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12 October 2013

Shouting for God


When I was growing up and I’d have a bad dream, I got into this habit of calling out in my room until someone came to get me.  I cry out (quite literally): “Mom, Dad, Luke, John (the names of my two brothers), somebody, anybody come and help me!” 

And the ten lepers in today’s story are doing almost the same thing, except their nightmare takes place in real life: there is no waking up.  To be a leper in Jesus’ time, and before, was to be a total and complete outcast: it disqualified one from having any part of society.  A leper was unclean and thus completely unable to be a part of the religious worship of the time.  Since everything revolved around the synagogue, to be a leper was also to be prevented from having anything to do in the social life of the time.  As if this wasn’t enough, leprosy was known to be highly contagious.  And, another thing: to have such a tragic and deadly disease as leprosy surely meant that either you – or one of your parents – had sinned so greatly as to deserve a punishment from God.

Leprosy, then, wasn’t just a disease only killed: it was a disease that separated one from the community and shamed them. While there are no lepers in our surrounding community, sadly there continue to exist diseases that not only harm the body, but also keeps people from receiving care from the people who could help them most: family and friends.  We live in a time when leprosy is, despite all our progress, alive and well: it may not be a contagious disease, but the virus of shame lurks around many different corners of each of our lives.

That’s why the lepers are shouting today from a distance.  Because, you see, lepers were required to announce their presence by shouting – warning those around them to move out of the way so that they would neither catch the deadly disease to be made unclean because they came into contact with an infected person. Yet, instead of shouting out warnings of uncleanliness and contagion, these lepers today shout for Jesus, they shout for mercy.  “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” they exclaim, hoping that just maybe this prophet passing by will be able to help them, heal them, do something or anything to give them back just a small piece of their dignity and their life.

Isn’t it interesting that the lepers realize this? They don’t shout the correct words when they see Jesus: rather they identify him as “The Master” – the one who has control over their disease.  In a sense, the first feeling moment for the lepers come in recognizing that in the presence of Jesus they aren’t lepers at all: they are humans loved by God.  The lepers here put aside their words of shame and instead are able to voice words of hope.

Jesus responds with even more than those calling out to them may have reasonably hoped. By the very usage of his voice, Jesus gives the ten lepers back their humanity.  Jesus becomes – because He is! – Exactly what Saint Paul talks about in today’s second reading, the Word of God, unchained.  And, precisely because the Word of God himself is unchanged, the Lord unchains others! Jesus sees them and doesn’t do what would have been the expected and acceptable thing to do: turn around and walk away.  Jesus responds with words of healing.  Words that absolutely take apart the shame the lepers must have felt.  “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  In other words: “Go, show yourselves to the authorities, to the rulers, to those who have the power to keep you shameful or release you.”  And, “as they were going, they were cleansed.”  On their way away from Jesus, the shame of the lepers is removed, obliterated completely and cast away forever. 

This is what the Word of God does for us: it cleanses us, reorients us, and points us in the direction we ought to go.  That is the beautifully freeing moment of our Christian faith: the Word of God, spoken by Jesus, points us in a direction and toward a place we know: Jesus himself.   This is the beauty of our liturgy: we begin by listening to the Word of God that is always “living and effective,” the Word that, if we allow it to do so, points us toward God and away from ourselves.  It is able to heal us of the leprosy exactly because it is the Word that Jesus speaks to each of our hearts.

Yet, there is a loose end in this story that must be mentioned: there are more words for which we must account.  Only one leper comes back to give thanks.  It is easy to understand why the other nine did not.  In order to become part of society again, they would need to show themselves to the religious leaders of the time and the make a sacrifice in the local synagogue as a sign of thanksgiving to God.  After that, we’d could assume that each leper would be required to put his life back together: visiting family and friends, finding work, repairing relationships fallen into ruin from disuse. 

However, one, realizing that he had been healed, makes Thanksgiving to the One who has healed him a priority.  We hear “realizing he had been healed, [he] returned, glorifying God in a loud voice.” 

The challenge for us this week, then, is at once both simple and terrifyingly complex: let us, upon hearing the word of God, go through our days praising God with a loud voice: with our words, with our deeds – with our love.

Because, by doing so, we have the ability, with and through the Word of God to spread the message of Jesus this week: “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

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