leper identified in our research was a middle-age man named WIL.

Wil couldn’t get past the “why’s”. Why had it taken so long for God to heal him? Why hadn’t God sent someone years ago? Why did he have to waste 10 years of his life living with outcasts – eating the kinds of things that people put in food baskets – left-overs – out-dated Mac & Cheese boxes – beans – lots and lots of beans. Once someone donated a food box which contained a jar of pickled pig’s feet – not exactly kosher.

Ten wasted years being subjected to the humiliation – and then when the healing did come – why wasn’t he restored to his 19-year-old physique?

If Jesus had enough power to wipe out the leprosy – certainly he could have made him buff and sexy again.

All of these questions made Wil a bitter man or maybe he asked these questions because he was a bitter man – we don’t know. There are limits to historical research.

The fifth subject identified was actually a female 20-something woman named Vicky.

Now I know that all of the Sunday School papers you’ve ever seen showed pictures of ten male lepers – but if you look closely at the text, nowhere does it say that they were all men.

Well, our research found that two of the lepers were women – including Vicky – who was really the procrastinator of the bunch.

Now, she did make it to the priest to get a certificate of health – but that was only because she was swept along by the momentum of the small crowd of healed lepers.

But once she left the temple there was just so much to do – news clothes to purchase. You can’t live in the civilized world wearing leper rags. She had to go clothes shopping – and fast. And then there were all of her old friends to find.

Certainly she was grateful to Jesus for what he had done – and she made a note to herself that she ought to go find him – but there was just so much to be done that – well, it didn’t get done. Oh well.

Now the second woman was an interesting case – a 32-year-old named MANDY.

And the problem with Mandy is that she never quite believed that she was healed. So while she was healed with everyone else she never went to the priests to get a certificate of health. She continued to live on the outskirts of society covering herself so that no one, including herself, knew that she wasn’t still a leper.

I mean, she knew – but she didn’t. She felt different and she looked different – but she couldn’t believe that she was different – that this was anything more than a temporary remission – a psycho-illusion.

What if she got cleared to return to a normal life and then the next day the disease reappeared? She couldn’t handle the trauma of that.

So she continued to live among lepers and she was always surrounded by the smells of rotting flesh – and she assumed that at least part of that smell was her own.

She couldn’t believe – her outlook on life didn’t allow it. And that’s why she never returned to say thank you.

The eighth healed leper was a 25-year-old man named CLIFFORD.

And he never returned to say thank you because – well it never dawned on him that he should. You see, he grew up in a family which didn’t really emphasize that kind of thing.

His parents were of the more hang loose variety – they never saw it as their role to make him say thank-you.

Remember how it was with your parents – the constant prompting – “what do you say?” Or “don’t forget to say thank you.”

Clifford’s parents didn’t do that when he was young. First of, they weren’t around that much – at least emotionally. And they figured that if he ever wanted to he would. And that they shouldn’t make him say anything he didn’t really feel.

So he never learned gratitude – nor how to express it. And all indications are that he died without ever expressing a word of thanks to anyone – let alone to the God who had healed him.

He did had a end up with a fulfilling career as a customer service rep for a rather large health insurance company.

SIMON, the ninth subject, identified in our research, was probably in his mid-twenties, too. The information was not very conclusive. But it appears that after getting the certificate of health from the priests – as he was leaving the temple – the magnitude of what had happened to him hit him like a ton of falling bricks. And really quite suddenly he was overwhelmed by this incredible sense of gratitude.

And he knew that he had to go see the man who had healed him – but at that point he had no idea as to where to find him. So he became a driven man on a quest – often arriving a day or two after Jesus had left a place – sometimes only an hour or two. But never quite catching up – until he eventually found him in Jerusalem. But at that point it was too late.

There was a crucifixion parade – including three men carrying crosses – and there among them – faint and weary – was Jesus. Simon recognized him by his eyes – the very man responsible for his new skin and his new life.

He gasped in horror at the ferociousness of the moment. But before he could say a thing a soldier grabbed Simon by the shoulder – and shoved him toward Jesus – “You carry the cross for the criminal.”

It was the least he could do – better late than never – and he shouldered the burden which was weighing Jesus down. And as he did so he said to Jesus – “You probably don’t remember me...”

But the look in his eyes said that he did. And together they walked on and Simon’s words of gratitude carried Jesus to Golgotha.

Now of course, the ideal is to be like the Samaritan in Luke 17:16 – quick to return to give thanks.

By the way, how was it that a Samaritan of all people – a religious outsider – “got it” when the chosen religiously-trained theologically orthodox were clueless. I mean, the Samaritans were the New Age Latter Day Witnesses to the New Revelation – of their day. Even though their religion had its origins in Judaism they had set-up their own temple system and their own quirky doctrines – and they insisted on telling the orthodox Jews that they were no longer the true church. And you know how that goes over! Samaritans were not popular people – to say the least.

And yet – even a Samaritan figures out that he should say thank-you.

Yes, the ideal is to respond to the gifts we’ve been given with an expediency that truly reflects a heart-felt gratitude. But the reality is that we’re not all there. Most of us are out there in the crowd of nine.

By the way, in terms of disclaimer – some of the details that I’ve told you about the nine are based more on imaginative conjecture than what the research actually said. BUT it is all quite possible – even probable – given human nature. Well, I don’t need to tell you that. You know yourself!

Hopefully, if we’re not already grateful Samaritans we’re all moving toward being better late than never Jews – passionate about pursuing Jesus to thank him for all the gifts in our lives – and especially for the new lease on life that we’ve been given through the healing words – the works – the divine fiat – of Christ Jesus.

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” Luke 17:15-16 (ESV)

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