I wonder what it’s like to start a new life. One of our sons has just disappeared eastwards with his partner - in the words of her blog “We're a couple in our mid/late twenties who decided to escape London living. On the 25th Sept we left for jobs in Malaysia, taking a 5 week detour through Abu Dhabi and Sri Lanka.” Exciting eh? And a bit nerve wracking I guess. Of course we’re waiting with fascination to see how all this unfolds, whether it will turn into a completely new life for them or whether they eventually decide to return to the old one.
As presumably they will have those options. In a way that the leper we’ve just heard about in that deceptively simple story did not. We’re asked to believe that in a brief period of time he’d gone from being almost a non-person, one of a group rigorously kept at arm’s length by society, to being a fully functioning healthy member of the human race again. And whatever we may make of miracles and what have you, the nature of the man’s predicament as outlined here provokes the imagination really quite forcefully.
Before this day he’s one of a bunch of folk who are categorised by just one label - unclean. It’s almost impossibly hard for us to imagine what that must be like as in any one day we here might lay claim to a whole hatful of labels with all their associated privileges and obligations - church-goer, motorist, cyclist, tax-payer, consumer, viewer, student, old person, and all often qualified by the adjective hard-pressed of course. Each of us has to own up to many many such intersecting labels.
But this man we can only assume was pretty much defined by his disease. Required to tear his clothes so it was obvious what he was, required to stay outside the town at night because at night things aren’t so clear, the torn clothes don’t show up, he could be mistaken for a healthy person and who knows who he might bump into and infect. So he is always kept at arm’s length and can only join with others similarly afflicted and stick together with other lepers. Again at this distance in time we can’t really know but it’s fair to guess that they provided each other with some level of mutual support and probably relied on hand-outs from wherever they could get them. And while it’s always good to think twice before pitying the lifestyle of people we are not familiar with, I think in this case you could safely say it’s not a place you’d want to be.
But it was where he had been for a long time and he had had time to develop his coping strategies. It was what he knew. And then suddenly, he’s not in that place any more. He’s healed. A new life beckons. A new day dawns. How wonderful? How scary, more like. How absolutely terrifying. It’s mind-blowing just thinking where you’d start? Those torn clothes’ll need sewing up, gotta get a job cos there’ll be no more charity now, is there perhaps the remnant of a support network from an earlier life, but how to get back there? Imagine how his head must have spun with the sheer complexity of it all.
There’s a hint of this of course in the way he’s identified as a Samaritan, traditionally at odds with the Jews. Those other nine who didn’t come back had been to the priests as their law demanded. If you want to know more there are two long chapters in Leviticus (13 & 14) devoted entirely to regulations about skin diseases. But I’ve read them so you don’t have to and I reckon Jesus may have been a bit harsh on those nine who presumably were Jews because it was quite a time consuming business going to a priest to be declared clean. We’re talking weeks rather than days. But let’s not dwell on that, the thing is our chap won’t have had the option because he wasn’t one of them. The priests wouldn’t have given him the time of day.
And that will just add to his dilemmas, he’s not one of them anymore. It will have dawned on him that the bonds which leprosy created have gone but the enmities of an earlier life are still there. Little wonder he went back to Jesus to give thanks - I think there was more to it than that. I wonder was he secretly hoping for some pointers from this person with such power. Perhaps a bit more help in the business of starting a new life. If so he was probably a bit disappointed as Jesus effectively told him to get on with it. Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.
Oh, right, thanks, but which way? He had been united with the other nine by the label leper, now he’s divided from them by the labels Jew and Samaritan. Will there be something in his memory of the old life that helps him to view things differently in this new one? Will his memory of that day of being healed enable him to see things as they really are and give him some sense of eternal glory struggling into vision amongst the despairs and chains of humdrum everyday existence? We’d like to think so.
If there is such a thing as a new life, it will always be informed by memories of the old one. A new life in Malaysia, yes, the idea is an engaging one. We speak of new life in Christ; reflecting this morning on the experiences of our leper pal, we see that if we are serious about it, it is at once wonderful and scary as Jesus tells us to get up and go on our way fortified by our memories and thankfulness for what he has done for us.