Where are the Nine?

Luke 17:11-19

Rev. Doug Van Doren


"Were not ten healed? Where are the nine?" Jesus asks. As I have come to think of it, that may be one of the most profound and challenging questions in the whole New Testament. And that is saying something! If we can answer the question, "Where are the nine?" we will have a pretty good idea of what was going on here and why Luke included this incident in his Gospel.  Though this is a quite familiar passage, those can be some of the most difficult to get inside of, but some of the most rewarding. First, let's review the incident and its particulars. 

Jesus is in the northern area of Palestine. He is heading south, probably from his home territory of Galilee. The text says that he is "in the region between Galilee and Samaria." I wonder why it names the region. Actually, Samaria and Galilee border each other. The only place that could be between them is that small area of the Decapolis, which is west of the Jordan River. That part of the Decapolis was no more than 15 miles long. There was a large city in that area called Scythopolis. This is the area of Palestine that was very Greek, and was not controlled by the Jews. 

Of the 10 lepers, nine are Jews, thus, almost certainly Galileans. One is a Samaritan. But, if they are in the Decapolis, none of them are at home. The setting of the story illustrates their status. They have no place to be "at home." That is the state of being a leper: having no place to be, being ostracized, shunned, cast out. The label "leprosy" covered a number of skin ailments of the day thought to be highly contagious. So "lepers" had to keep their distance and warn others by clapping a bell and yelling, "unclean, unclean." Can you imagine the humiliation?  Any ability to be in community with family, to practice their Jewish faith was obliterated. Not only was this a physical malady, but like most physical disease in that day, it was seen as a sign of moral disease as well. People thought it was a result of some sin of the person or their parents before them. (Talk about blaming the victim! Jesus doesn't engage in this, but it is the assumption of the society.) Of course, selectively, we still carry the same assumption, regarding HIV/AIDS or mental illness. 

The 10 lepers appear to have faith in Jesus. Out of their desperation, they come to him and ask for mercy, for a healing. Without another word - no hocus pocus, no ritual cleansing, no exorcism, no trappings of religion, Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priest.  Now why would he do that?  Well, they were "unclean." That also means, ritually unclean, unworthy of being in community, unworthy of participating in the normal life of the people and the rituals of the faith. This was a religious concern. In the Jewish system of the day, this was a matter of the law. Thus, only the priest could pronounce them clean; only the priest could restore them to community. That is, declare them no longer a source of contamination.  Of course they ran, without looking back, to the one who had that power. 

Very soon on the way, they noticed that the leprosy has left them. They are healed! Their ashen skin has been restored. They, no doubt, still wear the scars. They may be missing fingers or toes, but their disease is healed!  On realizing his leprosy had left him, the Samaritan, the one doubly-despised - despised by the Jews as a kind of half-breed, and despised by all as a leper, comes back to Jesus, falls at his feet giving thanks and praise to God. This is when Jesus asks, "Where are the nine?" 

Ah, my friends, this is a rhetorical question! I have seen a lot of speculation on why the nine did not return, but this misses the point. Jesus knew exactly where they were; why they did not come back. The story tells us exactly what they were doing instead of returning to Jesus. They were going to the Priest. They were still seeking validation in the old system that kicked them out, condemned them, made them feel unclean, unworthy. 

They were giving power to a person and a system unworthy of their trust. They were seeking validation in a system inherently unjust and therefore, not of God! You have to wonder if the priest ever would have pronounced them clean. Would he have gotten close enough to really see them? Would their past have condemned them, or the priest's fear that they might "erupt" again? And even if they were pronounced clean, would they not have the haunting, lingering sense, that it was only because they now could "fit in," look and act enough like everyone else, to be accepted. This is where the story catches up to us, and catches us up. To what, or to whom do we give power, too much power, over how we feel, how we see ourselves? 

My mother's mother was a cold, self-centered woman. My mother tried, even into her adult years to please her and to gain acceptance from her. Finally she realized that though this was her mother, she wasn't God. She realized she never would get her approval; and that had nothing to do with my mother, but the inability of her mother. From that point on, my mother flourished, becoming one of the most well-grounded and loving people anyone could remember meeting. She also vowed that her children would never, because of her, have to go through the agony and self-doubt that she did. 

How many of us are looking for love in all the wrong places? How many of us are looking to be validated by something itself invalid?  How many of us still give power, even well into our adulthood, to families-of-origin as to whether we feel whole and worthy? For how many of us is that little child in us still seeking our parent's approval? How many of us have given a non-supportive or belittling spouse power for how we see ourselves? How many older adults have given the power over how they see themselves to their children, or to a society that discounts them? How many of us are still trying to please the scowling elders of the church community in which we grew up, or the cool clique at school, or the "in crowd" at work, or the elite group on the golf course. Are we still seeking their validation, their approval, though we already have been declared worthy by Jesus the Christ, and, I pray, by Christ's community?! 

Yes, we call ourselves Christians, but that doesn't mean we don't try to keep a leg in the other camp as well. We may be here; we may hear that we should have no other god's before us. We may hear Paul's letter to the Romans; "It is Jesus Christ who justifies, who is to condemn?"  But don't we almost automatically run back to the world's store for our validation, to the high priest of culture, rather than the Christ of a new age? If we buy the right stuff, if we wear the right stuff, if we look like society says, then we will be worthy. If we look like the too tan, too tall, too skinny super model, we will be worthy. If we have the right job, join the right club, if we are friends with the right people, send our kids to the right school, have them marry the right person (of the opposite sex), then we are worthy. 

I am afraid that this text has it about right. Nine times out of ten I turn my back on Jesus, who has given me life, and run in a frantic search for validation by that which is not of God. But maybe, just maybe, we, the Body of Christ, can help me, and you, and those not yet here, increase our odds. Yes, all 10 were healed of their skin disease, but it is said only of the one who returned to Jesus, the only true source of validation, that he was made Well. 

Will we be the new community, the body of Christ? Will we be Christ-like enough, authentic enough, accepting enough, joy-filled enough, valid enough... that we might be a clear enough sign of God's love and acceptance that nobody need look for it in all the wrong places; that folks may truly be well! 

May it be so. Amen.