“Go show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:13).
The term “leprosy” covered a wide range of skin disorders that in a pre-scientific culture stirred fears of contamination. So, victims of eczema or psoriasis were quarantined or, worse, cast out of the community until their condition cleared. Priests were assigned the role of judging someone to be safe to rejoin society. Then as today, mixing disease and morality made physical suffering even more devastating, as we witnessed during the AIDS epidemic or when parents reject vaccinations on religious grounds.
“Leprosy” can also describe social rejection based on labeling whole groups of people as dangerous threats. Substitute “illegal alien” or “Muslim” for “leper” and we begin to grasp the impact of political fearmongering designed to divide people into “them” and “us.”
As Jesus was nearing Jerusalem, his own reputation as a dangerous radical was well attested among his opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, for healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners and touching the unwashed poor and lepers. Telling the 10 lepers to “go and show yourselves to the priests” was Jesus’ way of meeting a legal requirement, but also a sign to the temple priests that God loved lepers. Jesus’ enemies conspired with one another to contain Jesus as the ultimate “leper” for contaminating the nation with his message of freedom based on God’s unconditional love for all.
A theme emerges in the Gospels that Jesus, as he prepares to take on himself the sins of the world, is also changing places with every kind of outcast and victim of fear and prejudice, including untouchables, prisoners, those abused and even the dead. When he dies on the cross, he will take even death with him to the grave.
The gratitude of the Samaritan is another theme about outsiders recognizing what insiders miss. The self-assured who judge others as unworthy (like second and third generation immigrants who oppose newcomers) are in for a surprise when they realize that God will make the last first and the first last. Compassion for anyone suffering at the margins is the essence of being neighbor to one another. Only the Samaritan understands that Jesus has given him more than physical health. He has also invited him to receive eternal life, for every encounter with Jesus is an intimate encounter with God.
What about us? We need only examine our borders, neighborhoods, social hierarchies, racial and class divisions to realize how much we limit our encounters with God. Fear of differences deprives us of the adventure of expanding our margins to meet new neighbors, brothers and sisters all around us. Pre-judging others because of religion, ethnicity and status diminishes us personally and confines us to enclaves of sameness and predictability that stop us from growing and learning about the incredible richness of life and the presence of God everywhere and in all people.
Jesus freed 10 lepers from lives defined by disease to new lives defined by gratitude and compassion. He found a single leper who was ready to embrace the universal Beloved Community where God and neighbor live eternally in joy and love.