My pastor preached on the ten lepers in our Thanksgiving service this morning. It was a tale of gratitude and healing; and as I listened, I began to wonder about the lepers – what their thought process was, why they were willing to believe, what happened afterward. An idea formed and I began typing when I got home. This is my take on the story, my attempt to ‘humanize’ the characters and make them relateable, the reason I enjoy writing Biblical fiction. Enjoy.
A Story of Thanksgiving
Luke 17:17 Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?
Though it had been a year since he had last been there, nothing had changed: the house still appeared the same – mud brick with a thatched roof. It needed a little work, but such was expected. After all, his departure had been abrupt and there was no one to help her with the duties of the house and the chores that come with running a farm. His sons were much too young and the family would have shunned her for fear of contamination.
He shuddered as he remembered that day. The infection had been progressive; and by the time the priest was called, it was apparent what was wrong. No one wanted to admit it though. No one was willing to speak the word for fear of making it so. He recalled the pained expression in her eyes as she cared for him, washed him, helped him get about. He wanted to reassure her, to assuage the worry consuming her, but it would have been a lie. Any word he spoke to her, any hope he offered would have been a lie.
Hope dissipated completely when the priest spoke the word they had all been averse to utter: leprosy. It was a death sentence. The holy man might as well have pronounced him dead, except he was still alive and more than that, he had to leave, move away from his beloved and their two sons as he waited for his body to decay and wither away. No more moments of intimacy with his wife. No more games with his sons. No more love. No more affection. No more human contact. No more…anything. His life was over.
“Boys, let’s go,” he heard, the front door opening slightly. No one exited, though. He moved back towards the gate, away from the entrance. A stone pathway lay between them, covering the only distance that separated him from his family. His heart pounded violently, entrenched with the fear that had attached itself to him in the past year. Fear of the disease that defined him, fear of what lay ahead of him, fear of dying alone. After leaving, he had wandered for days, expending the supplies he carried. The water was first to go, then the food. He could have easily scrounged around for more sustenance, but his will to live was gone. He had no purpose anymore.
He would have perished in the wilderness but for the other lepers. They were nine others in various stages of the disease, their attitudes ranging from the devout to complete apostasy.
“God has abandoned us,” one of them declared, “He has turned his back on us, allowing foreigners to invade our land, then added insult to injury by striking us with sickness.”
Few argued – he certainly didn’t. There was no sense to be made of the situation. He struggled with what his life was now. But as time passed, he learned to be grateful for the guidance and friendship the other lepers offered. No distinction in class was made, though he was a Samaritan¹. He had spent his life bowing to the will of the Jews, but now, in death, he was equal to them.
Well, equal with the ones who shared his affliction. It was a different situation with those who didn’t. He had become something else, something worse than just a Samaritan; and there were new rules he had to adhere to. To preserve their health, he had to announce his presence everywhere he went.
“Unclean,” he shouted as he made his way on the road between Samaria and Galilee.
“Unclean, unclean, unclean,” he repeated as he moved out of their way and gave the healthy space to pass.
“Boys, stop playing and let’s go,” he heard again, his wife’s voice betraying the frustration he knew she tried to hide. She struggled with her life now as well, the widow of a man who still lived. He knew the stigma he carried was attached to her, but the few times he saw her, she braved a strong face, for his sake. She supplied him with food and bandages as often as she could, but the packages were becoming sparse. She couldn’t support him when she was struggling to support herself and their sons. And at the rate his disease was taking over his body, it would only be a matter of time before he was dead, his corpse so rotten and disfigured, not even the vultures would feast on him.
Then he met Jesus…
Rumors had spread all the way from the hill country: a prophet in a nation of prophets, who fed the hungry and healed the sick.
“Have you heard about this Jesus?” he asked the leader of their colony after returning from Galilee. “They say he heals the sick.”
“Bah, pay no mind to such useless chatter,” another said, the oldest and most cynical.
“But if he’s healed the sick…,” he argued.
“Even if he has, no one can get near us to heal us, so it’s useless to hope.”
He knew the man was right, but something in him hoped anyway. Never mind that he was a Samaritan and a leper; and this carpenter was a Jewish prophet. Surely, the God they served would make no distinction…would he?
