Simeon lay still, eyes closed, as he slowly woke up. He smelled smoke from the fire, blowing from somewhere close-by. He had woken from a dream. In it, he was back home in his beloved Samaria. He lived in the shadow of the holy Mt. Gerizim. He could see the sun on it when he woke up every morning, and began his life of prayer and devotion. In the dream, he woke up to the smell of his wife making breakfast. He heard his three children laughing as they ran around after each other, half playing/half completing their chores. In this fantasy, he kept his eyes closed as long as he could, enjoying the sounds and smells of home. Into the room where he slept, he heard someone steal in quietly. He smiled as he guessed it was his wife, and he knew he was right when he felt her lips on his, a strong and powerful kiss that made him wake up. But he couldn’t bear to open his eyes, to leave the dream. He took a deep breath, and this time, along with the smoke came other smells. Every morning, the smell still surprised and overwhelmed him: the mixture of mildewed clothes, human waste, and rotting flesh.
The scents of the leper colony.
He opened his eyes to see and smell and hear the misery of the camp around him. His wife was miles away, if she was still alive after his long absence. His three children…he had no idea where they were at this moment. All he knew is that he was in a place worse than his worst nightmare. The perfection of his home was long gone. The dream reminded Simeon of home, and before he got out of bed, he allowed himself a few torturous moments of remembering….
- He remembered that first morning when he saw the rash forming on his arm. He had tried to hide it but it didn’t last long.
- He remembered the look on his wife’s face when he showed it to her. Leprosy was considered one of the most contagious and unclean of the skin diseases, and contracting it meant social and religious ostracism.
- He remembered the words of the priest when he asked his opinion. Simeon was popular and well-respected in his community and he was good friends with the priest. He thought that maybe he would look the other way, but with a look of horror, disappointment, and disgust, he pronounced the verdict: unholy. Unclean.
- He remembered the tears of his small children as he tried to explain that he had to go away. He couldn’t even give them a hug goodbye…had to stand across the courtyard as he told them that he would be back soon.
- He remembered the final sight of Gerizim as he journeyed north. He had to get as far as he could from his family, so that he wouldn’t bring them anymore disgrace and shame. He travelled toward the border with Galilee. As his beloved mountain disappeared over the horizon, he wept tears anew. Simeon grieved again, haunted by these memories that hung about him like the smoke and stench of the camp. He stood to shake them all loose, and begin a new day of agony.
He surveyed the camp around him. It was near the border between Samaria and Galilee, a kind of no-man’s land where outcasts of both nations were sent. Simeon found himself as a double-outcast, both by his own people who pronounced him unholy because of his skin disease, and by the neighboring Jews who pronounced him and ALL of his fellow Samaritans unholy because of their religious differences. They shared a commitment to Moses and his law, but both declared the other as incomplete and unholy versions of the law. They disagreed about where to worship—Samaritans at his beloved Gerizim and Jews in Jerusalem. In fact, before he got sick, most of the Jews he had ever seen were from the north, travelling down to Jerusalem through the hated Samaria. They disagreed about what Scriptures were holy—Samaritans trusted only the Torah and called themselves “Defenders of Torah,” but Jews read other books as holy histories and prophetic oracles. And they disagreed about who was ordained by God to lead—Samaritans rejected the Davidic dynasty and anything having to do with his heresy.
But here in this camp, those divisions and distinctions seemed rather silly. Here, everyone suffered. Everyone tried to help each other. Sure, there were those who rose to the top of the power structure of the camp. And violence broke out occasionally as there were never enough meager resources to go around. But as a general rule, no one cared about where you were born or who your parents were.
All suffered together. All were unholy.
Simeon thought to himself as he warmed his hands by the fire: it was debilitating for a human to see themselves as unholy. The skin disease rotted away his outside, but it was the shame that rotted away his inside. The feeling that he never could shake that he was diseased to the core. Rotten on the inside. Broken beyond measure. Simeon had almost reached the point where he believed that there was nothing that he could do right. That he was fully and completely unholy. And he lived among an unholy people…inside and out. Looking around the camp, he could feel his stomach turning; everything and everyone he saw disgusted him. He felt that all he knew was depraved and unclean and fundamentally unholy.
Today it was Simeon’s turn to travel to the nearby communities to beg for money or food to share with others. He and nine companions were sent to a border town in order to see what they could bring back.
As they walked, they talked about rumors that had made it to camp. A man had been travelling in the area, healing people. They wondered what they would do if they saw him. Maybe he could heal them. Maybe he could take them away from their agony. Maybe he could restore them to their homes and their families. Simeon laughed out loud, and swore at them in their stupidity. They were just rumors. They would live the rest of their lives as unholy outcasts. There was nothing that anybody could do to reverse their pain and agony. They were hopeless and helpless and worthless. No one dared speak a word of hope—or any word at all—after his speech. Meanwhile, Simeon’s disgust just festered.
Soon, they began to see travelers on the road. When they did, they ran off to the side to the required distance, yelling “unholy” and “unclean” to warn people accordingly. It was thought that if a clean person even passed under the shadow of a leper, they could catch the disease. From that distance, they begged for food or money, and often were rewarded with a few scraps or meager coins. The travelers on the road became more common as they got closer to town. The ten wondered if they had gathered enough charity to turn around and start to head back to camp, when they noticed a huge crowd gathered. From a distance, they could hear people crying out, either in hope or in joy. A man ran right through the middle of the ten, laughing almost hysterically, “I can see, I can see! Jesus healed me!”
The ten looked at each other and all thought the same thing all at once: the healer! Carefully, they made their way toward the edge of the crowd. There is no way that they could get his attention…not at that distance. But then, the crowd broke up and a man emerged from the middle. They still couldn’t get close, but if anyone could get someone’s attention from a distance, it was men like this who had had plenty of practice. The voices rang out at they screamed to get his attention: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
And then, the most extraordinary moment of Simeon’s life took place. This healer, this Jew, this Jesus, stopped in his tracks. How he heard them amidst the clamor of the crowd, Simeon never figured out. But it was as if he sensed them across the chaos. He turned directly to them, left the crowd and walked directly to the ten of them. They started to back up, knowing that they could be killed for spreading their disease. But Jesus just walked right into their midst. Right beside them. Touching them. Simeon noticed the smell, the scent, of one who had not at all been associated with death. He noticed his eyes. Jesus looked at each of them, one at a time. He was the first person in such a long time that didn’t look at Simeon with contempt…as one who was unclean. Unholy. To this Jesus, Simeon could tell that he was a holy child of God. He was beloved. He was worthy. Simeon could barely keep his gaze off this Jesus, nor could he bear to look at such love without looking away. Here was pure holiness. Looking at him and somehow seeing holy back.
“Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
And he turned and walked away. The men were stunned. His words could only mean one thing. The priests were the only ones who could pronounce them clean. This healer was telling them that their disease would be removed and the priest could declare that they were no longer unholy. They didn’t need to hear it twice. The ten tore off away from the crowd, running in the direction of the center of town. Simeon didn’t even care that the priest wasn’t even his priest. At this point, he was ready for someone—anyone—to examine him and tell him that he was no longer contagious.
As they ran, Simeon began to look at then men running next to him. Where there were once red marks, there was now olive skin. Where there were once white flakes, there were now healthy arms and legs and faces and people. Completely, healed people. Simeon stopped. If they were healed, maybe he was healed, too. He slowly unwrapped his arms and his legs. Covered because of his shame and so that he would not need to see his disfigurement, he now pulled off the wrapping. And his blood stopped…the moment that he realized he was healed. A thousand memories and a thousand hopes flooded over him. His home. His children. His wife. Her kiss.
But, it wasn’t just his skin that was healed. Of course, that mattered deeply. But he began to see that everything had been healed. His heart, once bitter and cold, now started to hope. His eyes saw the world anew. He began to see the world around him in a new light. The nine others, who moments before disgusted him, now made him laugh out loud. He remembered the way one of them always had a goofy look on his face whenever he walked to go begging, as if he were thinking of a joke. And the way that another one built the best fires, banking them to last through the night. And the way another cared for his diseased mother so gently in the camp, even though he had lost an arm to the disease himself. He looked past these men, and began to notice the world around them. The bushes and flowers by the road, jumping out at him with beauty. The rocks and the sand formed an amazing pattern that looked like they had been painted with a brush. Even the hot sun felt like an invitation to joy. Jesus had given Simeon the gift of new eyes. The chance to see the world the way that he saw the world—filled with hope and potential and beauty and joy. His eyes had been opened to a new world. Or more correctly, the world that had been there all the time. Not only had the scales fallen from his skin; they had fallen from his eyes as well. Simeon could see the holy…everywhere.
Before Simeon knew what he was doing, he had turned around. He was running, even faster than before, but away from the other nine. He was not running toward to the priest, to examination and clearance and family and home. He ran…to Jesus. Back to the crowd, back to the man who had changed everything for him. He ran to Jesus and as soon as he laid his eyes—his new eyes—on Jesus, he fell to the ground. Not because he was unworthy, but because Jesus was worthy. Not because he was unclean, but because Jesus had made him clean. Not because he was unholy, but because he could see the holiness of the world, emanating from the One who was there at its creation. He could see the holy everywhere, and knew he had to praise the Healer and Maker with his own lips and his own song. So from his knees, he sang, and prayed, and thanked Jesus for making him whole again. Jesus spoke, asking about the nine, but all Simeon had in response was the praise of his lips and the gratitude of his heart. He didn’t even stop praising and singing and shouting, until Jesus spoke about him.
“Your faith has saved you.”
Saved. Salvation. Simeon had once known for sure what it took for salvation. What kind of worship. What kind of theology. What kind of political ideology. What kind of law-abiding, commandment-keeping life. But he realized at that moment that he hadn’t had a clue what real salvation was. Now he did. Simeon had been saved. To the core of his being. He had been given new eyes and a new vision and a new soul. Today, Simeon would not worship on the mountain at Gerizim. Or the mountain of Jerusalem. He would worship at the feet of Jesus. For today, he had witnessed the pinnacle of perfect holiness.