Text: Luke 17:11-19
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Oct. 9, 2016
Have you ever heard the expression “Dead Men Walking?” In your culture it refers to those persons condemned on death row. But in my culture in the middle east two thousand years ago it brought to mind another sentence of death: “Leprosy.”
People hearing the word leprosy in our day responded the same way you probably responded to the words “cancer” or “polio” when most of you were growing up or how you would have responded to the word “Ebola” a couple of years ago had it spread from Africa to your country.
In our time there was nothing worse than leprosy. It was simply awful. Its first symptoms are easy to spot, red sores on the skin or white bumps, not all that different from what you now call psoriasis or eczema. But unfortunately it does not stop there. Your hair becomes discolored and then begins to fall out. The red sores soon become raw open wounds or rotting flesh and slowly destroys the body. There was no known cure. Within a few years the person would die. What is worse, unlike psoriasis, it is highly contagious. You just have to touch somebody with this disease, or eat from the same dishes they had used, or each touch something they had touched and you could get it yourself.
To protect the disease from spreading and wiping out the entire population, we had to take drastic measures. If anyone developed a blemish on their skin, that person had to report immediately to the nearest priest who became the local expert or recognizing the signs of this disease. If it looked like it might be the early stages of leprosy, the person was put in quarantine for seven days. At the end of seven days the priest could tell if it was leprosy or simply some skin disease that would heal in time. If it was the latter, you could return to your home feeling great relief. But if it was the former, you were pronounced “unclean,” and were banished from society. You became part of that undesirable group of “Dead Men Walking.”
I was born in the country of Samaria. You would know the area today as Israel’s “West Bank.” Originally, when Joshua led God’s people into the land of Promise, Samaria was part of Israel. Our capital city, Shechem, sometimes called Shiloh in your Bible, has always been of great significance for the people of God. It was just outside this city where Abraham was visited by the three strangers, we always believed they were angles, who promised him that he and Sarah would have a son. Years later when his grandson Jacob was returning home to reconcile with his brother Esau, again it was just outside this city that he wrestled with an angel, and his name was changed from Jacob (which in our language means “Deceiver” to Israel which means “He who strives with God.” (I understand from Fr. Bill that he is going to preach about this incident next week.)
Four hundred years later, after God’s people possessed the land of promise under Joshua’s leadership, the tabernacle was placed in Shechem and under the rule of the Judges, the city became the de facto capital of Israel. It was also in this city that Samuel anointed both Saul and later David as King of Israel. Under Saul’s leadership, of course, he moved Israel’s capital to Jerusalem. Later under the reign of David’s son, Solomon, the tabernacle was moved to Jerusalem and put in the temple he built there on top of Mt. Zion.
When Solomon died, Israel had a civil war. Unlike the civil war you had in your country, when our war was over, Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, lost and was left with only the southern portion of our country, the area that had been given to the tribes of Judah and of Benjamin. The people you now know as Jews come from only those two tribes, not from all of Israel.
Jeroboam, who had been a trusted leader in Solomon’s court, led the rebellion and took the ten northern tribes with him. He quickly declared that Shechem would be his capital city and decided that the northern kingdom needed its own religious center as well. Instead of building his temple within the city walls however, he decided since Solomon’s temple was at the top of Mt. Zion, his temple needed to be on top of a mountain also. It just so happened that Shechem is located at the foot of Mt. Gerizim. It is the mountain where Joshua had representatives from six tribes call out all the blessings God would shower upon the nation if they remained faithful to him, while representatives the other six tribes stood on Mt. Ebal across the valley and shouted out all of the curses that would fall upon the nation if they abandoned the one true God. (I understand that Fr. Bill preached a sermon about this mountain a few weeks ago.) Jeroboam of course chose to build his temple on top of Gerizim, the Mount of Blessing.
