The first thing the nine lepers did when they realized their good fortune was to go see a good intellectual property lawyer. They had a story to tell, and they intended to make the most of it. The lawyer quickly lined them up with good management at a talent agency, who booked them on the morning news shows, and started shopping their story around with potential publishers, being careful, of course, to protect the rights to the movie version, should things progress that far. The story of nine lepers miraculously healed by a controversial preacher had a lot of appeal in those days. You could sell a lot of books with such a story. But a book was only the beginning of the spin you could get with these guys. In time there might even be action figures.
Their agent had individual contracts with each of the nine, but was careful to keep them together as a group, which added to their appeal. And this proved to be a wildly successful strategy. They were kind of like a boy band of their era, and they had a dramatized (and greatly ornamented) version of the story of their healing that they took on the road, that included terrific lighting effects, and music by a first-rate band. Ticket sales were strong.
In this dramatized version of their story, the detail of a tenth leper had been eliminated, since it only complicated the telling, and since, as their lawyer had repeatedly confirmed, the tenth leper never obtained either counsel or representation for himself, and had done absolutely nothing to protect his rights. For all intents and purposes, it was as if the story of being healed of leprosy was not his to share, and as far as the public knew there was no tenth leper at all. When the dramatized production of the story ended its long run on the road, the nine lepers developed a reputation as motivational speakers – still traveling mostly as a group, and publishing new books, like “Life after Leprosy,” and “The Miracle-Driven Life.”
In all this, Jesus was hardly mentioned, and almost never by name. He had no representation either, and as we all know, it would take an astonishingly long time for any books about him to get published. He was highly ineffective at monetizing what was, actually, considerable notoriety at the time. And you’d be surprised at how easy it was to tell the story of nine changed lives without emphasizing the one who did the changing. In the telling of the nine lepers, Jesus was referred to only as a nameless, mysterious robed figure upon whom the lepers happened to stumble in their quest for wholeness, the gaze of whose eyes, and the slight lifting of whose hand provided the trigger for a transformation that the nine lepers routinely described as coming from within themselves.
Eventually all nine of them would retire to the Mediterranean coast as wealthy men. And it was a surprise, at that late stage of their lives, to open the paper one morning and find a long, somewhat rambling, op-ed piece by their old acquaintance, the tenth leper, whose existence they had actually begun to forget about, so compelling had they found their own re-telling of the story over all these years. But whose re-appearance late in life posed no threat, their lawyer assured them, since he was still without counsel or representation. It seemed that he simply wanted to make sure that his version of the story was preserved for posterity.
This is what his op-ed piece said:
"Years ago, I have forgotten how many now, I suffered horribly with leprosy, and had been confined, as lepers still so often are today, to a camp on the outskirts of town where I lived with my fellow lepers as an outcast, with no hope for the future. But one day my life changed when, in the company of the nine other lepers whose story you have very likely read about or heard, I came across a man who healed us all, and made us whole. That man had a name, and his name was Jesus of Nazareth.
"Living, as we do, in an age when religion is important, and the lives of all men are governed by the edicts of religion one way or another, I experienced my transformation from sickness and despair to wholeness and health in religious terms, especially since, at the time, Jesus instructed all ten of us to go and show ourselves to the priests. Clearly what had happened to me had come from God. And soon I would discover that the Man who made it happen was, indeed, the Son of God. On the day of my healing I raised my voice to the praises of God, and I have not stopped singing those praises since then. I fell at the feet of Jesus that day in gratitude and awe, and my life has been lived at his feet, so to speak, every day since then.
"My companions that day have become rich and famous, and I do not begrudge them their wealth or their fame. I neither need nor want a share of what they have gained by telling a version of the story of our healing that leaves unidentified the most important person in the story: the person who did the healing, the living Son of God, the Lord of Life and the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Christ. But that person has a Name that is above every other Name, and that needs to be spoken, needs to be heard, needs to be praised to the heavens. His Name is Jesus!
"I have had many years to reflect upon the impact of Jesus in my life, and on the effects of his healing in my life. And because my companions’ story has been so publicly told, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the differences between their response to their healing and mine, and to wonder if these differences matter.
"Jesus was not the first person we had called upon for healing. Other itinerant preachers had passed through town. As lepers, we were accustomed to keeping our distance, and we knew how the game was played. We knew how to get close enough to cry out, but not so close that we’d cause trouble or anxiety. We had cried out to supposed wonder-workers before, but to no avail. And we had no reason, especially, to expect that this one was different. But when you are a leper you are desperate, and you will try anything.
