I was at a Commission on Ministry retreat last week, and there I heard a most interesting sermon from Karen Haig, Rector at St. Barnabas Church, on this text, and her words and bell ringing have formed this sermon in my mind. She said: “This is not a Gospel message about gratitude, primarily, but more so a Gospel message about seeing and how being seen provokes the response of gratitude.” This was Karen’s solid exegetical insight, and I am pleased to share it with you- bells and all.
We start with the context Jesus finds himself in. He has turned his face toward Jerusalem. That is where he is going, and he knows that when he arrives, he will be killed. He knows this not because he can see into the future. He knows this because he can see into the hearts of humanity. (John 2:24-25).
Jesus knows that God is an affront because God is the only thing standing in the way of humanity being god; and so, Jesus knows that if the chance avails itself for humanity to kill God, they will. He goes to Jerusalem knowing his fate.
And while the heart of humanity is easily corruptible and idolatrous and fickle, the soul is always worth saving. It is the soul that the resurrected Jesus comes back to redeem. Resurrection is God repudiation of humanity’s hard heartedness and affirmation of God’s creation of our souls in the first place. Those who see the resurrected Jesus in the Gospel stories are people who see with the eyes of their souls.
Now back to the context of today’s Gospel. Jesus seems to be in a hurry to get to Jerusalem, which accounts for why he took the high road through the hill country of Samaria. It would have been safer to follow the Jordan river and then cut east at Jericho, ascending the Judean mountains to Jerusalem. Instead, he chose the high road through Samaria; which shouldn’t be a problem, but it could be.
The Samaritans were sort of the Hatfields to the Jew’s McCoys. Kissing cousins that would just as likely kill each other. The vitriol between these two communities was always just under the surface, which made things a little unpredictable when traveling through that part of the world, if you were a Jew.
And so, that is where we find Jesus and the disciples in today’s Gospel. It is not the first time he has been to Samaria. In fact, according to the Gospel of John, on one of his trips through the region Jesus met a woman at a well, and not only introduced her to the Kingdom of God, but stayed with her community for two days and taught them as well. Which might account for how the group of lepers recognized Jesus. (Bell ringing)
As he is entering a village, he hears ten lepers call out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” That must have sounded odd to anyone in ear shot… because the rule was that if a leper came anywhere near a person they were to shout: “Unclean, unclean, unclean. (Lev 13:45). Not that it was really necessary because once a person was diagnosed with leprosy, they were required to wear bells; small high pitched bells; (Bell ringing) Bells that rang whenever they moved. When they walked; when they rolled over at night; when they bent down to drink from a pool of water…bells, (Bell ringing) peeling in their ears day and night; and all the more so when they traveled as a group.
Bells were a sound that announced their presence long before they had to call out: “Unclean, unclean, unclean!” And yet, they were made to call it out, nonetheless, maybe to remind themselves that they were less than; that they were outcasts; that they were, according to the prevailing opinion of that time, out of favor with God. (Bell ringing) The sound was their imprecation, and so, they learned to be very still as a reprieve from the curse of the bells.
Jesus would have heard the bells before their call, but then it came: “Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus turned (and here is the power of this moment) he turned and saw them. He saw them. The word for “saw” in Greek is eido, which is a phrase that means, “to perceive with your eyes.” Jesus perceived them. He saw into them. He saw their souls, through the rotting flesh, down to the divine and sublime, the beautiful and eternal, the essence of who each of these lepers was…as designed by God.
He saw then through resurrection eyes…and they saw him see them. And they saw him see them. It is the adult version of the enfante gaze that binds a newborn child to their mother; that deep seeing that transcends eyesight. They saw themselves as God sees them, through the eyes of Jesus. They saw Jesus see them, and they were redeemed, they were bought back, being reminded of the connection that lives at the center of every human being, brought back to their souls…and to know one’s soul is to know God.
Jesus did not “heal them” he just saw them as whole, full, and complete. That is the miracle here. The particularities of the leprosy fall away, as do all particularities of this mortal flesh when considered next to the immortality of the soul. Nine lepers forget this, or maybe just fail to realize this, as they trot off to have their bells snipped off by the priest. But one turned back, the Samaritan, as it happened. And he came and fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. His response to having his soul perceived was gratitude. That is the response to being seen, really seen, known, it is gratitude. Always gratitude.
You and I are seen by God; face to face, from the eyes of Jesus; each one of us. That was the point of the resurrection. It is why we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday; it is our response as a people to a God that loves us, and a God who sees us. Eucharist means thank you in Greek. We celebrate the Eucharist to remember, and in the remembering to give thanks. It is this gratitude that softens our hearts and indeed, trains us to be people who see with the eyes of our souls. And to see with the soul is to see a soul… which is to heal a soul. God begins the chain reaction, Jesus continues it, we pass it on.
Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to practice seeing with the eyes of the soul: for seeing a soul is to heal the world… even over Zoom. Hopefully, you will see your crazy uncle or loopy niece or that odd rector at your church and you can perceive them…seeing past the leprosy of their opinions or whatever other idols they choose to adorn themselves with; you can see them with resurrection eyes, with the same eyes that Jesus sees you with.
That is what the world needs right now, soul to soul to soul eyesite. It was being seen with the eyes of the soul, perceived as an immortal child of God, that caused the Samaritan to return and thank Jesus.
Thanksgiving is about seeing souls, perceiving their souls as an act of gratitude for the God that sees you and loves you and holds your soul so mercifully.