It was Shimri who told me about a Jewish rabbi rumoured to have healed a leper. Of course I wanted to believe it to be true. Any leper would. But, when he told me that this rabbi Jesus had healed the man by touching him, I knew the story had to be false. No-one touches a leper.
No-one has touched me for years.
Even now I have to swallow back tears as I recall the last time Anatu drew me into an embrace. I wanted to warn her not to, but instead I cried into her hair, breathing in the smell of oil and nettles. When we finally drew apart and she held out the baby for me to cradle one last time, I shook my head. The risk was too great.
That day I walked away from my wife and daughter, to join the lepers in the borderland camp. Sometimes, my heart still lurches as I catch a rare glimpse of Anatu passing by with my daughter—a child of eight or nine, with the same dark eyes as her mother. Always Anatu’s gaze strains to find me in the ragged group of men calling out unclean! unclean! Always I avert my gaze and hope she doesn’t see me. Every near encounter makes me feel the chasm between us more.
“Ebal!” Jonas’ voice draws me away from the painful memories. “They say the healing rabbi is coming past! We are going to see if we can get his attention.”
“That Jesus? The one who they say touched a leper?”
He nods. “Shimri and the others are waiting at the gate.”
We fall in behind Shimri and the other seven, all shambling down the road on disfigured feet that feel no pain. I am the only Samaritan amongst them, but leprosy has broken down the walls of hostility that once separated us. We mock that after a while our faces, voices and bodies are so disfigured, you can’t tell a Jew or Samaritan apart.
The news of the healing rabbi has drawn a crowd. Men, women and children cluster along the road. Many look at us warily as we approach. Several voices call out for us to keep our distance.
We wait away from the road, unable to see if the rabbi approaches. I wile away the time looking at faces, trying to see if Anatu is in the crowd. After a long time, I sense a stirring of excitement. People are calling out, stretching forward, waving. The rabbi must be close.
Jonas starts to call, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” We all pick up the refrain in our dry, cracked voices. Jesus, Master, have pity on us! Jesus, Master, have pity on us!
To my surprise, the crowd begins to part, and I see a young man making his way towards us. He seems completely unafraid. Is this the rabbi? Those trailing him seem more reluctant to approach us. I almost cry out unclean! unclean! as the young man draws ever closer. Surely our disfigured bodies and ragged clothes warn him what we are?
Even more surprising than the man’s bold approach is the expression on his face. Over the years I’ve read many things in people’s gazes. Avoidance. Fear. Revulsion. Distress. Occasionally, pity. But never have I looked into eyes pooling with such deep compassion. He stops, a mere arm’s length away from me, and suddenly I do believe Shimri’s story. Perhaps this man truly did reach out to touch a leper.
The crowd has grown silent as a grave, as if everyone is holding their breath. For a time, the rabbi looks at us. Each one of us. When he meets my eyes, a strange tremor passes through my body, the way Moses might have felt stepping barefoot onto the holy ground at the burning bush.
Finally, he speaks. “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Then he turns to be swallowed up once more by the crowd.
Disappointment thuds through me. The rabbi hadn’t touched me after all. I try to discern the meaning of his words. The only reason a leper goes to a priest is to confirm he is no longer unclean. I look at the blight of sores on my body, all still there. A priest will only chase me away and probably hurl a few insults at me for wasting his time.
And yet…the rabbi’s words still ring in my ears, with an authority difficult to ignore and an entreaty to believe. I decide then that I will do this one simple thing he commands, and I begin to walk, dimly aware that the others are doing the same.
After about twenty paces, I feel a tingle in my feet. I stop and look at them in surprise. My feet have been numb for years. Next, the feeling reaches my hands, the way sensation returns after you stretch out a limb you have slept on. Then I notice something even more astounding. My sores are changing. All these years I have watched the diseased skin slowly encroaching on the healthy, but now the healthy is rapidly vanquishing the diseased.
I look at Jonas, Shimri and the others. Each of them has the same puzzled expression as they study the skin on their hands and feet.
“I think we’re healed,” Shimri says in a hushed voice, looking up at me. “Look, even my fingers seem longer.”
It’s true. His stumpy, claw-like hands are slowly unfurling. My own fingers too have straightened into the hands of my younger self.
“Let’s get to the priests!” Jonas shouts. “Then we never have to live like outcasts again.”
I watch as my friends prance away from me. Yet, instead of following them, I turn back to the crowd that follows Jesus.
“Please, I need to get to the rabbi,” I say, trying to push past the wall of people.
I’m not sure if the path that opens up for me is due to their lingering fear or genuine wonder that I am healed. But eventually I find myself close to the rabbi.
“Rabbi!” I call in a loud voice. “Praise God! I am healed.”
He stops and turns, his face a mirror to the joy I feel.
“Thank you. Thank you, rabbi.” I throw myself down before him, sobbing at the thought of the gift he has given me–the blessing of a second chance with Anatu and my child.
He bends over and grips me by the shoulders. Yes! This is indeed the rabbi unafraid to touch the unclean. “Thank you, rabbi,” I say again, looking into eyes alive with kindness.
“Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” the rabbi asks me softly, and the shadow of sadness on his face makes me ashamed that my friends are not here acknowledging the greatness of his gift. There should be ten men kneeling at his feet right now.
The rabbi straightens and addresses the crowd. “Was no-one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he holds out his hand and smiles as I clamber to my feet. “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
The warmth of his approval still courses through me as I reach the small house I used to call home. Anatu and my daughter are outside throwing feed to the chickens. Both turn at the sound of my footsteps.
“Ebal!” The container falls from Anatu’s hands, clattering to the floor and scattering seed, as my wife throws herself into my arms.
This story, based on Luke 17: 11-19, is from a new collection of bible fiction stories called “Questions: Jesus asked of my heart”
Other stories in this collection: Do you want to get well?
Image from: https://www.saintjames.church/jesus-heals-10-lepers/