Where are the nine?
By: Martin Bell
How about a word or two on behalf of the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks? The Gospel reads something like this: there were ten lepers cleansed and one of them – just one of the – when he saw he was healed, turned back and in a loud voice glorified God and fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.
And Jesus answered saying, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?”
Ten lepers were cleansed and one of them returned to give thanks. That must be a nice thing to be able to do.
What about the others? It’s simple, really. One of them was frightened – that’s all. He didn’t understand what had happened and it frightened him. So he looked for a place to hide. Jesus scared him.
A second was offended because he had not been required to do something difficult before he could be healed. It was all too easy. He had expected months, maybe years, of fasting and prayer and washing and righteous living to be the requirement. But he had done none of this. He had not earned his reward. His motto was, “you get what you pay for.” and so Jesus offended him.
The third realized too late that he had not really wanted to be cleansed. That he did not know what to do or how to live or even who he was without leprosy. Although it had been his fervent plea to be healed, he now began to see how much he needed his leprosy and consequently how necessary it had been in defining him as a person. Jesus had taken away his identity.
It is difficult to explain the reason why the fourth leper did not return to give thanks. Perhaps, it is because it is such a simple reason – and perhaps because we very nearly tread on holy ground even to talk about it. In a word, the fourth leper did not return because, in his delirium of joy, he forgot. He forgot. That’s all, he was so happy, he forgot.
The fifth leper was unable to say thank you anymore to anybody. There is something that happens to a man who must beg and who is shunned by his fellows, and who is grudgingly thrown a few coins and who is always – in the midst of such an existence and in the face of such treatment (perhaps even because of such treatment, for instance, the few coins) – expected to say thank you. He just doesn’t say thank you any more to anybody – not even Jesus.
The sixth leper was a woman – a mother who had been separated from her family for eleven years because of the leprosy. She was now free to rejoin her husband and her children. She did not return to give thanks because she was hurrying home. Like a wild animal released from captivity, she had been freed by Jesus. And like the animal, she simply went straight home.
The seventh didn’t believe that Jesus had anything to do with the cleaning. He knew that healing had taken place, but why and how were the questions. Certainly he did not believe in hocus pocus, magic, miracles – any of that. There was a perfectly intelligible explanation of what had happened, but it didn’t have anything to do with Jesus. He didn’t return to give thank because Jesus had nothing to do with the healing events.
The eighth leper did not return precisely because he did believe that Jesus had healed him – that the Kingdom of God was here and the Messiah had arrived. To return to give thanks when the Kingdom of God was so close at hand – unheard of! And so he ran to publish the news!
What shall I say about the ninth leper? What he was his experience? Why didn’t he return? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. All I know is that he showed himself to the priest and immediately was cleansed. He then stood still for a moment and smiled. The priest reports that the ninth leper gave two utterances. First he said, “So!” And then, “Ah, yes!” Without another word he walked away. His eyes blazed fire but his shoulders sagged as if under a great burden. The air around him was silent…
Ten were cleansed and only one returned. It must be nice to be able to do that. What shall I say now – that the real point is not the one returned but that ten were cleansed? You already know that. That condemnation is easier than investigation – that if we take the time to investigate the reasons why people act as they do, we would find that they have to act the way that they do and that such action in light of the circumstances is quite understandable and totally forgivable and even completely reasonable and just as it should be? You already know that.
What then shall I say? That it is good to give thanks? Yes. That it is understandable not to give thanks? Yes. That God does not heal people and than stand around just waiting for us to say thank you and then get angry and have his feelings hurt if we don’t. Yes, that’s true. Which is the same thing as saying – no he certainly doesn’t.
But what of the nine? They are on the way home, hiding in fear, refusing to believe, offended at what they call cheep grace, so happy they forgot, lost without their leprosy, unable to say thank you ever again, publishing the news of the coming Kingdom – God, who knows where they are! The point is this: Jesus does. He knows where they are. First he says to the leper who did return, “Arise, go they way” and then he goes on his own way – with a strange smile on his lips.
But where are the nine? Don’t you see it in his eyes? He knows where they are. He knew all along. Without another word, Jesus walks away. His eyes blaze fire and his shoulders sag as if under a great burden. The air around him is silent…