“Leper” is used as a metaphor for someone repulsive, even today. We still speak about social lepers. In the Jewish law, to be a leper was to be ritually unclean. Other examples of such uncleanliness included contact with a corpse and the issue of blood. This state of uncleanness could be passed on to others so there was an obvious need to segregate the clean and the unclean lest the contagion should spread. To be unclean, therefore, was to be socially isolated. One could only be cleansed with the appropriate ritual. This is referenced in the Psalm 50, which includes in verse 7: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Whereas the issue of uncleanliness carried no moral condemnation it did tend to be used as a metaphor for sin. Indeed the psalm has this understanding. Without ritual cleansing a person was prevented from any kind of religious observance. In some cases, ritual uncleanness was only a temporary matter, but for those with a chronic condition it was completely debilitating. The most extreme case was, arguably, that of the leper.
In the Gospel account heard today, Christ healed the Ten Lepers by His word, but their healing was conditional upon their obedience. They had to respond for the healing to take effect. It was only in obeying the word of Christ that they were healed. There is something of an echo here in the story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman, the Syrian general (2 Kings 5). He was also afflicted with leprosy and went to Elisha who told him to wash seven times in the River Jordan. Naaman was at first dismissive, arguing that the rivers of Damascus were just as good, but he obeyed, and he was healed. He subsequently offered generous gifts to Elisha. These gifts were declined, but the gratitude and recognition of the true God were explicit in that story and the same is true here.
The lepers in today’s Gospel were told to go show themselves to the priests. The implication is clear; they were to be certified clean in accordance with the Law, and as they obeyed in faith, they were cured. In turn, when we obey, we see miracles. Is that not wonderful? What we cannot do though is to expect healing without some action on our part. It is like trying to claim forgiveness without repentance.
There are other lessons to be learned in this narrative. We see that Jesus was not just sent to the house of Israel. This is shown when He heals the tenth leper who was a Samaritan. This leper was not just outcast, worse, he was a heretic, part of a race excluded from society of Israel by virtue of its sectarian conservatism. The grateful man was therefore twice an outcast. Likewise we, the Church have no business trying to restrict our mission to any particular group or nationality; we have no right to exclude anyone. We may claim to be a chosen people but that does not give us any exclusive rights of salvation. We are, or we were, outcasts as much as the Samaritan leper. We owe it, therefore, to God to be as open to the outcast and the outsider as He is. God is there for all mankind, not just for the select few, and certainly not for some narrowly defined ethnic group. Christ did not confine His ministry solely to a chosen elite and the Church has not and must not confine its mission in this way either.
Mindful of the grace extended to him by Christ, the Samaritan leper returned in gratitude to Christ and thereby completed his healing. The pattern of his repentance and healing applies to each one of us. Remembering that leprosy is bothy visible and public, we need to realise that sin is something we cannot hide, even if we try to do so. Like the outcast leper we need to admit our condition both to ourselves and to God and ask for His healing. We need then to obey what Christ tells us to do in order to receive our healing. Like the Namaan the Syrian and the Samaritan leper we also need to show our gratitude to God in order to complete our healing and restoration to Him.
We have seen how washing is an integral element in healing and forgiveness in the Scriptures, particularly but not solely in the story of Naaman. This puts us in mind of our baptism and gives us another insight from the sacraments of the Church. Some here were baptised as babies, other are much newer members of the Orthodox Church. It is a great joy to see Jamie with us today, newly illumined and with the chrism still wet upon him. In baptism and chrismation, he with us receives cleansing, forgiveness and healing from God and in gratitude now begins an ever closer walk with Him. I am sure that Jamie will find his life transfigured and changed in ways that he had not thought possible before.
It doesn’t matter moreover how old any of us are in the faith. We all belong to a community being transformed by the healing love and grace of God. We are all here in His temple to give Him thanks and praise for our own healing, just like the Samaritan leper. We shall experience great things as we continue to grow and repent. Our lives will then increasingly display the work of God both as a witness to others and as a means of our salvation. Let us then not neglect to do what Christ commands and to give him thanks for His work in our lives.