One of the most satisfying parts of any movie is when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him in the end. When Hans Gruber gets paid back for his crimes against innocent people in Die Hard, or when Thanos is put in his place by the heroes in The Avengers; or even when Gaston gets paid back in full for terrorizing Belle and trying to kill the innocent Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The trope of “bad guy gets what’s coming to him” is satisfying because, on some level, we all agree that bad behavior deserves to be punished.
And on the flip side, we also agree that good behavior deserves to be rewarded. When people work hard and do good, we expect and celebrate when good things happen to them. When you study for the test, you get the good grades. When you work hard and smart, you get the promotion. When you help others, somehow that good makes its way back to you.
Which is why this parable Jesus tells today should feel so wrong to us.
While I was researching materials about this Sunday’s readings, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of what leprosy is. See, it gets mentioned several times in the Bible, notably in this week’s readings from Luke and from 2 Kings, but also in several other books of the Bible. I looked it up, and leprosy, which is called Hansen’s disease in medical terminology, is a bacterial disease that deadens nerve endings and deforms your fingers and toes by eating away the cartilage. Throughout history and across cultures, leprosy has been treated essentially the same way: by outcasting and isolating people with it.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was even a leper colony in Hawaii established by the American government where otherwise healthy people were sent to live in isolation together. People in developing nations with the disease are regularly shunned and avoided. And in the Bible, the prescription from the book of Leviticus for the disease—and pretty much any skin disease resembling it—was ritual isolation, wearing your hair long and messy and your clothes tattered and ragged, and shouting “unclean” anywhere you went so people knew to avoid you.
All of this is made even more tragic by the fact that leprosy isn’t contagious 98% of the time. But these are the kind of people who encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and asked him to have mercy on them.
There was an extraordinary thing that happened earlier this week. Amber Guyger, who has been convicted of murdering Botham Jean after she mistakenly entered his apartment, heard words of forgiveness from Botham’s brother, Brandt. If you haven’t had a chance to see the video or read the transcript, it was incredibly moving. Brandt spoke of how he had no ill-will toward her, wishing her the best in her life, calling her to turn to Jesus, and even asking the judge if he could give her a hug.
It’s a scene I can only recall happening two other times. Once, by some family members after the Mother Emmanuel massacre who forgave the murderer for what he did; and once after a gunman killed five schoolgirls in Amish country in Pennsylvania. These stories of incredible acts of forgiveness are inspiring and also intimidating, because what kind of superhuman could forgive such an awful act? It puts the onus on the rest of us to somehow live up to that kind of selflessness of letting go, of forgetting the sin committed, of passing over punishment.
I saw a picture just recently of the city of Mumbai in India, and it struck me because on the right side of the image was what looked like a modern, wealthy city with skyscrapers and hi-rise apartments; and on the other side was a sea of squalid slums filled with shanties. And the only thing separating these two parts of the city was a tree-covered hill.
It reminded me of how, in seminary, the school was in the neighborhood of Eau Claire. Now, Eau Claire used to be a well-to-do kind of area, but in the last few decades has experienced a lot of economic depression, crime, and neglect. But if you got in your car and drove eight minutes, you could get to a part of town called The Vista. The Vista was the trendy part of town, with lots of shiny new shops and restaurants, a park by the river side, and expensive homes. That eight minute drive was all that separated the two.