Ten lepers cried out to Jesus for mercy. They could not come near so they called out from a distance—“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Jesus heard, and He had mercy.
He sent them to the priest to diagnose their condition. Only the priest could declare them clean and sanction their re-entrance into society. On the way their leprosy vanished. They were new men, on the surface anyway.
But only one had a heart change. He came running back to the One who alone could see beneath his skin and give him a whole heart.
This story is told to children as a lesson in being thankful. We should always say ‘thank-you’. I read it one morning this week to my granddaughter. She was called to breakfast before I could deliver the moralistic punch line. It’s probably just as well. But I was left pondering this story. What does it teach us?
This tenth leper was more than just thankful. When he looked down at his hands and recognized he’d been healed, he made an ‘about-face’ and “praising God with a loud voice”, he rushed back to Jesus and ‘’fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” He was a man transformed from the heart into a worshipper of the one true God. He had been doubly an outcast, both a leper and a despised Samaritan, but Jesus being no respecter of persons had extended mercy to Him. His response was a demonstration of his faith and because of it Jesus declared him ‘saved’, made whole.
It seems to me in reading this story that there is more here than a mere physical healing. For the other nine lepers this was the case; they were happy to trot off to the priest and be declared fit for society. But this one returned to Jesus and was declared ‘saved’—fit for fellowship with God! If I read correctly between the lines of this story, he was not only healed of leprosy, he was forgiven–made clean inside and out. He had only to cry out for mercy and then to acknowledge the One who extended it as His rightful Lord.
Leprosy in the ancient world was regarded as a judgment of God for a person’s sin. It was incurable, loathsome and progressively deadly. It was a scourge that made an outcast of its victim. The leprous person was to ‘wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose’. He was to ‘cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean” lest he come in contact with anyone unawares. He was sentenced to live alone. “His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev.13:45,46) Leprosy is an apt description of the incurable nature of sin. From almost imperceptible beginnings it spreads destructively till its host is destroyed, without ability to free himself.
No wonder Jesus made a point of healing lepers, demonstrating that even the grossest of sins is not beyond his reach to heal and forgive. This is a poignant reminder in light of the scandals being unearthed by the media these days. Christian men, trusted leaders, are among those whose private lives have been exposed by the hackers of a website promoting adulterous liaisons. Sin cannot stay hidden anymore than leprosy’s infective virus can remain symptomless.
“The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” I Tim.5:24
But in the wake of sin’s exposure there is hope that the lepers so exposed will cry out for mercy and find forgiveness, and that those sinned against will find the grace to forgive, knowing how much they themselves have been forgiven. ( Luke 17:3,4)
Like leprosy, sin is a great leveler. Leprous Jew and Samaritan alike lived as outcasts from society. Even so no one of us stands ‘better off’ than another and beyond need of mercy. ( ‘All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory’) Apart from God’s mercy we are all lepers for life, disfigured from God’s original design, cast out of the garden and out of fellowship with God and with others. None can stand tall at the Cross, worthy of Jesus’ favor. But all can cry out for His mercy. All can find forgiveness and newness of life.
In the boundless mercy and acceptance offered in the Gospel is a haven where strength is found to say ‘no’ to sin and “yes” to the Spirit who points us to the way of escape and to Christ. There is no hope for the weak to pull themselves out of the mire of sin anymore than for a leper to heal himself. But in Christ there is mercy and strength and forgiveness again, and again as we learn to walk humbly with our God.
These then are the things I read between the lines of this simple children’s story:
- I am never so weak and helpless that I cannot call out for mercy, nor so ‘together’ that I don’t need it!
- It is never too late to do an ‘about face’ and fall at Jesus feet in awe-filled gratitude. He has freed me from the ravaging clutches of leprosy so that I can live near Him, rejoicing in His abundant forgiveness, forever. This is the right response to His mercy.
- Not only is being thankful a good idea, it’s a declaration of faith in God, and a worshipful posture.
Have I bowed at Jesus feet in awe-filled thanks lately?
Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise. Jer.17:14
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4:8
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9
…and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Acts 15:9
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!