The Friends of Jesus
CHAPTER 1 Simon, the Leper
. . . And Jesus, the Compassionate Friend
If only he could get away from the smell. The putrid, oppressive, nauseating smell. Simon sat on the edge of a craggy rock and looked out over the leper colony. How in the world had he wound up here? Banished from society, ostracized even by the people he loved? Dead to the world?
Couldn’t You send a breeze, God? So the smell wouldn’t suffocate me? He lifted his face and tried to peer through the menacing clouds. Are You up there? Do You see me?
Never mind. Simon closed his eyes. The other lepers kept to themselves. Here in the colony, everyone suffered in his own way. Missing family, aching for companionship. Too broken to notice the lepers on either side of him. And so Simon was alone. He who had been one of the most well-known men in Jerusalem had no one to love, no one to talk to, no one to care. His family had deserted him. He had no friends.
No one cared about Simon now. Not one.
Agony swept over him and he studied his hands. His fingers had turned to nubs—not that he could feel them. Leprosy took away the sense of pain everywhere but where it mattered most—in his heart. The pain of loneliness and desperation was more unbearable every day.
His eyes moved up his arms. Every inch of his body was open wounds or tumors. His feet no longer worked properly and his breathing was difficult. He prayed death wouldn’t be far off. He must look like a monster, unrecognizable by human standards. He gritted his teeth. It’s more than I can take, Lord. Why have You done this to me?
He opened his mouth to breathe. Sometimes if he drew air through his open lips he could avoid the stink—for a little while anyway. It was the one part of leprosy no one had told him about. The way his melting flesh would smell.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, an approaching storm almost upon them. Simon uttered a sad sigh. No, that was wrong. The storm had been crashing in on him since the day he first noticed the sores. He hadn’t escaped the storm for a single minute. Simon hardly feared the lightning about to break through the sky overhead. If God wanted to strike him dead here on this rock, so be it. Anything to end his misery.
Then, like he’d done every hour of every day since he’d been sent away, he allowed himself to go back in time, back to life the way it had been. Back when he was healthy and took the hours for granted. When he was surrounded by his wife, Anna, and their two young daughters. He closed his eyes and he could hear their voices, their laughter. The girls were eleven and twelve, adept at cooking and sewing and on the brink of becoming women. Back then they loved Simon more than life.
The ache in his heart was more crippling than his decaying flesh.
Anna hadn’t wanted to leave. The girls wept and begged their mother for another option, a way for the family to stay together. But the disease wouldn’t allow it. When Simon was escorted to the leper colony, his family—like families of other lepers—grieved his loss as if he had died.
He was dead to them, and they were encouraged to move on. Find a new life without him.
Simon wondered how they were doing now. Had they indeed moved on? Would Anna forget about him in time? He could see their faces again, feel his wife in his arms once more. Anna, I still love you. I always will. Tell the girls I miss them.
Simon still had no idea how he could’ve contracted leprosy. In his past life, no one had lived a better life than he had. He was a Pharisee, after all. The most important of the Jewish religious leaders. One of those entrusted with passing the law on to the next generation. And of course, a Pharisee could not teach the law unless he kept a strict adherence to it himself.
Simon had done everything right. He washed himself before every meal, sometimes more often. He kept the Sabbath holy, he fasted frequently, and he wore the best garments and tassels. He did everything in his power to uphold the law and he constantly pointed out those that failed to do so.
He could remember a time when three men were carrying spoons weighing more than a fig—a violation of the law. Simon had ordered them to leave the spoons on the side of the road. Another time he had publicly reprimanded a woman for working to find food for her children on the Sabbath. Any other day, but not the Sabbath.
Simon mulled over his behavior. Yes, he had been perfect. Quite. In all his days as a Pharisee he never ate with tax collectors or sinners. In fact, Simon wanted nothing more than to live a life that pleased God. The very word Pharisee had its root in purity, right?
