At first glance, this is a story about how your mother was right.
Your mother – or whoever taught you to write thank you notes, to express gratitude as well as gratification at getting what you wanted – was teaching you something holy, something that Jesus cares about.
At first glance, it’s about gratitude, but just a little bit deeper than the surface, it is also a story about salvation, about just what it is that brings us into whole and holy relationship with God and one another, even strangers and enemies.
Ten people with leprosy encounter Jesus:
they pray for mercy, and receive a cure.
“Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus says.
And by obeying his commandment, they are cured – their skin is made clean – and when the priests see that, they can be restored to their community. They can take up their lives again, be who they used to be, among their friends and family, the life they had to give up in their illness.
That’s what we mostly pray for, I suspect, when we are ill, or when someone else is sick. It’s certainly the cure I pray for when one of you is on my prayer list: That you may be well again: recovered and strong, restored to the community and relationships and daily tasks and pleasures that surgery or cancer or some other injury or illness has interrupted.
That restoration is healing, not just for the body, but for the spirit.
And often – not always – but often, we receive what we have prayed for. The cancer remits, the broken bone heals, the surgery is successful. Sometimes the cure leaves us different – not fully back to normal, changed a bit, but out of danger, and with cause to rejoice, to hope, and to take up our normal lives again.
That story of answered prayer is the nine lepers’ story.
They ask for healing; they obey their healer;
they are cured, and can go home rejoicing.
But then there’s the tenth leper.
He doesn’t go on his way to getting his life back, instead he turns around in the midst of his healing, praising God, to fall at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving.
And when he – a man who belongs to the wrong religion; a man who has no business claiming to know our God, Jesus’ God – when he gives voice to the wonders and power of God, to his own gratitude,
that’s when Jesus sees it, and says, “Your faith has saved you.”
It wasn’t getting religion right. It wasn’t faithful prayer, it wasn’t asking for the cure, it wasn’t following Jesus’ commands that saved him. The faith that saved him wasn’t the ways we normally measure our faith – prayer, persistence, obedience, trust – all ten of the lepers had that, and all ten of the lepers were cured.
What saves this man is something else.
I’m reminded of something Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans says, at the end of her “Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She spent a year trying to follow literally all of the Bible’s rules for women – rules for everything from silence and obedience to charity, investment, executive homemaking, and ritual purity, and she reflects, at the end of her project, on how we all seem to come to the Bible, to the Word of God, looking for something.
And whatever we look for, she says – whether it is liberation, war, peace, oppression, truth, or irrelevance – we will find it.
Evans says she dove into the Bible in her project looking for a good story. And she found one.
But also, she was looking for permission: “permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.”
She was looking for a kind of healing, a restoration to wholeness of her sense of self in the midst of her holy community.
But, “what a surprise,” she says, “to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it. It had already been given."
She never had to ask.
We never had to ask.
We never had to ask.
It is already given.
Perhaps this is what that tenth leper recognizes: That what he was looking for has already been given. Not just healing, but salvation.
We ask often for healing – we’re trained to pray for healing – for the cleansing of illness, restoration to community, the end of pain.
What we look for, we will find.
But what our hearts seek more deeply, the longing below and above the things we know how to ask or seek, what we truly need when we ask for other things,
is the power of real encounter with the living God.
And before we ask – whether or not we ask! – that real presence of God is already given.
And the difference between healing and salvation in this story lies in the tenth leper’s recognition of that gift.
Undoubtedly, each of the other nine lepers celebrated their cleansing, and were thankful. They have a healing story to tell, but they aren’t telling a story about an encounter with the living God.
The nine got what they asked for, looked for, while tenth leper saw through the healing to the truth that the prayer he had never asked was answered,
that God had come face-to-face with him, living and active,
more real than his miracle or his prayer.
The power of that real encounter with God, living and active – hyper-present, excessively among us – is what we all come looking for – in the Bible, in the church, in the world – whether we know it or not.
Two thousand years after that encounter with this leper, God is still so committed to us and our wholeness that God continues to come face to face with us, even if we never know how to ask for that encounter our souls are starving for.
The remarkable thing that tenth leper does is to recognize that already given, unasked gift. And when he does, it spins him around in the midst of his healing, to return with the praise and thanksgiving of his salvation pouring off his tongue:
making that real encounter visible to the world,
opening that recognition to others who long for the living God without ever knowing how to ask.
And that recognition is the greatest possible act of our faith.
It saves us.
This story teaches us to say thank you.
It teaches that when we pray, God responds - often with the healing we ask for, equally often in a way we don’t quite understand.
And then it teaches that what saves us is not the answer to our prayers, but our own recognition that the gifts we can’t begin to ask for are already given, and our response of praise and thanks that pours that grace out to all the world.