Stop kidding yourself, he thought. You know he would. All the priests, prophets and guards do, what makes him so different?
He was ready to give up hope when they heard another tale of the prophet’s prowess: demons had been driven out in the Gerasene region. Then another: 5,000 men had been fed miraculously. Then another: a young girl has been raised from the dead. Hope grew with each word, not just in him, but in the other lepers. It was all they spoke of, especially when the story of the infirm woman finally reached them. She was like them, they heard, suffering from a disorder that had her hemorrhaging daily. She was unfit and unclean. But she had been healed by the prophet.
“They say she made her way through the dense crowd and touched the hem of his cloak,” one of the lepers related. “She was healed then and would have slipped right back through the crowd, except the master stopped and asked, ‘who touched me?’ Can you imagine? Being thronged by so many and he knew what one touched him? She admitted what she did and though many were ready to stone her, Jesus sent her to the priest to be pronounced clean.”
Try as he could, he could not visualize what that would be like – returning to the man who had sentenced him to death to be declared free from sickness. If this woman could experience it after twelve years of sickness, could he? Could they? What would he do first?
Run home to my family, he thought.
Giggling interrupted his thoughts. He smiled, knowing the boys were giving their mother a hard time as boys were apt to do. A second voice joined the first, followed by heavy footfalls: she was chasing them around the house, trying to get them dressed.
Oh, how he had missed days like this. It warmed his heart to hear them, but made him afraid at the same time: would they remember him? Would they want him back? Would they believe he had been healed? Even now he wondered. But doubt could not win this battle. He knew it was so, he was clean, he was healed.
The day had begun like every other. He hadn’t felt pain in a long while, but he knew he was getting worse. His skin was covered in lesions and his eye sight was failing. He wouldn’t last much longer. Then he heard the carpenter was passing by Samaria on his way to Jerusalem.
“Perhaps he will heal us,” one of the ten said.
“Do you imagine he will go out of his way to come heal us? Or that we can sneak our way into the crowd that follows him and touch him while he is distracted?” the oldest remarked.
“Are you not tired of being sick? Of having to hide from the people we love, like we don’t exist? I, for one, am tired of being ignored,” the original man replied.
“So what can we do?”
“Make our plight known.”
And with that, they headed toward the village. He shuffled along after them, hoping, but afraid to hope. What if the carpenter had left already? What if he was still there, but was unwilling to heal them? What if Jesus was willing to heal others, but not him, a Samaritan? Then again what if he took pity and healed him? What if he did make his body whole?
Words warred in his mind, until the men arrived at the village. Already, they were bordering on criminality: as unclean men, they shouldn’t be so close to others. But they couldn’t pass this opportunity either.
Like the other stories they had heard of Jesus, a group of men preceded him. Some spoke of the glory of God, others spoke of revolution. All looked to the prophet with admiration as they traveled through the town.
Together, as if one voice, the lepers began shouting, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
The procession stopped. Several men flanked the carpenter as if to protect him from them.
“Jesus! Have pity on us,” he and the others cried again.
Jesus met their gaze, one-by-one, and raised his hand to stay his followers. Then he calmly and confidently spoke to them: “Go show yourselves to the priest.” And that was it. The prophet continued on his way, his admirers going with him. They were gone before the lepers, before he could reply.
“Go show yourselves to the priest,” he repeated.
“That’s it?” the oldest one said with doubt.
“Isn’t it enough?” another asked. “It means we have our healing.”
No response was given. They looked at one another, afraid to say otherwise, and one-by-one, they moved in the direction of Mount Gerizim where the priest lived. He pondered the simple expression the master bore on his face, like hope manifested. Then there was the surety with which he spoke, as if he could command worlds. Of course, if he could do half of what others say he did, then the world was the least of his obstacles.
Step-by-step, he hustled towards the priest’s home, his footfalls lost with the others. They walked quietly, perhaps considering the same things he was: was this really happening? Could it be as simple as ‘go show yourselves to the priest’? After all, hadn’t others been healed using different methods? The woman with the infirmity, the Centurion’s servant or the widow’s son who was raised from the dead. They had each been healed in different ways: touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak, sending word or touching a coffin. Would it be unlikely, then, for them to be healed in this way? By walking, moving forward toward the one man who could declare them clean and allow them to return home?
