11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17:11-19, NRSV)
It’s hell to have skin conditions. And 90% of the time I have lived my version of that hell. Once the hell included acne and dandruff, now it’s mostly just oily patches and dry patches. But thank you Jesus, I have never had leprosy. (And may God have mercy on those who do.)
Still with my skin conditions, the teen years were the worst. These skin conditions made me the subject of all sorts of snarky remarks, “Have you had your oil changed yet,” and, “Your face is covered in poison ivy,” and, “Did the forecast call for snow?” Although perhaps meant to tease, these remarks often have caused me to feel isolated. From time to time they’ve even turned me into an abuser who took the remarks aimed at me, and used them to hurl at others. I didn’t like who I saw in actual or metaphoric mirrors, didn’t like who I was. In time these skin conditions became a heart condition. And eventually I was no longer comfortable in my own skin.
The text contained within the italicized pericope above gets at the heart of this situation. And, I guarantee preachers all over creation will proclaim this text in such a way that it stays far above the heart, rendering this event into an only skin-deep morality lesson about gratitude. And this diminishes the message purveyed by the text; for would the writer of that gospel have spent such time, money, ink, and papyrus to pen something that essentially stays at the shallow end of the pool, keeps things skin-deep, that reduces the work of Jesus to a virtue ethic? Seems that if one were to go through the hassle and expense to present such a text, then its message must be more than skin-deep.
And speaking of skin-deep, are you living skin-deep life?
- Ever rate how you compare to others?
- Ever find yourself competing against another for your own sense of value and worth?
- Ever live under expectations of self, unrealistic ones that you create and cannot attain?
- Ever found out how lonely you can feel even in the center of a crowd?
Answer, “yes,” to most or all of these, or answer, “no, never, not me,” then you can know that you are probably drowning in the shallow end of life’s pool, probably living skin-deep.
- Spend time considering others, situations, circumstances, from the outside, yet take little to no time to look inside yourself?
- Crave a new skin in which to find your comfort?
- Seek the blessings from all your priests to whom you have brokered away your power, authority, identity?
Why not own it? Why not embrace your identity as a leper? For you know deep down what all lepers want, don’t you?
Aren’t you really looking for someone (anyone) to declare you clean, to say that you have value, to cause you to see that you are enough, to take care of the skin-deep condition?
You are not alone, you know. Nine lepers are right there with you—you’re in good company. Further, it’s a safe bet that the bulk of humanity is right there with you, too.
- Don’t we live life drowning in the shallow end?
- Don’t we keep things at the surface, living only skin-deep?
- Don’t we set our sense of life’s value and our own value at what we see on the surface?
Isn’t our skin-deep life dependent on how blessed we think we are, how well life goes according to us, how fabulously life rolls along in our favor, how we are getting the most out of life—in short, always getting our own way as we’d like it, 24/7/365.25?
Aren’t we looking to externals for internal validation?
Doesn’t this look sort of like a dog-eat-dog existence? A day by day, just scratching by on the surface, an always empty-never full mode of getting by?
And does this bring us peace? Does this bring us hope?
Isn’t it true that the best we can really get out of such a way of living is a little comfort? Isn’t that what skin-deep life makes us want anyway? It does really come down to comfort doesn’t it?
Skin deep living makes it all a surface matter search for comfort to be had through financial freedom, physical beauty, emotional mirth, spirituality that attains to nothing, having all the questions settled, and a social existence in convocation with those most like us.
And ultimately isn’t comfort that for which we will settle? And comfort is, to suit our notion, what it means to be clean.
Nine times out of ten, won’t we slather the metaphoric salve of comfort on our skin-deep life, a miracle balm to keep skin-deep life as pain-free as possible?
Comfort is our skin-deep liniment to avert addressing our flesh-deep cardiac concern. But we already know this don’t we, which is why we keep things only skin-deep, right?
Doesn’t comfort keep us from going deeper into relationship, deeper into actually knowing others, deeper into really living this one-time-shot life for which there is no dress rehearsal?
One time out of ten, we find that rare sort, or we ourselves become that rare sort—–the one who won’t settle for comfort, the one who goes deeper, the one who seeks to be made well, to be made whole, the one for whom comfy clean is simply not enough. Isn’t this the one who takes the uncomfortable path, the interior path?
And who really wants to take the uncomfortable path? Who wants life that isn’t as we’d want or like it to be, where things don’t always go our way? Who wants to risk pain? So won’t we seek just about any and every remedy to our pain?
After all, isn’t our goal in this search for skin-deep, pain-free life ultimately nothing more than our search for comfort? So taking the uncomfortable path is just about as tempting as planting a wet kiss on a porcupine! And so, we settle for the comfort of keeping life skin-deep.
But lepers don’t choose leprosy do they? Doesn’t leprosy come their way unexpectedly? It’s not as if a 1st century person stands out in the streets crying out, “O Lord God, smite me with leprosy so that I might be made unclean, be made to know no comfort, be made to avoid all others, be made to cry out, ‘Unclean’ as others pass by, be made to have no one other than another leper solicit my company, to be removed from my identity, kin, and love.” 1st century lepers don’t seek this skin disease.
But do I? Do you?
We 21st century folks choose it all the time don’t we? Oh sure, there’s a multi-drug regimen that can cure the skin-deep infection known as Hansen’s disease, but that’s not our type of leprosy is it, nor where our leprosy takes hold, is it? Our 21st century leprosy is a matter of the heart, a cardiac condition.
Aren’t its symptoms improper pride, the need to be always in control, a distrusting fear, stifling perfectionism, all-consuming workaholism, indulgent sadness, around the clock busyness, being judgmental, hiding grudges, bearing and compressing anger, stockpiling resentments, complete indifference, and certainly others?
Isn’t this the stuff that keeps it all skin-deep? Isn’t this the discomfort within our comfort? And so long as we address these as a skin-depth fashion alone, aren’t we opting for being made clean rather than being made well/whole?
And we know this, don’t we?
But doesn’t our leprosy push what we know out of view, making it very easy for us to find comfort in being made clean rather than being made well/whole? In short, we don’t change. Our comfort renders us clean so we stay unchanged.
We are captivated by what Jesus offers us rather than becoming captivated by Jesus. We leave it all skin-deep. Isn’t that what 9/10s of the lepers did—opted for being captivated by what Jesus offered while remaining uncaptived by Jesus? Only 1/10 of the formerly leprous band was captivated by the One, the Source of the healing comfort. 1/10 was made well. All were cleansed, yet only one was made whole.
The priests declare 10/10s clean. Only Jesus declares one whole.
Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus offers the invitation for the others to come, for us to come.
And nowhere in the text do those nine ever come. So if we’re not too busy being comfy with the nine, perhaps we join Jesus in his question.
But already, for Jesus and for ourselves, we can answer Jesus’ question can’t we? We needn’t go deep to find the answer, eh? Those nine cleansed people were where 9/10s of us would go—right back to the comfort that cleanliness offers. Such is the way of people.
But there’s always a 1/10 chance that through the comfort that cleanliness offers us, we’ll perceive a deeper invitation, get past skin-depth to the heart of the matter, that we might receive the invitation to be captivated by the One who is the Source, whose generosity captivates us. There’s always hope that we’ll catch on to the truth that our cleanliness and comfort have a Source, and that Source—and only that Source—ever makes us well, ever makes us whole.