Not Filling In The Blank
A sermon on lepers and cognitive bias
As he entered a village, ten men with a skin disease approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” -Luke 17
(If you’d like to hear me preach this sermon, here’s the video form this morning - it starts at 21:30)
I have never been a member of a leper colony, but before I got sober, I did live in a two-bedroom apartment with six people. We didn't spend a great deal of time outdoors. We didn’t bathe as often as we should have. Only some of us had work, mostly we lived off of what little we could make selling things that weren’t legal to buy. Some had part time jobs for minimum wage but never managed to hold on to the work for long. And while we often hurt ourselves and hurt each other, at least we weren’t alone. We shared our food and our drugs and we laughed a lot. But when we left that basement apartment, the world felt overwhelming. The sun was too bright and the normal people going about their lives felt like complete aliens to us. I can only imagine what they thought of us.
I thought of that time in my life recently, when I realized that in everything I’ve ever read in bible studies and commentaries and sermons, the ten lepers are just stage dressing, or background props for an important message about gratitude. They never seem to be treated as actual people.
In fact, nine of the ten are usually portrayed as ingrates even though we don't know that for sure. I mean we know they asked for healing and Jesus said go show yourselves to the priest and as they went on their way they were healed. But we don't know their hearts. We just know that one of them saw he was healed and went back praising God and then we use that info to make assumptions about why the other nine didn't do the same.
We do that, don’t we? We fill in the blank all the time when it comes to other people. But I’m pretty sure that what we assume about other people says more about us than it does about them.
See, when the disciples saw ten leave and only one return and then Jesus says “where are the other nine?” I imagine the disciples didn't think “Well, I bet the other nine were praising God in the temple instead – or I bet the other nine were preaching to other lepers and that’s why they didn't return” No, I’d bet good money they thought “The other nine didn't return because they are entitled ingrates”
Social psychologists have a name for this by the way- they call it: The Fundamental Attribution Error.
The Fundamental Attribution Error is a form of bias in which we tend to attribute the bad things that happen to other people as being a result of their character or personality and the bad things that happen to us as being a result of forces beyond our control. If my colleague gets fired it’s because everyone knows she isn’t very good at her job but if I get fired it’s because the boss is sexist. But studies have shown that we don't just do this when bad things happen but also when good things happen – meaning if I get a promotion it’s because I am a hard worker but if he gets a promotion it’s because he’s always kissing the boss’s ass.
Theologians also have a name for this, by the way. We just call it: sin.
Which is why I often say that, as a society, our drug of choice right now is just knowing who we’re better than.
Which makes the 8th commandment (thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) a bit difficult to obey, by the way – I always thought if I didn't lie in court about someone, I was good to go. Like, I could check that box pretty much every day.
But Luther says the 8th commandment means that yes, we should not tell lies about our neighbor, betray, slander them, or hurt their reputation, but defend them, speak well of them, and (here’s the kicker) explain their actions in the most generous way possible.
I’m not sure I’ve ever done that, even once.
This means that when one leper turns back and praises God, and Jesus says to the disciples where are the other nine the correct answer is either:
a) none of our business or
b) doing something equally beautiful somewhere else.
But here’s the thing: when Jesus traps the disciples in a fundamental attribution error, it’s not to trap them - really it’s to free them. To free us.
Free us from the bondage of taking other people’s character inventory to know who we are better than. Free us to be healed and whole without giving a care for the thoughts of other people, systems or institutions. But also, it’s to free us from the designations others may have put on us.
So I spent some time this week being curious about who the ten lepers were as people and who they were as a community.
Like, since there were ten of them – ten who formed their own little family, I wonder if the Roman soldiers who patrolled their city considered them a gang. I wonder if there were laws against them congregating like that in public. I know for a fact that non-lepers must have feared them. Maybe not unlike the way I fear the large groups of homeless folks at 23rd and Welton. As if poverty is a contagion.
Those around them may have seen them only as their designation as lepers but I like to think that they shared meals with each other, took care of each other, even loved each other. Maybe to the non-leper community they were only seen as “unclean” and were not permitted the dignity of being more than one thing. And maybe that was because the so-called healthy people needed to assume that lepers became lepers because of bad choices in their lives, that their leprosy was their own fault. Because then the so-called healthy people could avoid feeling vulnerable to illness. If I can look at people experiencing homelessness and attribute their situation to bad choices and not societal factors, then I get to be assured that it will never happen to me because I have the good character to make good choices. See, it’s so simple! Nothing to worry about.
But to each other, the ten lepers weren’t just a group of people who had such bad character that they brought on illness, to each other, they were actual people – they were Susan who was funny and Francesca who had two daughters and Steve who was the best at changing bandages and Tyrone whose prayers were so beautiful. Maybe to the outside world they were only their disease but to each other they were so much more, they were people with their own stories and families and humor and heart and skill.
All I know is that a shared alienation can bond people like a shared privilege can never do.
So maybe it was their unity, their – we are in this together – their -we are all we have - that allowed them to cry out and be heard. I’ve read that leprosy impacts the voice. But maybe together they could be heard. Like collective bargaining for each other’s healing.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” they yelled. Us. Not me. Us.
I kind of love them, the ten lepers.
Jesus said “go show yourselves to the priest” And on their way they were made clean. Then one sees that he is healed turns back praising God. To which Jesus says,
your faith has made you well.
But when Jesus said your faith has made you well, that’s different than saying your faith is the price you pay if you want to be well. The ten lepers were healed with or without attributing it to God. They were healed with or without seeing it. They were healed with or without an expression of gratitude.
What I am saying is that faith is optional. It really is. Just like gratitude, faith is not an obligation, it’s an invitation. It’s not the cost, it’s the gift.
And it’s such a beautiful invitation. And such a beautiful gift. Because to trust that God is God and we are not, means we are free from the bondage of having to fill in the blank when it comes to other people. That’s some healing right there. Knowing that you are not the labels put onto you by those who want to feel good about themselves and only know how to do that by comparison. Healing is knowing that you are God’s image bearer, but so is every asshole who cuts you off on Colorado Blvd. Healing is not having to attribute character traits to them, or anyone else for that matter.
My friend James says that faith is relaxing. Relaxing in the presence of God in the way we do when we are in the presence of someone we are certain is fond of us. Perhaps that is true praise of God, relaxing so much that we trust there really is no extra credit to be had. No ranking to be jostled for. No worthiness to be earned. No one to vote off the island so that I have a place. We can all relax, and have our actions explained in the most generous way possible. Thanks be to God, Amen.
I originally preached this sermon inside the women’s prison and am posting it again here since there’s a video to include from today. If you would like to support and engage with me and my work, you can always become a supporting member of The Corners. Benefits include: extra content, monthly Q and A, access to the comment section, younger looking skin and eternal salvation.
Support from my subscribers allows me the freedom to accept invitations like one from yesterday - when I was able to preach inside two men’s prisons in Southern Colorado, and the money I would be paid as theologian in residence at Montview and the Cathedral goes directly to support New Beginnings - the Lutheran congregation inside the walls of the women’s prison. Thanks everyone for making this ministry possible. I’m so grateful!