We conclude our sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus today, with this story of the 10 lepers. As you may know, leprosy is a nasty, infectious disease which in ancient times was believed to be so contagious that those suffering from it were subjected to further pain by being forced to leave their homes, and remain at a distance from their families and communities. Lepers were perhaps he ultimate outsiders in Jesus’ day.
But given what we’ve seen of Jesus elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that he reaches out to these hurting, marginalized folk just as he’s reached out to others on the fringes of society. In the text Cheri just read for us, you’ll notice the lepers kept their distance as they called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They wouldn’t have been allowed to come any nearer. But Jesus does have mercy, saying “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” (that being a necessary step toward reentry back into society, if someone had been healed). And sure enough, they are made clean. Their relief must have been profound. But the text says only “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He bowed down to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. This prompts Jesus’ two questions: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?”
Douglas Adams, author of a book of creative Bible study ideas, shares a fun way to teach this story. He has his classes enact a reunion of the nine lepers who did not give thanks to Jesus, using holy imagination, if you will, to explain why they didn’t give thanks. Why was it, exactly, that they never got around to saying thank you to Jesus for healing them? He also has a few people volunteer to stand up front as judges, scoring the responses much as Olympic judges score a gymnastics routine. Each judge has a set of ten cards numbered 1 through 10. He tells the judges to give a 10 for an excellent excuse and a 1 for a very poor excuse. Good responses generally get anywhere from 6 to 9, and poor responses from 2 to 4. As each leper shares his excuse, the judges are to get their cards ready… and when it’s time, the judges raise their cards to show their scores all at once.
“People share some very inventive excuses,” Adams notes. One person says he was so thankful that he wanted right away to spread the word about Jesus to others and so did not have any time to go back to Jesus, who he was sure would understand. Another person says he had such shabby clothing from living in the leper colony that the first thing he wanted to do was go to the mall and buy a new wardrobe. Another person says she was so eager to see family she had not seen for so long that she forgot all about Jesus. Again, lepers would have been forced to remain outside the community, separated from their loved ones. Not a bad reason for forgetting to get back to Jesus to say thank you.
Adams continues: “I have only heard one excuse that scored a perfect ten from all judges. Here is that perfect excuse: ‘I did not thank Jesus right away because I followed what he told us to do: to go show ourselves to the priests. After I had done that I went back to find Jesus to thank him; but he moved around a lot and had left each place I looked for him. I persisted but never found him; but I did find Peter. I said, “Peter, I am looking for Jesus. Where is he?” And Peter responded, “I don’t know any Jesus.”
Why was this the perfect excuse? Because while we’re a few weeks into the Easter season now, immediately before Jesus’ death Peter had been so frightened, so worried for his own safety, that he denied Jesus three times, claiming not to have even known him. Surely the former leper couldn’t have been faulted for asking Peter. Jesus’ right hand man should have been a great person to help him locate Jesus so he could offer him thanks. But boy, did he ever pick the wrong day to ask…
In any event, one of the things I like about that creative exercise is it allows us to cut the other nine lepers a little slack, right? It’s clear from the way the story is told that they should have all remembered to thank Jesus, as the one leper did, but heaven only knows what was going through their minds and hearts at the time, or just how badly they were longing to get back to their families or friends, or for that matter just how hard they tried to find Jesus.
Meanwhile, it interests me that Luke shares one more detail with us about the one leper who did return to give thanks. Did you catch it? He was a Samaritan. I’ve already mentioned that lepers, because of their disease, were not allowed to participate in the life of the community, or even to live with their families. And as we know from other stories in the gospels, Samaritans were not welcomed in polite Jewish society either. So this guy’s an outcast on just about every level, before he meets Jesus. No wonder he’s grateful to have his health restored. At least one of the huge strikes against him has been lifted. Not to mention he would have felt so much better physically. And Jesus reminds his audience that it was this ultimate outsider who got it right: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
It’s interesting how gratitude works, isn’t it? I mean, we all know how to say thank you, and we know there are any number of circumstances in which it’s appropriate to offer thanks. But what kinds of things make us feel the most grateful? Perhaps situations in which we had everything to lose, but didn’t? Or situations in which we’ve begun with nothing, and gained something deeply important to us? Certainly we can feel grateful when we’re forgiven for something we’ve done wrong, or when the diagnosis, the test, the surgery goes the way we’d hoped, or when a painful conflict is resolved, or when some sort of disaster has been averted. It’s far harder to give thanks when life stays messy, when things don’t go the way we’d like them to, or when our health or the health of a loved one doesn’t improve.
In this context, I can’t help but think of my mom today. Mother’s Day isn’t a bad day for channeling gratitude in general, but today I’m particularly reminded of the ways Mom found to give thanks even in the final weeks before her death last summer. And please understand – she wasn’t perfect, nor would she ever want me to make her out that way. You should know, too, that she had plenty of moments of despair in her battle with brain cancer, plenty of deep anger at the injustice of it all. We are all of us, after all, a jumbled mix of emotions, a blend of strength and weakness, as we walk through whatever challenges life has in store for us.
But among the memories that will always stay with me from Mom’s final weeks is this one. She’d lost her mobility by this point, and she’d lost much of her ability to communicate with us. But Dad knew how much she would enjoy a drive one glorious summer day, since her sight was one thing that hadn’t been impaired. So we got her into the car and headed out. Almost immediately, as we came over the first hill near their house, we heard her gasp. Naturally – since we’d been in 24/7 caregiving mode, we worried something was wrong. But it was quite the opposite. We’d simply reached a point where she could see – all at once – dozens of sheep and cows, hundreds of flowers and trees, and her beloved Catskill mountains. We then heard her say quite clearly: “happy, happy.” I don’t know how many times she said it on that short drive: “happy, happy.” And we knew in those moments she was thanking Dad, for taking her out on what proved to be her final adventure away from the house. And she was praising God for the beauty of creation, in those views she had loved her whole adult life. For quite often when she had admired those same mountains, she’d recalled the opening lines of Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” That day, of course, she had to paraphrase. But what a touching paraphrase. “Happy, happy” all along that drive, when few other words had been possible for her that day. It was the most beautiful expression of gratitude I’ve ever heard.
I’m inspired, as I remember that moment, to pay more attention to the world around me, to look – even on my hardest days – for what shines, if you will, for what’s there to be celebrated, noticed, appreciated…
Now to be fair, I also have a great deal of sympathy for those nine lepers who forgot to come back to Jesus. I’ve never had to contend with anything like the suffering from which they’d just been released – heaven only knows what they felt most compelled to do just then instead of returning to thank him. And I certainly don’t think any of us should require of ourselves or of others that we feel grateful in every moment.
But I do know what genuine gratitude looks like. Sometimes it looks like biblical outcast returning to give heartfelt thanks to Jesus for healing him. And sometimes it looks like a terminally ill English professor, robbed of her power of speech and knowing she wouldn’t be healed, sharing a moment of happiness on a drive through the countryside.
My prayer for you today is that you will have reason to feel grateful in the days ahead - that you will find your “happy, happy” place, as it were, no matter what challenges life holds for you.
I pray we’ll all be able to witness moments of genuine gratitude around us as well. Amen.
 Douglas Adams, The Prostitute in the Family Tree: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible, pp. 75-77.