His whole life had been defined by distance. He was an “outsider,” they told him; a Samaritan. To this day he still couldn’t remember all the reasons why he and the Jews would never really get along. “Unclean,” they said, not because of anything he’d done, but simply because he’d been born that way.
Still, he loved God. He found himself faithfully in the temple in Jerusalem for worship. At least, he found himself in the part of the temple he was allowed in. As a Samaritan, he would never be as close to God as the Jews. He was condemned to stay in the outer courts. He could remember the inscription in the temple: “No foreigners allowed beyond this point.” Foreigner. Allogenes, the sign read. He knew that if you broke it down, it meant that he came from somewhere else. Somewhere from which he would never be truly accepted, and could only close enough to see the Jews enter into the inner courts of the temple, hearing their derisive whispers as they passed by this…this…outcast.
And that was when he could come close enough to hear anything at all. He still remembers the stern faces of the priests as they examined the sickness spreading up his arm. They muttered words that he didn’t fully understand: sara’at. Lapra. “Leprosy.” Which meant that he now found himself on the outside looking in: his fellow diseased wanderers the only community he’d ever know for the rest of his life.
The story of the man in Luke 17:11-19 might have been a surprisingly common one: leprosy covered a wide range of disease, and since it was the Jewish priests who pronounced people “clean” or “unclean” they had the authority to determine who belonged inside and who belonged outside.
So when we meet these ten lepers, they are at a distance from God. Many today feel distant from God for a whole host of reasons, most commonly from some sense of guilt. The punk rock band Rise Against sings, “If there’s no war inside my head why are we losing?” We may not understand or believe in “sin,” but we sure feel its sting.
So it was understandable that they might have expected Jesus to perform one of the miracles He’d now gained a reputation for. In the last post, we looked at the way that people often come to Jesus or religion because they want or need something. The same is true here, and Jesus delivers.
The men are sent to the priests: it was the priests who would examine them and determine whether they were, in fact, clean.
PUBLIC HEALTH HAZARD
This was no easy task: Rabbis regarded curing leprosy to be as “difficult as raising a person from the dead.” The community had strong regulations about disease such as this, especially because contagion posed such a public health hazard.
But it really was more than this; it wasn’t just a concern of hygiene, but a concern of the soul. In Mary Douglas’ excellent book Purity and Danger, she argues that purity rituals are not, as was apparently believed, linked to matters of hygiene, but instead were directly related to cultural perceptions of clean versus unclean. As a present-day example, Douglas cites that even before bacteria were scientifically discovered, people intrinsically avoided certain “unclean” objects, persons or behaviors.
Which meant that the real concern was not merely physical contamination, but spiritual as well. So you can understand why even if these men were, in fact, disease-free, the law stipulated that they could not be declared “clean” unless a ritual sacrifice was made.
Don’t miss that: A declaration of purity required a sacrifice.
ONLY THE OUTCAST
Now, Jesus knew what He was doing. He knew that nine lepers had gotten what they wanted.
But let’s do some math. These nine lepers were unclean, so they were forced to keep distant. Now they were clean, and could take part in temple worship.
The text makes a specific point to tell us that this man was a Samaritan. He might have been declared clean, but in terms of temple worship he still was not allowed to draw near – at least not like the Jewish worshippers. He was the only one who would be declared “clean” from the external stain of disease, but still “unclean” because of his birth.
The scene is breathtaking bold: the man couldn’t draw near to God’s temple, so he throws Himself at God’s feet. See, unlike others, Jesus was more than just a means to an end: his greatest treasure was not his health, but Jesus Himself.
Jesus commends him in a way that drives the point home: “Has no one returned,” He asks, “except this foreigner?” If you’re reading that in the Greek, it’s a point that hits you between the eyes. The word Jesus uses here is allogenes, the same word appearing on the sign in the temple that had kept this man out all his life. Jesus replaces a lifetime of distance with a future of intimate faith.
In the movie glory, Denzel Washington plays a slave-turned soldier who describes the culture of racism as being “dirty.” “We all covered up in it too,” he says. “Ain’t nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.”
Each of us is, in one way or another, aware that we are “unclean.” Lady Gaga sang about this in her song “Judas,” where she talked about using music as a means of “going back and forth between the darkness and the light in order to understand who I am.” Author Lee Strobel says that before he decided to follow Jesus, he felt what he called a “free-floating sense of guilt.”
But remember the earlier lesson from the temple: a declaration of purity requires a sacrifice.
And so this story brings us to the necessity of the cross. It’s easy to read this and think, “What’s the big deal about all these cleanliness codes?” It’s easy to think that Jesus tosses them aside as if they’re no big deal. But they are a big deal. Jesus doesn’t abolish them; He fulfills them.
He is the true and better high priest who declares us clean. He is the true and better sacrifice that allows this declaration to take place. He is the true and better temple that invites even the outcasts to draw near. Because He is all these things, He alone possesses the authority to declare the impure things pure again.
THE GREAT EXCHANGE
Practically, what this means is this: you can never truly be pure any more easily than this man could stop being a Samaritan. But because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, you and I can be declared pure in God’s eyes, meaning that while Jesus absorbs our uncleanliness on the cross, He also gives us the gift of His righteousness so that God would not see our diseased heritage but His Son’s supreme worth.
This is the joy of the gospel. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll see what that means for Jesus’ followers, and that living purely in an unclean world is more than mere avoidance.