They weren’t accustomed to there being a moment after moment. I think that’s it. The ten people with leprosy that spoke to Jesus had surely become used to people wanting nothing to do with them. They kept their distance from Jesus. No one, after all, wanted to be near people with leprosy. It’s a bacterial disease that affects the skin, eyes, and nerves, that last part leading to numbness in the extremities.
People with advanced leprosy can’t feel their fingers or toes, and so often lose them to injuries they weren’t aware were happening. Leprosy leads to patchy pigmentation of skin, and so it would be fairly obvious which people had leprosy. In most societies, people with leprosy were grouped together and kept separate from the rest of society. I don’t imagine any physical numbness could dull the steady pain of being cast out like that. It was, of course, for the common good. We know now that leprosy is not very contagious and can be cured with antibiotics, but that knowledge came in the most recent historical blip and two thousand years ago leprosy terrified us, so it was for the common good.
They were begging. It was how they subsisted, and you can imagine they were used to it, the pain of this existence throbbing beneath layers of psychic scar tissue that is the brain’s desperate defense against persistent trauma. Across this distance, from this pain, came the words “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Certainly said without confidence, perhaps in the forlorn cadence of the panhandlers we see here in Durham, calling out for help but having been taught by experience that the vast majority of us will ignore them. It’s a low-efficiency way to subsist. You will be ignored. A lot. I don’t think you can go numb to that. More scar tissue.
Jesus sent them to the priests. A curious choice, but perhaps Jesus wanted to keep this within the framework of the covenant. They didn’t make it to the priests before their healing took place.
And once they were healed, the transaction was complete. You pray for something, you get it. It’s like buying it, but with prayer as the currency. Or, you beg for something, and you are given it. Each party plays a role, and the transaction takes place.
They weren’t accustomed to a second moment. No one had actually wanted a relationship with them before, these people with leprosy. The transaction was all they expected. Ask for something, get told no most of the time, but occasionally receive something. It all happens in one moment, and in the next moment… well, there is no next moment. The businessman or whoever had given them some money or food had moved on. The transaction was complete.
The one man, a Samaritan at that—so we are supposed to clutch our pearls a little bit and gasp “A Samaritan? But they worshipped on a mountain, not at the temple! A Samaritan!”— the one man who turned around sensed another moment was possible. The code of his everyday life was starting to glitch, new things were happening. Things that weren’t part of the code.
He praised God with a loud voice, and then he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. Three biblical sentences ago, this man was stricken with leprosy and forbidden from coming near those who weren’t. And now he is at Jesus’ feet, thanking him.
This is the second moment. The extra moment. The moment of grace. The return. The part where the story extends a little longer than we would have thought. The miracle of Isaac born to Abraham and Sarah, of Abraham coming back down Mount Moriah with Isaac. An ocean making way for Israel when the Egyptian soldiers had just about caught up with them. A woman pregnant out of wedlock giving birth to this man who heals lepers. This man continuing his story on the three days after they executed him. This is the moment after the moment, where vulnerability and surrender to God reveal something we would not have dared to asked for, something we perhaps don’t know to ask for.
Imagine the approach, as he walked toward Jesus. Each step closer pushed deeper into forbidden space. Maybe he became overly conscious of his steps, the way you do when you’re thinking too hard about walking. How long had it been since he had been close to someone who wasn’t part of his scorned troop of lepers? How scandalous must it have felt to walk up and prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet? A Samaritan with leprosy at the feet of this Jewish healer.
“Go on your way, your faith has made you well.” Jesus didn’t get very sentimental in these moments. He didn’t claim the healing for himself. He ascribed it to faith. He is a little disappointed that the other nine didn’t return. I think they didn’t expect a second moment.
People talk about how we should show gratitude quite a lot. Standing for the national anthem, or saluting the flag, or honoring our elders, or donating to Duke once you get your money right…a lot of these things become so assumed that they take on the character of absolutes and we forget that each time it is meant to be a gesture of gratitude. It’s sort of a pro-forma performance that, as it takes on that absolutism, marks not so much our gratitude as our membership in a certain tribe.
This story pushes us deeper. The moment after the moment is not one of paying tribute to Jesus the healer, but of finding a new way of being in relationship with God. The curing of the leprosy creates a sort of rupture in the fabric of this Samaritan man’s life, cracks open the accepted narrative, and lets a new thing be seen. He can come closer. He can have faith that his life is not actually determined by a set of conditions inflicted on him long ago. That is, he can have faith.
Jesus cured his leprosy, but his faith made him well. The transaction, the healing, was only the opening through which the deeper, more holistic wellness can begin.
The difference between the man who returned to Jesus and the ones who did not is the difference between praying as a matter of habit, as a matter of gratitude, and praying only when you need something. All ten of the people with leprosy are cured. As a matter of sheer functionality, the transactional approach to Jesus worked in this instance. But the spiritual movement is the point. The miracles are invitations into a relationship.
And here’s the thing. So many of the things that ask us to salute or kneel or honor have an element of control behind them, a sense of maintaining a certain order. But Jesus sends the Samaritan man on his way. The practice of faith is transformative and incredibly portable. It is meant to set you free. Free from the sense that you are unworthy to approach God because of some uncleanliness or some sin. Worthiness is not a qualification. You are invited to approach.
The practice of faith puts us face to face with the reality that God actually wants relationship with us. We feel compelled to earn it, or we feel shame for our shortcomings and failures, to which God replies “I know about that. Just come.” It’s not a magic pill for insecurity and self-doubt, but it’s a steadfast reminder that those are prisons we construct for one another and ourselves, and not things God has put in our way.
The opportunity to step into faith and away from self-doubt is always there. Sometimes it takes a spectacular healing or a God moment to help us see it, but it’s there all the time. The miracle, you see, is not the healing of leprosy. The miracle is the next moment. Your faith will make you well.