Sunday, October 13, 2013

the parable of the cleansing of the lepers

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

You have no doubt heard it said many a time that the miracle stories in the Gospels are parables in action. I certainly have. So I thought I'd try and find out who it was that first said it. Alas, I could find many examples of the phrase being used going back at least to the mid-19th century, but as for who first made the observation, and how long ago that was, I could find no reference. The only thing I can think is that such a common-place idea and of such ancient origin that none of the authors I found using it thought it necessary to give any attribution.

Which is a pity, really. Because it really is such an insightful observation that its originator truly does deserve to be given proper credit for it. It is one of those ideas that seem blindingly obvious when one thinks about it. We know that Jesus said and did far more than the Gospels record – St John famously says that if one were to try to write it all down there wouldn't be enough books in the world to contain them – and if you read the Gospels carefully, they attest again and again how Jesus went to endless places where he performed great numbers of miracles of healing and exorcism without any of the details being given. In fact, the Gospels record the details of relatively few of Jesus' miracles – for example, it may come as a surprise that St Mark gives the actual stories of only 16 miracles in total. This means that the evangelists chose each of the ones they included with great care … and it is not surprising that they would use ones that went beyond demonstrating Christ's power, but also served as opportunities to further emphasise his teaching … and so just as the parables are stories intended to teach us something, so too are the stories of the miracles intended to teach …

So what of our miracle from today's Gospel, the healing of the 10 lepers … what do we learn if we look at it as a parable?

It should be noted that the leprosy spoken of in the bible is not what we mean by leprosy; it covered a wide range of skin diseases, but what we call leprosy, or Hansen's disease, was unknown in Israel at the time of Christ. But the Jews regarded those they called lepers with a particular horror … not only did they have what was considered to be a loathsome disease, but they were also social outcasts … cut off not just from their fellow human beings, but, as they were ritually unclean, cut off from the practice of their faith … they were diseased, disfigured, and all but cut off from the rest of society … so Jesus actions do more than simply heal them … he literally gives them a life … he restores them to the community …

And in response to Jesus' restoration of all they had lost, what do they do? For all but one the response is a staggering ingratitude that Jesus remarks upon quite bluntly … the comment 'and he a Samaritan' would have rung quite harshly on the ears of his hearers ... and if we're looking at this as a parable and seeking to draw the lesson that it teaches, it is hard not to see all humanity as the lepers … we are the ones who receive immense gifts from God … the gift of life, of fellowship with others, of the relationship with him … and most respond with incredible ingratitude … few, very few, respond as the tenth leper, who returns, loudly praising God, to prostrate himself before Jesus … the majority simply take … while only the few give thanks, praise, gratitude, and glory …

And the story ends on a curious note … Jesus tells the leper to get up and go on his way, saying his faith has made him well … but he was already healed … he had been healed earlier, along with the ungrateful nine … so what does Jesus mean? Does he mean that God doesn't care whether we are grateful or ungrateful for all he gives us? That would seem to go against Jesus' amazement that the nine can't be bothered to express gratitude. Does it rather mean that his faith has made him well at a deeper level, a spiritual level? Perhaps. The Greek word used here, soz-ook-en, means not only to make well or heal, but to make whole, to save … is what Jesus saying to the man that your faith has saved you? You alone have had the proper response to what all that God has done for you; all of you have been healed; but only you have been made whole; only you, because of your faith, have been saved?

To view it thus is to turn it into a stark warning against taking what God does for us for granted … of thinking because he has given us the good things of this life, he is somehow obliged to give us the good things of the next … and like all parables we must wonder where do we fit into the story … of the ten, who would we be? Among the nine who are healed only … or the one who is both healed and saved … something to ponder … something to pray about … Amen.

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