Oh, what a joy that would be, to go home to the wife he longed for, the children he missed so terribly. They were his heart, the part of him that was missing in the midst of this interruption that was leprosy. Once he was clean, he would run home and take them in his arms and never let them go.
His thoughts interrupted, he stopped and turned to the others. They had ceased walking and were marveling at their hands. He looked closely and realized what was previously infected and covered in lesions was now clean. He moved the sleeves back off his arms and revealed skin that was tender and new. He touched his face and found the lesions were also gone. He was healed. They were healed.
The men cried out and wept, hugging each other with joy, while he stood off wondering at the newness of his skin. He was healed. He was really healed; and he could go home once more and hug his family. As the other men, the former lepers, continued towards the home of the priest, he couldn’t help the thoughts that reminded him this was all because of the prophet… only because of Jesus. The man didn’t have to heal him, but he did. He had mercy on him, a Samaritan, when others had not.
Rather than run after the other men, he turned around and hurried back to the village. He had to catch up with Jesus before he left for Jerusalem so he could express his gratitude. He ran unlike he had run in over a year, his lungs burning, his breath hitched in his throat. But he would not slow down or hasten his pace until he reached the master. God had been merciful on him when he allowed Jesus to cross his path; and he would not stop until he found him.
When he reached the village, he stopped long enough to get directions and continued on the road. It was a few moments before he came upon the procession that accompanied Jesus. Knowing there was no way he would be able to get beyond the throng, he raised his voice and called out, “Jesus!”
The men in the back stopped, but the ones in the front continued walking.
More men stopped.
He continued calling after the prophet, adding his praise to God to it, until all the men had ceased walking. They turned around to face him, forming an imposing wall of flesh. He didn’t stop though. Even with the trepidation that filled his voice, he continued praising God. Then Jesus stepped from between the men and offered him the same simple, caring expression he had given him before.
His heart overflowing with gratitude and emotion, the former leper fell to his knees, then prostrated himself in front of the prophet.
“Thank you, master!” he cried. “Thank you!”
Over and over he repeated his thanks, until Jesus bid him to rise. He sat back up on his knees and looked up at the man as he asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Then as he looked around, Jesus inquired of the others, “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Several men mumbled about his ethnicity, but Jesus paid no attention to it. Instead, he reached his hand out to the former leper and helped him stand. “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
And indeed he was – well, strong and healthy; which made his fear all the more unreasonable. He had rushed to the priest’s house then rushed home once he was declared clean. He couldn’t wait to see his wife and sons.
But will they want to see you? he thought. Will they want you back? What if they’ve moved on? What if they accepted your death and buried you month ago? What if… what if…What if God loved you enough to heal you? What if, like you, they’ve been hurting, but hoping, waiting for a miracle?
He had waited outside of his former home for some time, happy but hesitant. It wasn’t until he heard her voice that he mustered up the courage to move forward. Hadn’t he already done so?
Quietly, he opened the gate and stepped onto the path that led to the front door. He could no longer hear giggling or running and assumed his wife had gotten the boys to settle down. Taking a deep breath, he reached out to the door, ready to enter. She stepped out, one child in her arms, the other by her side. To say she was shocked was an understatement: her face turned white and her eyes grew large. She looked him over, staring intently at his hands. He did the same; then held them out to her.
“God has healed me,” he said simply, gazing at her lovely face.
Tears filled her eyes as she touched him. He could see her mind racing with thoughts – how? Why? What happened? The only thing he didn’t see was doubt and that’s when his fear left him. He received his wife and his sons into his arms, thanking God for healing him, thanking God for bringing him home.
¹Ancestrally, Samaritans claimed descent from the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi, who had links to ancient Samaria from the period of their entry into the land of Canaan. The split between them and the children of Judah (the Jews) began during the time of Eli the priest, and culminated during the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah when the Samaritans (then the Kingdom of Israel) refused to accept Jerusalem as the elect, and remained on Mount Gerizim.