By the time I was born in what you know as the first century A.D., the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom had disappeared. They had been conquered by Assyria, most of their leaders were sent into exile, and the remaining peoples intermarried with pagan tribes and lost their national identity. All of them that is except we Samaritans. Like the Jews, Israelites who trace their roots back to the tribe of Judah, we too are Israelites, we trace our roots to Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph. Joseph, you may remember received the double portion of his father’s blessing, so his descendants were divided into two tribes named after his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Although we worshiped the same true God, the Jews called us heretic, because we believed we should worship Him at the temple on the Mt. of Blessing rather than the one on Mt. Zion. I guess you Christians never have that problem!
Anyway, I have told you a little bit about the history of my country. Now I will tell you a little bit about me. You guessed it, I was one of those dreaded “Dead Men Walking.” I can’t begin to describe how I felt when I first saw those ugly sores develop on my skin. I confess to you I delayed going to my priest as long as I dared, hoping against hope they would go away, but they only got worse. I was not at all surprised when it put me in the safe house for the seven-day isolation period. How fervently I prayed that I would be pronounced clean at the end of the time. But alas, I was given a life sentence – banished forever from my home, my family, my friends, robbed of everything that held any meaning in my life. At first my family brought me food and talked to me from a distance, but gradually their visits at longer and longer intervals, and finally they stopped coming altogether. It hurt, but I understood. By that time, I have moved to the board region of our country in the south where it connected with Judea. It was kind of no man’s land, sparsely populated and where many beggars came to form the community of the damned. We tried to look out for each other as has been true of the homeless throughout the world, but it was hard. The policies of both Judea and Samaria were the same. Leprosy was one of the few things they agreed about. Despite the fact that our disease was so contagious, both countries agreed caught the disease as punishment for our sins. (I think this helped them not to feel so guilty for the way we were treated.) We had to let our hair grow long, and could not comb it. We were not allowed to get new clothes so before long we were dressed in rags. We could not bathe in the Jordon river. Whenever we saw someone approaching we had to call out “Unclean, Unclean,” even though our rags and stench from lack of bathing could be seen and smelled long before our voices could be heard.
But then, suddenly my life sentence was over. I will never forget that day. It was just before the Jewish Passover. Many Jews had migrated to Galilee to the North of our nation and every year a number would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate our deliverance from slavery in Egypt. (We celebrated Passover at our temple too, but of course we picked a different day). Most of the pilgrims from Galilee took the long eastern route east of the Jordon river. They did not like to pass through our country. But a few brave souls took the short direct route and they also seemed to be more charitable as they remembered how God had delivered their forefathers from slavery.
So ten of us lepers, nine Jews and I, approached the road that day hoping for a handout. It wasn’t long before we saw a group of men coming toward us. Their leader was talking to the rest in a conversational tone – the gentle wind carried his voice to our ears and we could understand snatches of his conversation. It suddenly dawned on us that this was the famous teacher from Nazareth. Not just word of his teachings, but also of miracles that he had performed had spread throughout my country and beyond to Judea. We even heard that he had cured a man in Galilee of leprosy. Was it possible that it was really him?
We didn’t wait to find out. This was our moment and we were not about to lose it. While they were still quite a distance away we called out with one voice, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” The leader held up his hand and the group, who had been absorbed in his teaching, came to a halt. After a moment’s silence, he called out, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Then he turned back to his followers and continued his conversation with them as if we didn’t exist.
But his words to us hit us with such authority, it was like we had been struck with a lightning bolt. We stared at each other in amazement, and then without a word we headed toward Jerusalem. We had taken only a few steps when we felt a tingling in our bodies. I looked down at my hands and to my utter astonishment I saw my sores disappearing before my very eyes. Then my fingers which had been eaten away to short stubs began to grow. It was really happening. We felt a surge of energy and began to run. We could not wait to be pronounce clean!
Then all of a sudden it hit me and I started laughing. I had been with these guys so long I forgot who I was. I was running in the wrong direction. I was not a Jew, I needed to be pronounced clean by the priest in the temple on the top of Mt. Gerizim. So I retraced my steps. I soon came upon Jesus and his band. As I saw him, my joy turned to gratitude. I fell at his feet as understanding overwhelmed me. I knew I have been encountered by the Son of God. Yes, my companions had been healed of leprosy, but I had been made whole.