The Tenth Leper
There was once a good family man, called Simeon who lived with his wife and children in Samaria, near Galilee. He made a modest living from his land and on the whole was content with his lot. An ordinary man, living an ordinary life day by day – like most of us do.
But suddenly disaster struck, as it does sometimes, with no warning. Simeon developed painful lesions on his skin which would not heal and within a very short time he, and everyone around him, knew he had leprosy.
Leprosy: a deadly disease which meant he could no longer live with his family or even in his village. He was forced into isolation, keeping well away from healthy people and warning them not to approach him by calling out “unclean, unclean”.
From being a loved and respected husband, father and friend he became someone to be feared. He became a Leper. A man defined by his illness.
Sometimes with little or no warning our lives can be rocked to their foundations. Things can happen that make us instantly feel isolated, separated from everyone else, even those closest to us: sudden illness of body or mind; a bereavement; redundancy – all sorts of difficulties and crises.
And sometimes when we’re at our most vulnerable and most in need of love we can’t reach out and others can’t or daren’t reach out to us. Sometimes people fear those who suffer great misfortune or loss. Perhaps they fear it’s somehow catching – like leprosy – or perhaps they just can’t face thinking about what it must be like for the person they now try to avoid.
And so Simeon lived in his lonely isolation for months sinking deeper and deeper into an abyss of pain, despair and loneliness.
Then, one day, he hears that a Jewish Rabbi called Jesus is in the area. He hears that Jesus has cured people of all kinds of diseases including leprosy and a tiny, glimmer of hope flickers in Simeon’s heart.
That evening he joins a group of other outcasts gathered around a fire. He knows them all – they’ve become a sort of family. Without leprosy they probably wouldn’t have much in common: there are Jews and Samaritans who normally would despise each other, a rich merchant, a former servant boy, a religious scholar.
Quite often shared experiences bring us closer together. Differences that once seemed important become insignificant when we’re faced with disaster or extreme hardship. And knowing someone else has experienced something similar to us can make us feel just that bit less lonely in our aloneness.
Simeon and the others talk about Jesus and the stories they’ve heard about him curing lepers. It seems unlikely but they can’t help thinking “but what if ….. what if ….?”
So early next morning, while it’s still dark, ten of the lepers, including Simeon, set out to find Jesus.
It’s not difficult – from every direction people are heading for one particular village, calling out to each other that Jesus would be passing through there today.
The Lepers keep their distance. There may be ten of them but they’re weakened by illness and malnourishment. The gathering crowd would have no difficulty in forcing them to run away by threatening them with sticks and stones.
How often do the most vulnerable in our society have no voice or are silenced by the powerful majority? How often do we fail to hear the real human stories lying behind failure, addiction, destitution and a desperation that leads to violence?
The excitement of the crowd intensifies as a small group of figures approaches the village along the dusty road that leads to Jerusalem.
That must be Jesus, the man near the front of the group – he has an air of authority although he’s talking and laughing with those around him as if they’re equals. Simeon feels a strange attraction to this man, even from a distance, and a longing that is stronger and deeper even than his desire to be cured of leprosy wells up in his heart.
Sometimes when we’re hurting in our bodies or our minds we become aware of that deeper level of dis-ease that lies under the surface of our pain or distress. In the quiet of a sleepless night, we understand that we are exposed at the core of our being and whatever the outcome of our present condition we will never be quite the same again.
Simeon stands stock still for a moment then realises the others have begun shouting out:
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
and he joins in
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
They go on shouting until Jesus hears them. He steps away from the crowd and approaches them. He gets closer to them than is safe and stretches his arms out as if he wants to hold them all in an embrace of love. Quietly, with compassion in his eyes, he speaks,
“Go and show yourselves to the priests”
That’s all he says,
“Go and show yourselves to the priests”
He smiles at them then turns back to the crowd.
Simeon and the other nine turn to walk away, dumbstruck, dazed, not quite sure what just happened – is that it?
Priests – go to the priests – the priests can certify a leper clean…. They look at their skin, at each other’s faces, almost unable to believe what they see. Clean, smooth skin, no sores, no open wounds, no disfigurements, nothing to suggest they’ve ever had leprosy.
They are cured and nine of them can’t wait to see the priests, to get official certificates of clean-ness and then, oh and then, to see their loved ones, to feel human touch again, to return home and be men again, men – not lepers.
And nine of them run.
But Simeon stays still, staring at his arms and touching his face and wrestling with a terrible thought. He can’t go to the priests like the other nine. He’s a Samaritan. Their priests are not his priests. He is not one of the people of Israel as Jesus is.
Was it a mistake that he was healed? Has he stolen something from Jesus which will be taken away from him if anyone finds out about it?
When you’ve become used to being an outsider, locked in isolation, hating your own body and feared by others it’s hard to believe you deserve a gift of love. It’s hard to believe you might have worth in someone else’s eyes, especially God’s. Self-hatred and self-doubt can keep us from believing we are precious to God, that we are his beloved children.
As Simeon struggles he feels a pull back towards Jesus, he feels a need to tell Jesus who he really is – a double loser: a leper and a Samaritan who should not have been associating in any way with Jesus.
He starts walking back, slowly, wondering what it is that’s filling his heart and mind and soul.
That deep deep longing he felt when he first saw Jesus is turning itself into something so strong he cannot resist it – it’s coming to life in him, driving him through the crowd until he is once again in front of the man who has changed his life.
Jesus looks Simeon in the eyes and Simeon knows that Jesus knows who he is and loves him anyway, loves him enough to set him free from his disease and his inner darkness.
And Simeon is overwhelmed with love and thankfulness and awe. Caring nothing for the onlookers he throws himself down before Jesus and tries to express what he feels: that he has never before felt so alive and whole and loved and that he wants only to offer thanks and praise to the one who has done this for him.
Sometimes it happens, during very dark times or in our ordinary everyday lives. We sense our deep longing – a longing to be loved, to belong, to be fully who we can be.
And sometimes we sense the stirrings of grace within us, a joy we cannot explain, a love and a peace of mind that transcends all that holds us captive and stunts our growth.
God touches us and blesses us, knowing who we are and loving us anyway, even when we can’t love ourselves.
And we, like Simeon, can give thanks and praise then get up and go on our way – our faith is making us well. Amen.