NT Wright has said (and I think he credits others as the source) that there is “still more light to break forth” from Scripture, despite the many, many years of scholarship built up around it. I’m sure that he’s right because on a personal level, I occasionally experience “more light” breaking forth from a story that I know quite well. This happened to me this morning on the way to work.
The podcast is called Bible Stories My Kids Love. I was listening to it because I didn’t have anything else on the mp3 player that I really wanted to listen to. The story was from Luke 17 and it was about ten men with leprosy who were healed by Jesus. The woman telling the story was not a professional voice actress. Her presentation, though earnest, wasn’t particularly captivating. Yet, I was attuned to her well enough that I saw the interaction between those men and Jesus in my mind…and then I saw something I’d not seen before.
The text says that the men “stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice”. (Lepers were not allowed to get near people because the disease is so contagious.) Jesus, from far away, hears them, sees them and then tells them to go show themselves to the priests. (It was the priests’ job to declare people clean of leprosy so they could return to the community.) It’s not immediately obvious from the text, but Jesus had to shout this command to them. They couldn’t draw near to him lest they infect those who were traveling with Jesus. Jesus couldn’t draw near to them…or could he? He couldn’t have been afraid of catching the disease. He’d touched a leper before. He could have told people to move aside if he had wanted to pass through a crowd to touch these lepers, and they would have certainly, even if uncertainly, moved. For whatever reason, Jesus chose to remain where he was; therefore He had to shout to them.
The lepers were outcasts. Their disease had separated them from family, friends and all human community except their own. And in this far away state, they heard the far away voice of God. He didn’t say “Come to me. I accept you.” He said, “Go to the priests. Let them accept you.” While it certainly takes faith to approach God; faith in His existence, His goodness, His willingness to accept you: it must take even greater faith to go at His command when there is no evidence of His acceptance, His presence. These men were not yet healed. Surely, they looked at themselves and at one another, saw the sores and scabs and thought “Why bother? We’re still leprous. The priests will just run us out of the temple.” Surely, at some point between Jesus and the priests, the lepers thought they were wasting their time and effort for what was sure to be a bad result. But, as people with no other options and nothing to lose often do, they took the only option given to them and they headed off to see the priests.
“And as they went, they were cleansed.”
The Bible focuses on the one man who returned to thank Jesus. It doesn’t tell us about the other nine, but let’s assume that they did precisely what they were told to do. Let’s imagine that they went to the priests and showed themselves to them. At some point, these nine men had to tell the priests their story, they had to testify that Jesus was the one who sent them, who healed them and the priests had to respond.
Perhaps in those times when we feel estranged from family, friends and even God, He calls to us across the distance. He doesn’t run to us like the father ran to meet his prodigal son. He doesn’t call us to come to Him, take us into His arms and welcome us like little children. Maybe sometimes, when we cry out in our desperate isolation, God sends us away to testify to His goodness among those who do not know Him. And as we go, He cleanses and restores us so we can rejoin the family, friends and community that we long for. And Jesus is made known in the process.