Sun, Oct 13, 2019

Imagine if...



it is, perhaps, the quintessential human characteristic;

the thing that, truly, defines us as human:

the ability to understand another’s experience…

figuratively, to walk a mile in their shoes.

And yet, at least according to the theologian, Charlene Burns…

empathy is also, perhaps, the quintessential divine characteristic.

After all, the doctrine that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith––

the incarnation––

is nothing if not an exercise in divine empathy.

Thus, it is through empathy that we actualise the image of God in which we were created.

That also means that the lack of compassion that we show to one another…

is not just a denial of our shared humanity…

but a denial of our identity as children of God.

And sadly, don’t we see too much of that denial in our world today.

The lack of compassion––

towards those who are minorities and especially those who are ‘different’…

in colour, culture, creed, gender or sexuality––

and the apathy by the comfortable towards those who are suffering…

are stark failures in actualising our divinely-endowed empathy.

Take, for example, a group of people on our doorstep––

the Rohingya in Myanmar;

a Muslim ethnic minority…

who are barred from entering cities;

not permitted to marry without state permission…

and banned from having more than two children;

who are subjected to arbitrary arrest by soldiers––

along with imprisonment, rape, and torture;

many have sought to flee to neighbouring countries…

only to be treated with complete disdain…

and a number, sadly, have “found their way” to Nauru and Manus Island.

But just stop for a moment. 

Imagine what it would be like to live like that:

to endure that level of harassment;

to live constantly with that level of fear and torment;

to be treated like you’re some sort of second-class human being––

or even vermin;

constantly to be made to feel worthless––

simply because you’re from a different ethnic or religious group…

simply because of something over which, in the end, you had no control?


That’s probably something like what it would have meant to be a “leper” in the first century.

According to Israelite custom, those who were labelled “lepers” were excluded from the community. 

They had to leave their homes, their families, and their villages––

everything that gave them meaning and worth.

They were unable to work or to worship.

They were forced to wear torn clothes and keep their hair unkempt…

and, if approached, they were meant to cry out: “Unclean, unclean”!

Can you imagine what that would have been like?


And it wasn’t because they had some contagious disease.

After all, back then, they didn’t know about bacteria, viruses, or diseases.

Remember, theirs was a pre-scientific and a pre-medical culture.

More than that…

what’s called “leprosy” in the Bible isn’t what we know as leprosy today.

True leprosy is an invasive, degenerative condition…

caused by a particular micro-organism that affects the cartilage, causing deformity; 

and affects the nerves, causing paralysis.

It doesn’t just affect the skin––

and certainly not in a superficial way.

But, what people knew as “leprosy” in the first century was just that––

a superficial skin condition.

In fact, almost any blemish of the skin could be deemed “leprous”…

any sudden hair loss…

even a bit of reddened, flaky skin.

Dandruff would qualify––

as would acne!

However, what’s described as “leprosy” in the Bible could also affect clothing and even buildings––

not just people!

And yet, in the case of people, it was a condition that only men seemed to get––

not women.

In other words, what was known as “leprosy” back then wasn’t a disease.

It was a perception.

It was a perception that someone wasn’t quite right.

It was a perception that someone didn’t look quite normal;

and anyone who wasn’t normal was dangerous–– 

a threat to the whole community.

So they were labelled “impure”… 

they ceased to be a person of worth…

and they ceased to belong.

To be a “leper”, back then, was to be excluded, ignored, and devalued.

So, more than anything, “leprosy” in the Bible was a debilitating social disorder.

Not only were you excluded, ignored, and devalued… 

but your condition came to define you.

If people looked at you, that’s all that they saw…

and they didn’t really care what happened to you.


That would have been the experience of the ten men in this morning’s story from Luke’s Gospel. 

Ten ‘lepers’.

Ten people excluded and treated as worthless…

standing at a distance–– 

just like they were supposed to.

They accosted Jesus as he was entering some little village, crying out…

Have mercy on us!”

Now, that could have been just a request for a handout.

After all, given their predicament, food would have been quite hard to come by.

And, in response, Jesus did nothing dramatic––

there was no spitting and mud-making… 

and no touching.

He simply said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests”.

That’s all!

Now, he didn’t say that because priests were healers.

Rather, they were the inspectors and guardians of purity.

It was their job to exclude people who were perceived to be a threat;

and it was also their job to declare them clean again and no longer a threat.

So, in sending these ten to the priests, Jesus was effectively saying: 

I’m telling you that you’re healed––

that you’re whole…

that you’re valuable and worthwhile.

Now, go and show the priests what I have done”. 


Well, as the author constructs the scenario, they all went on their way…

and, while he says that all ten “were made clean”…

one of them returned to Jesus rather than going to the priests––

if, in fact, that’s what the other nine actually did.

And then the author drops the narrative clanger––

the one who came back was a Samaritan.

For a start, he couldn’t have gone to the priests in Jerusalem…

because they would not have received him.

The Samaritan came back to Jesus because he had nowhere else to go––

he had no one else to whom he could go––

in order to be declared clean and whole, publicly.

But, more than that, the original audience would have been shocked––

not just because Jesus let a Samaritan touch him…

nor because the Samaritan’s response was to praise God––

they would have been shocked that the Samaritan was healed at all.

To the original audience, he would have been considered an outcast—

someone of questionable morals…

an unredeemable sinner…

someone who was despised, hated, and treated as dirt…

even without being a leper.


In other words, what the author is saying through this story is… 

that no one is beyond God’s reach…

that no one is outside of God’s care––

no matter who they are…

no matter how they are perceived…

no matter how they appear.

God doesn’t reject, abandon, or despise anyone.

God doesn’t care about the boundaries that we humans erect––

around others…

or even around ourselves.

Indeed, other people may call us things like:






a nuisance or a burden.

We may even see ourselves that way.

And, inadvertently, or intentionally, we may have seen others that way.

But God doesn’t.

In God’s eyes, there are no lepers!

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