And yet, one morning a year ago everything had changed. He would never forget those days. He could feel the solid comfortable ground of home beneath his feet, smell the bread cooking in the next room, hear the voices of Anna and the girls. And he could feel a slight burning on his arm. Just the slightest painful burning. Like something was biting or pinching him. Or like an ember from the fire had landed on him and taken root.
He could remember the sense of alarm as he looked at the underneath area of his forearm and first saw the open wound. Small and round, red and hot to the touch. And then a second spot—up near his elbow, larger than the first.
Not for a moment did he think he had leprosy. Something must have bitten him during the night—a spider or a rare insect, maybe. Or perhaps he’d lingered too close to the fire and now he had the burn marks to prove it. Either way he wore his heavier cloak that day, the one with the tassels and longer arms that hung partway down his hand. He was a Pharisee. He couldn’t have people wondering what was on his skin.
Especially since an outbreak of leprosy had recently hit Jerusalem.
Simon knew the signs, of course. He and his peers were part of the leadership team that cast lepers out of the Temple, out of the city. They were judge and jury, and for that reason Simon—more than other citizens—knew the symptoms. He knew exactly what to look for.
Of course he couldn’t have leprosy.
But just in case, Simon prayed. God, whatever this is, take it away. Leprosy is for the unclean, so I know I don’t have that terrible disease. But whatever this is, please, take it away. He said the prayer a few times that day, fully expecting that in the morning his arm would be well. Instead, three more sores had appeared near the existing ones. Open sores, oozing from the center. Not only that, but there were spots on his other arm. And two on his leg. All of them burned. Like someone was pressing the blade of a knife to his skin and scraping. Scraping and burrowing and ripping at him all day long.
Simon doubled his prayers, pleading with God to remove the spots. He didn’t have leprosy. But still, if anyone saw the sores they might be confused and he could easily be mistaken for a leper. Which was impossible, because lepers were outcasts, people who had sinned against God and now were getting their just punishment. He was not such a sinner, and he was not a leper. Those thoughts had comforted Simon through the hours back then.
Early on he kept his distance from Anna. He went to bed after her and started his day earlier. He couldn’t bear having her see the sores and wonder what was wrong. But over the next days and weeks Simon’s skin condition grew worse. There were more spots, and then a white dusting that appeared over all his body. And finally one morning Simon woke to find his beard turning white.
The white that was a telltale sign of leprosy.
“Simon?” Anna had found him near their bed, examining his arms and legs. “What’s happened to you?”
“It’s nothing.” He grabbed his cloak and threw it over himself. “Burns, maybe. Bites. We need to sweep for spiders.”
“But your beard . . .” She took a step closer. “Simon, it’s white as snow. Overnight. It looks like . . .” Her eyes were wide, her breathing faster than before. She had never looked more terrified.
“Anna . . . it’s not like it looks.” He reached for her, but maybe without thinking she took a step back.
His own wife. As if the very sight of him repulsed her.
Simon wanted to hide himself behind a wall or order Anna from the room. He wanted the nightmare to end so he could wake up whole and well with Anna at his side and all of life perfectly planned and ahead of them.
But he could do none of that.
Simon slept on the floor that night, and after that there had been no way to hide the symptoms. The next day he had to report to duty in the Temple courts. As he walked through the groups of religious leaders he felt their stares, heard their whispered concern. Pharisees didn’t get leprosy, unless . . .
Simon had almost been able to read their minds, the things they must’ve been thinking. What had Simon done? Why had he gone from being a perfectly upstanding Pharisee to this . . . this infected human being? Simon did his best to ignore the way they drew back from him. He walked straight to the rulers of the Temple.
“Can we talk?” He motioned to a back room. “Somewhere private. Please.”
Jairus and the other rulers, the leaders of the Temple, seemed taken aback. They were Simon’s closest friends, but now they looked him up and down and slowly they stepped back, keeping their distance. Clearly they noticed the sores on Simon’s face, the white in his beard. With great hesitation they led Simon to a private place near the back of the Temple.
When they were alone, Jairus crossed his arms. “Simon. You are sick.”
“Yes.” Simon bowed slightly. “It’s . . . an infection. Something must have bitten me or . . .” He hesitated. What could he tell them? He knew the symptoms as well as they did. But even so he had never believed it could be leprosy. Not for him. “I’m sorry. Maybe a batch of weeds in the field has caused irritation. Or perhaps I stood too close to the fire. It could be that I—”
“Simon.” Jairus held up his hand. “Remove your cloak.”
Simon had feared they would say this. His beard gave it away. Until his beard turned white, he had been able to hide the patches of wounds cropping up on his arms and legs. But now . . .
He had shuddered at the thought of doing what Jairus asked. But he had no choice. Slowly, Simon removed his cloak, undressing himself to his undercloak. As he did, the leaders stepped back. One of them made an audible gasp. “Simon . . . you have leprosy.”
“No!” Simon shook his head. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve . . . I’ve kept all the commands of the laws.” A desperate groan came from deep inside him. “I am a Pharisee. I could not possibly be unclean!”
And so the leaders of the Temple had quickly conferred. They agreed they’d never before seen a religious leader with leprosy. “Perhaps you are dealing with an allergy.” One of the leaders nodded. “We would like to think so, anyway.”
Jairus and the others came up with a plan, something they often did for members of the Temple who were brought to them with symptoms of leprosy. They sent Simon home for two weeks. “Your family should stay with relatives. You must be alone, and do not leave your house for any reason.” One of the leaders seemed more compassionate. “Surely your wounds will heal in that time. Your family can join you again and you can return to your duties at the Temple.”
Simon made arrangements for his wife and girls to stay with her brother a half-day’s walk away. Anna had talked to him from a distance before she left. “You will heal, Simon. I will pray to God. It’ll be okay.” She looked scared and heartbroken. As if she didn’t for a moment believe her own words.
The girls had cried, wanting to go to him and hug him. But Anna held them back. “Later, girls. After your father is well.”
And with that, they were gone.
Simon had known with everything in him that two weeks was all he needed. His skin would heal and the horrific, impossible thought of leprosy would disappear with the wounds.
He was convinced. But he was wrong.
* * *
The storm moved closer, dark, menacing clouds headed Simon’s way. He breathed through his mouth, sick to his stomach from his stench. The memory of those early days when everything went bad played in his mind every day. Sometimes every hour. Ahead a little ways, lightning split the sky and hit the ground. Simon didn’t move. If the lightning didn’t kill him, at least the storm would bring relief, fresh air to soothe his lungs from breathing only the putrid smell of his rotting flesh.
He closed his eyes and let the past come over him again.
Those two weeks had been the most frightening in all his life. Every day he prayed and every morning he woke expecting to be healed. But the sores didn’t go away. They grew larger and deeper. More of them appeared every sunrise. One week into his time of quarantine, Simon climbed out of bed, took two steps, and fell, sprawled across the dirt floor. He couldn’t feel his feet, and as he looked down he saw the sickening reality. His toes were turning white. They were dying, right before his eyes.
Which could only mean one thing.
In the days that followed he prayed constantly. Every hour. What had he done wrong? Why would God inflict him with something so horrific? He repented for things he couldn’t remember doing and begged God to forgive him for thoughts he didn’t know he had considered. Surely he must’ve disobeyed or disappointed God. Whatever he’d done, he was sorry. He would repent the rest of his life if God would only heal him.
But every day his condition grew worse.
His sores itched and burned. He could no longer feel his fingers and toes. And something else. Tumors had started appearing on his arms and legs and even on his face and torso. Lumps the size of large olives pressed up against his broken, oozing skin. The tumors made his whole body throb. As if even his bones were decaying.
Simon noticed something else that week. His bed had begun to stink. Each morning it was covered with sections of his white, shedding skin. The floor of the house bore telltale signs of the same. He was becoming a leper, a monster. An outcast. And there was nothing he could do about it. No way to stop the destruction.
After his two weeks alone, the morning came to report to the leaders of the Temple. Simon had never felt more desperate. He woke early and dropped to his painful knees. Everything hurt—his joints and limbs and every inch of his skin.
“Lord, I am here! Have You abandoned me?” His prayer echoed through his empty house. “I have kept Your law, I have followed Your ways. Why have You not healed me?”
And then—for the first time since he started praying about his condition, he felt the gentlest whisper. A whisper that surrounded him.
My son, this has been done to show My glory to the people of Jerusalem.
Simon could remember feeling breathless. Was that really God speaking to him? God was at the center of the law, the reason Simon lived a perfect life as a Pharisee. But God speaking to him? In the quiet of his room? He had never experienced such a thing. He hunkered down against his bed, small in the presence of the voice of God.
What had the voice said? God was doing this to show His glory? How could that be? No one in the vicinity of Jerusalem kept the law the way Simon did. Others could try, but Simon had been perfect. He prided himself on the fact. He deserved his place as a Pharisee. So how could God be glorified by giving him this wicked disease?
For the next hour he cried out to God, begging the Lord to remember his perfect service, his perfect commitment to the law. His perfect way of serving in the Temple. Begging Him to recall the fact that he was a Pharisee. But God didn’t speak to him again that morning. When it came time to report before the religious leaders, Simon was no better off. His healing had not come. As if God had forgotten all the good and right things Simon had ever done.
He covered up as well as he could that morning and headed to the Temple. Walking was difficult, but he managed it. He could feel the way the people of the city stared at him as he passed by. It didn’t matter how much his cloak covered. His face had spots now, and his beard was whiter than before.
When he stepped into the Temple, people cleared a wide path for him. This time he heard the word in their whispers. Leper. Simon is a leper. No one said a thing to him as he slowly, carefully moved to the back of the Temple. He didn’t think of the pain in his feet. His heart pounded in his throat as he made his way. How could this be happening? It seemed to take forever to reach the private meeting place.
Jairus and the other leaders were waiting.
As Simon approached them he remembered dozens of times with these very men. Times of laughter and fellowship. Meals and conversations about the law. Pleasant hours of study and intense debate. These men were his friends. But that morning they kept their distance. As Simon approached, Jairus held up his hand. “That’s close enough.”
Simon stopped and waited. The floor beneath him felt liquid, and his balance was unsteady. Each of them began to assess Simon’s condition. Their words of condemnation ran together but there were no surprises. They asked him once more to remove his cloak, and then—after their shocked gasps—they made the pronouncement.
“Whatever you have done, Simon, it must be very grievous indeed. You have leprosy. You show all the symptoms.”
“That’s impossible!” Simon lifted his hands in emphasis, but he already knew. He lowered his hurting arms and stared at his friends. His life was in their hands. “I have done nothing to make myself unclean.”
Jairus shook his head. “Your words are meaningless. Your skin gives you away, Simon.” He paused, the weight of what he was about to say heavy in the small room. “You know what must happen next. Your wife and daughters will return to your home for a final goodbye. You will gather your necessities and move to the leper colony outside the city. Isaac and Joseph will escort you to the entrance.” He sighed. “Unless by some miracle you are healed, you are not to return, Simon. I’m sorry.”
“This cannot be!” Isaac and Joseph? They were Pharisees, two of Simon’s closest friends. “Sir, I haven’t done—”
“Stop!” Jairus looked stern, almost angry. “No more excuses, Simon. Remember what the law requires regarding leprosy.” He paused, clearly disgusted by Simon’s condition. “Wherever you go, you will cover your mouth and call out ‘Unclean.’ Every time you pass someone, or if someone passes by you. Don’t forget.”
Every word hit Simon like a bullet.
Anna and the girls met him back home while Isaac and Joseph waited outside. The girls tried to run to him, but Anna wouldn’t let them. “Wait by the door, girls.” They started crying, but they did as their mother asked. Anna turned to Simon and came closer. She stopped when she was still quite a distance away. Tears filled her eyes. “I cannot believe this is happening.”
“Me, either.” His body felt like it was on fire. But the pain was nothing to the searing loss in his heart. “I’ll get better, Anna. I will.”
Her tears came harder. “Jairus gave the orders. We’re to view you as dead, Simon.”
Dead? Nausea washed over Simon. That meant Anna would be treated as a widow. She would be encouraged to forget him. As if he’d never been born. He couldn’t bear the thought. Desperate, he held out his oozing hands to her. “Anna . . . I love you. I’ll get better, I will.”
She was weeping now, and she hung her head. There was nothing more to say. After a few gut-wrenching seconds, she called the girls to her side. “Tell your father goodbye.”
“No!” Miriam, their oldest shook her head. “We can’t leave him! He needs our help!”
From outside the house, Isaac shouted, “It’s time!”
Anna put her arms around the girls. She took a step backward. “Goodbye, Simon.”
The girls cried out, screaming for some other way, destroyed at the idea that this was goodbye. The last time they might ever see their father. Forever. Simon fell to his knees as Anna pulled them away. “I love you!” he shouted. “I will always love you!”
When they were gone, Simon buried his face in the dirt. His shoulders shook from the sobs exploding within him. “God, why? Why me?” He yelled the word through his tears, gasping for air.
“Simon, now!” It was Joseph this time. His old friend had come in the house and now he stood near the doorway, his face a mask of disgust. “Let’s go.”
Simon gritted his teeth. Dirt from the floor mixed with his sticky saliva and made it hard for him to swallow. He would not let this be a final goodbye. Healing would come. God could do that, right? And when He did, Simon would return and claim again all that he’d lost.
Isaac and Joseph were yelling at him again, telling him to hurry. Simon gathered a bag of clothes and personal items and left his home. He didn’t look back. He couldn’t. The pain was too great. Every step felt like he was stepping through fire and his heart was somewhere behind him. Lying on the floor at the spot where he’d said goodbye to his wife and daughters.
As he moved through Jerusalem, two women approached and Simon’s escorts raised their brows in his direction.
“Unclean,” Simon muttered.
“Louder,” Isaac sneered at him. “Much louder.”
“Unclean! I’m unclean!” Simon shouted the words, and for the first time the reality sank in. He was unclean. It was true. After that, every time he passed someone he shouted the warning, “Unclean!” He yelled as loud as he could. “Unclean . . . unclean!”
Simon wondered if he might collapse before he reached the leper colony that day. He even wondered if maybe God would heal him before he reached the forsaken place. Instead his feet were bleeding, unable to handle the long walk to the edge of the city. None of it was fair. He hadn’t done anything to deserve leprosy.
He held on to that one thought as Isaac and Joseph left him, and as Simon took his first steps through the entrance of the leper colony. One thought consumed him as his friends walked away.
This was the first miserable day of the rest of his life.
As the past played out, Simon searched desperately for the error in his ways. Where had he so completely failed? Why had God done this to him?
No matter how hard he examined the details leading up to his sickness, however often he repented for things he hadn’t done and things he hadn’t thought, the truth was he’d done nothing wrong. He’d committed no sin or violation of the law. He had been perfect. Of course he had been. He was a Pharisee. Nothing less than perfection was expected from a man in his position.
Thunder shook the ground beneath him. The storm was nearly overhead, and rain began falling. Hard rain. The kind that could flood ravines and gullies. Simon didn’t care. He stayed on the rock. If the rain fell hard enough he might actually feel it through his dead skin. He sucked in a full breath and felt a satisfaction that had eluded him for weeks.
Wind from the storm had almost taken away his terrible stink. Almost. His lungs filled with the rich aroma of the storm. Rain and dirt and flowers from the distant field all mixed together and bathed his senses with a delight he rarely experienced. Let the storm come, God. Let it take me.
Lightning struck closer still and again Simon wished it would hit him. He might go to hell for whatever he had done, whatever had caused this horrific abomination. But at least he could escape his rotting body.
