St Andrew, Glencairn
Glencairn Methodist Church
[If you are not familiar with the story of Jesus healing the ten men with leprosy then please read Luke 11:11-19 first]
The disease which today we call leprosy has been around for thousands of years. It is essentially a bacterial infection of the nerves serving the fingers, toes and the face. The signs are disfigurement and deformity. It is infectious (spread by nasal secretion) and contagious through skin contact. The signs are skin and soft tissue degeneration and deformed bones structure; the patient’s symptoms are loss of sensitivity in the infected areas. We have all seen photographs of the effects of leprosy in posters by the Leprosy Mission and others, which they use for fund raising.
A person may have the disease and not know for up to five years until signs and symptoms appear. Until the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century, leprosy was incurable; the victim suffered a protracted and slow death due to the loss of essential body parts preventing them from working or feeding themselves.
It is neurological infection in that the bacteria attack the nerves that control the fingers and toes and other places, and so these bits of the body simply die and decay, and fall off. Not recognising that something is hot and dangerous could cause the person to touch it because they feel no pain and thus burn themselves causing even more damage. (NOTE pain can be useful in alerting us to danger!)
Today the infection can be killed off using multiple drug treatment over a long period and so there is a slow cure. But the damage already done cannot be undone, so the earlier it is diagnosed the better the outcome for the sufferer. The World Health Organisation is working very hard to eradicate the disease through education and the free supply of the healing drugs. Western countries and largely leprosy free; there are still places in Africa where more work remains to be done.
The ancient civilisations knew that leprosy was contagious and the only treatment was quarantine – confining sufferers to leper colonies and excluding them from mainstream society. If they were a caring society they would continue to feed victims, while being very careful not to get too close. In particular Jewish lepers were considered to be “unclean” and were excluded from society. They had to ring a bell as they went around, to warn people not to come too close; and they were excluded from the Temple and Synagogues.
But the words in the Bible usually translated “leper or leprosy” – tsara’ath in the Hebrew Old Testament and lepros or lepra in Greek were used to describe any skin disease, not distinguishing between Leprosy and others like eczema or psoriasis. It was also used to describe other things such as mildew. Some modern translations use the phrase “dreaded, or serious, or infectious skin disease”. Some of these responded to the ministrations of the “doctor” of the day and so were curable, and some got better of their accord due to the body’s own defence mechanisms. This was clearly the case in Judaism as Leviticus 14 gives instruction for the thanksgiving or purification rites that had to be performed, the priest being the adjudicator as to whether the person was cured or it. If you want more details of the diagnosis process, you should also read Leviticus 13.
Now about the ten lepers that we met in today’s Gospel reading. Most likely they had the “real thing”, the incurable bacterial infection that was slowly killing of their bodies and had been responsible for their being cut off from the rest of Society, and from God because they could not worship in the required manner. Their illness did not even recognise the traditional hatred Jews and Samaritans had for each other; they were united in their struggle to survive.
And they met Jesus. They knew he had power to heal them from the stories they had heard. They knew he met with lepers even though it made him “unclean”. So they cried out for pity. And Jesus had pity on them. He just said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. And as they went they began to realise that they were being healed.
Now, if you suddenly received exceedingly good news – news that a loved one had come through a tricky operation, or the cancer tests had proved negative – how would you react? Wouldn’t you want to shout with joy? And, as Christians, wouldn’t you want to praise God and thank him?
So which is the more surprising – that one returned to Jesus and fell at his feet to thank him, praising God - or the fact that nine didn’t?
Perhaps the nine wanted to do what Jesus said, “Go and present yourselves to the priests” and then to get home to their families. Certainly Luke is critical of the nine, as he records Jesus reaction, “Where are the other nine? Only this foreigner has returned to give thanks.” Nevertheless, they were no less healed than the Samaritan, but again the story highlights that his mission and indeed the mission of the whole Jewish nation was to be a light to the Gentiles, and here we see the response of one Gentile – gratitude; not only gratitude but also faith in Jesus.
Jesus tells the man to get up and the early Christians would have recognised this as a reference to the Resurrection. Like the Prodigal Son, this man who was dead is alive again. New life, the life Israel was longing for, had come to that man and to his Samaritan village, and it had called out of him a faith that he didn’t know he had.
This rhythm of faith and thanksgiving, whether in the 1st century or the 21st, simply is what being a Christian is all about.
READ more about The Leprosy Mission Northern Ireland with links to other countries
Ken (17 October 2016)
Note that this Message is inspired in part by Tom Wright's commentary "Luke for Everyone".
NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at http://glencairn.connor.anglican.org/previousmessages.htm