"As it happened we almost did not realize it. We turned away from him, having received his blessing, and as we went, we found ourselves restored to health. And in those moments, as Jesus was telling us to go and show ourselves to the priests, I felt an unmistakable call, an urge to turn and run to him, a need to go to him that was born of gratitude that seemed to be welling up from a deep spring somewhere within me, as though the healing had also unlocked the depth of this spring. I did not perceive what I did that day as a choice, but I see now that it was, since I was the only one of the ten of us who chose that path. And it is a choice for which I will be forever grateful. And it is a choice that you may face too, in a way, even though you do not see it that way yet.
"So often we approach religion as consumers, which is to say that we approach religion or a religious leader wondering only what we will get and how much it will cost us. That is certainly the way I approached Jesus on the road at the outskirts of town all those years ago; just as my fellow lepers and I had approached others before him. We cried out for mercy, and if we had any hope at all, I suppose that we expected that if mercy was to be given, then it would come with a price that we would have to pay. We had no idea how we might have paid that price, but, as I say, we were desperate men, looking for anyone who could help us.
"As it happened we got the best deal imaginable. Jesus healed us. And the healing, and the new life that came with it, came without charge or expectation on Jesus’ part. We were free to go our way without so much as a thank you, which is precisely what my nine friends of old did. They got what they wanted from Jesus for a bargain and they moved on with their lives without him. I have come to see how their response to the Lord was shaped by the attitude of consumerism, as so much of our lives is. And they went on to turn their story into a consumer product as well, which has made them rich.
"I can’t explain why I turned around that day to return to Jesus and give him my praise and to give him my life, as it would turn out. I don’t know why I didn’t continue on with the others, and remain a part of their story, become a part of their fame, and share a part in their wealth. I only know that choosing to turn around and go to Jesus was the best thing I ever did in my life. I did not perceive that day that I had a choice to be, on the one hand a consumer of his grace, of his love, of his religion; or on the other hand to become a disciple of his. I only know where my footsteps led me.
"I cannot speak for the others, for whom it has been otherwise, but the story of my healing cannot be told without naming Jesus and proclaiming who he is. For my healing did not come from within myself; it did not stem from some unknown source inside my body, or even in my soul. My healing came from one place, from one Man: my healing came from Jesus. It was the work of his mercy in my life, and it has brought with it into my life the means of grace and the hope of glory (to coin a phrase). Ever since that marvelous day I have been keenly aware in my life of the transforming love of God, who does not desert the hopeless and the sick, the lost and the powerless, but gives us victory over the things that steal our hope, make us sick, cause us to lose our way, and rob us of our power.
"How do you respond to such love? If you are consumer, living in a consumer culture, one way to respond is to take what you can at the lowest price possible, and then to move on to the next thing, once you have gotten what you were looking for. But another way to respond to the transforming love of God is to fall at his feet and worship him. And then to follow those feet wherever they lead you. In my life as a follower of Jesus, those feet have led me to bedsides of many other lepers, and to the homes and the villages of the poor, and to congregations of outcasts on the edges of towns everywhere. And when I meet with these people, I tell them my story. But the most important part of my story is not, in fact, the part where I am made clean and whole. The most important part is when I run to Jesus, his praises on my lips, and fall at his feet. For it was in the running to him that my life was saved, not in the healing of my leprosy, strange though that may seem to hear.
"And what I know from a lifetime of service as a disciple of Jesus, is that not every leper will be healed. All your problems do not vanish. Riches are not showered automatically upon the faithful. But new life is always found when you run to Jesus to worship him. It’s in the running to him that our lives are saved as we become true followers of his, and not merely consumers of his grace. And my prayer for all humanity is that everyone may find the power of God’s mercy – not as a consumer of it, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because I have heard my nine companions for my entire life telling the story of how their miraculous healing (from within) brought them fame and riches, but I have no idea if they even realize that they have been saved by Jesus’ love.
"I am nothing but a disciple of Jesus, and that is all I ever need to be in order to inherit the whole earth, as he has taught me. All those years ago, when I first fell down at Jesus’ feet, he took me by the hand, and told me to get up and go on my way, for, he said, my faith had made me well. What I discovered was that my faith, like everything else, was a gift of God, that came not from within, but from the hand of the loving God who made the heavens and the earth, and who made me and you, too.
"God wants you to be well. God sent his Son into the world to save all people by the power of his love. God gave me the gift of faith and saved me by the power of his Son. Run to him, as I have every day of my life since that first day I met him, and be a follower of his, and rejoice!"
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
9 October 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia