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Ten Lepers

29th May 2015

Luke 17v11-14
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

These men were shut out from society. They lived in the borderlands and kept away from the villages. They were unloved, and it may well be that they were disfigured by their disease. Other were frightened of catching it, and would have nothing to do with them. But Jesus responded to their cry.

Today, many people feel unloved, and many feel unlovely. They feel like outsiders - shut out from work or family or friendship group, or even - heaven forgive us - from church. Our physical affliction, or mental illness, or emotional problems make us feel like we don't fit in normal society. And sometimes other people make it obvious that we don't fit. People can be very cruel, and perhaps the greatest cruelty is inflicting loneliness on others. But Jesus loves outcasts.

The lepers weren't at all confident that Jesus would accept them. They stood at a distance, expecting that even He, like so many others, would refuse them permission to come closer. And, being a distance away, they called out to Him in a loud voice. Of course, their voices may also have been raised to show their desperation. They acknowledged Jesus as Master and they pleaded with Him to take pity on them. of course, Jesus was willing to do that. He was - and is - full of compassion.

No matter what affliction you carry, whether of body, soul or spirit, Jesus Christ has pity for you too. Will you acknowledge Him as Master and cry out to Him for the help you need?

He responded to the lepers by giving them an instruction: "Go, show yourselves to the priests". It's common for Bible teachers to say at this point that this is a matter of Old Testament law, and point us to Leviticus 14. That chapter instructs those who have been cleansed of leprosy to go to the priest, who will examine them, make ceremonial offerings for them, and pronounce them clean, so they can rejoin society. And that's fair enough, but it misses the point.

Firstly, Leviticus 14 tells us what to do after we're healed. Jesus told them to do it before they were healed.

Secondly, in chapter 5 of his gospel, Luke tells us about the time Jesus healed another leper. On that occasion, Jesus didn't mention going to the priests. Instead, He reached out his hand and touched the man, and said "Be clean". And the leprosy left the man immediately.

So what was happening? Why did Jesus treat these men so differently from the other?

We know that Jesus healed many people in many different ways. Often it's clear that, as well as healing a physical problem, He healed an emotional or spiritual problem as well. As my friend Russ Parker sometimes says, physical healing is the least important healing we receive; it's the only one we don't get to keep after we die (because we get new bodies then). Christ is more interested in our spiritual state than in our physical state.

When Jesus healed the leper in Luke 5, I believe that something happened inside that man when Jesus touched Him. Jesus knew that He needed human contact as well as cleaning from his physical disease. It may well be that no-one had touched him for years, and that isolation may have been doing him more damage than his leprosy.

When Jesus chose not to touch these 10 lepers in Luke 17 but, instead, instructed them to go to and show themselves to the priest, perhaps this is what was happening:

Firstly, He told them to reconnect with external religion. Their disease would had prevented them from going to synagogue or the temple, joining in any kind of formal worship times, associating with other believers, and observing biblical rites.

We hear much in our generation about the need for internal religion. And so we should. External observance of religious ceremonies is of no value without a change in our hearts, wrought through repentance and faith. Worshipping God with songs and prayers, while remaining dead in our sins, gets us nowhere. But it is also true that, for those of us with internal religion - with God-given new hearts of love and humility towards God and our neighbours - external religion is of great value.

There are plenty of Bible passages that teach us that those of us who have been born again into a living relationship with God need to worship with others, need to play our part in the redeemed community that the Bible calls "the body of Christ", need to worship God with our lips, need to confess the truth with our lips, need to be baptised, and need to share in the Lords Supper regularly. Not to do so is to disobey God's word, and will damage our internal religion.

But some Christians are damaged. We've been hurt by disease of the body, or of the soul or of the spirit. We're physically sick, or we've been deeply hurt emotionally (perhaps by a church) or we've fallen into serious sin. We now feel marginalised - living on the borders. We feel excluded, but we may in reality by excluding ourselves. And we need to get back to real Christianity. And real Christianity is corporate Christianity.

As John Wesley said, "The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion".

And secondly, for the 10 lepers in Luke 17, the key to their healing was not a touch from Jesus, it was an act of obedience.

It's easy to pray, asking God to touch a sick person and heal them. But sometimes, God will choose instead to tell the sick person to do something, and they will be healed in the act of obedience.

I've learnt over the years, and I'm sure you have, too, dear reader, that there's not just one way to minister healing to another person in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the lesson we learn from this passage is that sometimes, but by no means always, healing comes through obedience.

Are you physically sick? Have you prayed for healing and had no answer? Perhaps God might be telling you to perform some act of obedience. May I suggest that you examine your heart? Perhaps there's something that - deep down - you know God has told you to do, and you've been either refusing to obey, or pretending to yourself that God isn't really saying it.

I'm not saying that your sickness is necessarily proof of disobedience, or caused or prolonged by disobedience. But I am saying that some people's sickness is.