“Were Not Ten Made Clean?”
Luke 17:11-19 – October 13, 2019
Sometimes, I talk with people in recovery—alcoholics and addicts who are not drinking or using substances, one day at a time. I used to do this more often, when I was regularly facilitating a weekly spirituality group at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab unit at a nearby hospital. One of the suggestions for staying clean and sober one day at a time is to keep a gratitude journal. You know, a running list of things we are grateful for.
A writer for the Hazelden/Betty Ford Clinic, Michael G., tells us “The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said that our lives are what our thoughts make them. In other words, by simply changing the way we think and our focus, we can change our lives. Bearing this in mind, choosing gratitude can have a huge impact on your life.” 
What on earth does a gratitude journal have to do with our Gospel reading today from Luke 17? To better understand that, we need to look at the background of the situation. Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. The time is growing nearer for Jesus to enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—very near, now. While on the road on the border between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus is met by ten lepers—ten people with various sorts of skin deformity.
Can you see this scene? On the road at the outskirts of a town, Jesus and His disciples are walking. Perhaps, entering the town, hungry, thirsty, wanting a place to rest. When all of a sudden, ten lepers interrupt Jesus while He is on His journey. They stand some distance away, but they still make themselves heard—“Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
Have you ever had the unexpected opportunity to meet someone special, someone important, perhaps interrupting them on their journey? That is exactly what happened.
These ten men, the men with serious skin conditions, were living a very lonely existence. They could not have any direct physical contact with any healthy or “clean” person, for fear of transmitting their skin condition or illness. Even touching a person who had leprosy or touching something they touched might be dangerous—might get someone infected.
Whenever someone developed a serious skin condition centuries ago, they had to be separated, and go live outside of their community. In the Law of Moses, the book of Leviticus devotes a whole chapter (chapter 13) to that situation, and is quite specific. ““Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
How horrible! Imagine never being able to hug your children, spouse, parents, or brothers and sisters again. Imagine never being able to enter the market or the house of worship you regularly attended, much less being banished from your home. This was life, in an ongoing and sad reality for these ten lepers. How incredibly lonely!
Especially to an observant Jew, the religious and spiritual separation must have been awful. As Dr. David Lose tells us, “That disease made them ritually unclean, which meant that they couldn’t participate in the Temple services and rituals at the center of their faith. And not able to practice their faith, these men stood on the outside of their community as well, likely feeling alone, abandoned, and desperate.”  But, there is unexpected hope. I don’t know which of these lepers hears that the Rabbi Jesus is in town, but Jesus had been healing people throughout Israel and Galilee for about three years by this time. Wouldn’t you ask for healing, if you unexpected met the Rabbi Jesus?
As I considered this reading during the week, I wondered how addicts and alcoholics felt. Are they considered “Unclean!” and ostracized? Shunted aside? Ignored? Does their disease of alcoholism or addiction cause them increasingly to live alone and isolated, in poorer and poorer health? These two situations from Luke 17 and the condition of addicts today do not line up completely, but there are some close parallels between our Gospel reading and the sad, lonely, debilitating condition of countless people who are afflicted by the disease of addiction.
I want us to begin to understand the hopeless, helpless sense of these ten lepers, ostracized and isolated, suddenly and unexpectedly getting hope for the first time in a very long time. “The Rabbi Jesus! Coming to our town? I’ve heard about Him! Isn’t He the Rabbi who heals the blind and lame? And, didn’t He raise that widow’s son from the dead? And—and—that Rabbi has healed some lepers. I know, I heard the stories. Maybe—He might heal me!”
Hoping against hope, you know what happens. Jesus does stop, and He does talk to them. He says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” That’s puzzling, at first hearing. But, not if you are someone living by the Law of Moses. When a person was healed from illness, they were routinely supposed to go to the Temple or to the priest and show themselves. In today’s terms, the priests were similar to physicians’ assistants in the role of certifying people’s return to good health. Jesus told the lepers to go even before they were healed. And as they were obedient and started on their way, a miracle happened. They were healed, cleansed, and their skin conditions were totally gone. Imagine how excited and delighted those former lepers were!
Here’s where the problem is: ten were healed, but how many came back with thanks to Jesus? How many were truly grateful? Yes, ten lepers left Jesus, and along the way to the priests became clean, healthy, and whole. Only one ex-leper truly recognized the incredible healing and gave thanks to the Rabbi Jesus. In giving thanks, he became what God had intended all along.
That is the answer. That is the secret to life: gratitude. “Noticing grace, seeing goodness, paying attention to healing, stopping to take in blessing, and then giving thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary graces of our life together. This is the secret to a good life and the heart of saving faith.” 
I started off this sermon quoting from an article on recovery. I’ll end it the same way. Michael G. says, “When I first came into recovery more than 30 years ago, my sponsor told me to buy a notebook and write down 10 things I was grateful for, and then add three things to that list every day. I stopped numbering my list when I got to 5,000 items.
“Why did I write a gratitude list? Because I didn’t want to be miserable, and if being grateful was the solution, then that’s what I would do. And importantly, a grateful heart doesn’t drink. I learned very quickly that the struggle stops when gratitude begins.” 
I don’t often end with a challenge, but I am today. This is for me as well as for you. What practices ought we undertake, with what stories might we surround ourselves, with what rituals might we allow ourselves to be shaped, so that we might respond to God with gratitude and joy?
Dear Lord Jesus, help all of us to search for the answers to these sincere questions, and follow Your way in our daily lives, perhaps even writing a daily gratitude list.
(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog, A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!