Certainly hell would be better than this.
* * *
The storm passed quickly and the lightning did not kill him. In its wake, the air was still and warm. The smell worse than ever. Simon sat on the rocky ledge, not moving, not sure what to do. You must be very angry at me, God. You have taken my livelihood, my place of honor, my family and my friends. My wife is probably a different person by now. My girls have forgotten me. It’s been nearly a year. And yet here You leave me in this leper colony to watch my body decay piece by piece? I just want to know why.
His rants toward God were nearly constant now. God could heal him—Simon believed that. Yet God had left him here, as if He had forgotten entirely about Simon and his awful disease. Simon was about to let his mind go back again to the past, back to the days before the sores appeared. About to search, over and over again, for his sin and the reason he’d been banished, when he heard a commotion in the distance.
A group of travelers must have been making its way along the edge of the colony. Clearly they were unaware this was a leper colony. Otherwise they wouldn’t pass so close. Simon watched as the lepers noticed the traveling group. A stir passed through the sickly, disfigured men and a series of cries rose from amidst the group. “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!”
The sound grew louder, warning the passersby. Normally, if foreigners wandered too close to the leper colony, as soon as they heard the cries from the unclean people, they would run for their lives. As far away as they could get. It still wasn’t clear how leprosy passed from one person to another. Most people believed it was simply a punishment from God, a way of giving outward expression to the inward sin that certainly must have taken root. Still, no one wanted to take chances. And so healthy people kept their distance.
Only this time the group did not run. Simon sat a little straighter on the rock and peered at those approaching the colony. Couldn’t they hear the warning cries? What were they doing? This was the strangest thing he’d seen since he’d been here. The group was actually coming closer. One of them—a man tall and strong—seemed to be their leader. He had a dozen men around him.
Whatever was happening, Simon needed to be nearer to the scene. He slowly tried to climb down off the rock. His toes were gone now, but he had learned to navigate his way without them. Unsteady. Uncertain. Simon picked up speed, but he still wasn’t fast. After just ten steps, he tripped on a rock and fell hard to the ground. The sores on his arm began to bleed. His bones showed through some of his wounds, but Simon didn’t care. He had to get to the edge of the colony.
To the place where the travelers were coming closer.
Finally he scrambled to a spot partially hidden behind a bush. A murmur came from the crowd of lepers. Jesus. The man leading the group of travelers was Jesus? Disdain and curiosity mixed together in Simon’s soul. Jesus of Nazareth? The one they called Teacher? Simon squinted in His direction. Jesus stopped and looked intently at the colony of lepers, at the men shouting, “Unclean!” The Teacher seemed overcome by sorrow. He hung His head, and when He looked at the lepers, tears filled His eyes. As if the sight of the diseased men actually broke His heart.
Simon blinked, confused. He had never seen Jesus this close up, but certainly he knew of Him. All the religious leaders knew of Him. Jesus the miracle worker. Jesus the healer. Jesus who claimed to be God Almighty.
The one who actually believed He was the Messiah.
Before his sickness, Simon had attended the meetings, the ones where the religious leaders discussed their frustration and dislike of Jesus. The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed about many things. But they agreed every time there was another report about the Teacher and His followers. The consensus was clear: Jesus was not the Messiah. When the Messiah came, He would come in glory. With an entourage of royalty. He would be a mighty force against the oppressive Roman government, and He would set His people free.
Once and for all.
This Jesus had it all backward. His followers included peasants and sinners. Tax collectors and dirty fishermen. He wore the ragged clothes of a carpenter. Clearly Jesus was not God in the flesh. When the religious leaders talked about plans to kill Jesus, Simon heartily agreed. How dare this son of a carpenter claim to be God? How dare He confuse the people in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas?
But here, now, Simon was mesmerized by Jesus. Drawn to Him, to the kindness in His eyes. Jesus waited until the crowd of lepers quieted. One of the sick men raised a fist in Jesus’s direction. “Don’t you know who we are, Jesus of Nazareth? Be gone from here!”
Jesus came a step closer. His followers stayed at a distance, concern written in the lines on their faces.
“Unclean!” one of the lepers yelled. “Unclean!”
Then Jesus did the strangest thing. When He should’ve kept walking, He held out His hands. Held them out to the entire colony of lepers. Suddenly two lepers approached Him, moving closer to Jesus. Simon could barely draw a breath as he watched. The men were missing hands and feet. They walked only with the help of large sticks. Their faces were grotesquely disfigured, and flakes of skin fell from them as they approached Him.
His disciples stepped further back.
But Jesus didn’t flinch. He kept His arms spread out toward the men. Then He motioned to the other lepers, as if to invite them, also.
Another terribly disfigured man stepped up and then four joined him and three more. Ten in all. They looked at each other and with a boldness that betrayed logic they came to Jesus.
The Teacher had time to turn and walk away, time to order the lepers to halt and not come a step closer. But instead Jesus looked at them with compassion. With a kindness lepers had long since forgotten.
“Come.” Jesus looked at each of the men. “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened.”
Weary and burdened? Simon felt an ache in his heart. No one had cared for the lepers since they’d been banished to this forsaken colony. But here, Jesus defined their condition in those two words. Weary and burdened.
Weary with sickness, weary with the smell of rotting flesh. Burdened with the judgment of sinfulness and the label: Unclean. Unclean. Unclean. Weary from being alone. Burdened with the absence of friends, the loss of family.
Surprise showed on the rotting faces of the ten lepers. Jesus had called them close and so these ten seemed determined to come. They hobbled nearer and, as they reached arm’s distance from Jesus, one at a time they bowed their heads, unsteady on what was left of their feet. Whatever these men had thought about Jesus before, one thing was clear now.
They believed He was the Healer. They seemed desperate to believe.
“Jesus! Jesus!” they began to cry out. “Master, have pity on us.”
Simon’s shock was so great he could barely focus. These men not only believed Jesus was the Healer—they had called Him the Master. Could these ten lepers believe that Jesus was God Almighty? The expected Messiah? Emmanuel?
For more than a year before his sickness, Simon had been trained to believe Jesus was a heretic. A false prophet. Simon stared at the Teacher, at the gentleness that exuded from Him. Suddenly a thought occurred to Simon. What if he had been wrong about Jesus? What if all the religious leaders had been wrong?
For several minutes the lepers called out words of worship—hosanna in the highest, hallelujah to the Messiah. Together they begged Jesus to have mercy on them. Finally Jesus held up His hand and the lepers fell silent. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Simon thought he was hidden by the bush. But as Jesus said the word “priests,” He turned. And He looked straight into the eyes of Simon. He needed no words. It was as if He were saying, “I see you, Simon. I know that you were once a priest.”
A gasp came from Simon, and he thought about running. But he couldn’t move. Couldn’t do anything but remain there under the intense and compassionate gaze of Jesus.
Then the Teacher turned to the lepers once more and did something that brought an audible cry of alarm from the crowd. He started with the first disfigured man and without any sense of disgust or fear, Jesus put His hand on the man’s shoulder.
He touched the leprous, putrid skin of the leper.
Something no one would dare do, Jesus did. He walked slowly down the line of ten diseased men and one at a time, He touched them. Placed His clean hand on the unclean shoulder of each of them. And as He did, He spoke the words once more. “Go now. Do as I said. Show yourselves to the priests.”
A sad, compassionate smile lifted the corners of Jesus’s lips as He stepped back. The way He looked at the lepers was almost as a father might look at his sick children. Care and concern. Longing for healing. Jesus gave a final nod and then returned to His followers.
The twelve wore mixed expressions. Some of His disciples looked proud of their Master. Others looked horrified by what He had done. The way He had touched the unclean men. Still, each found his place alongside Jesus as the group departed in the direction of Jerusalem.
Something in Simon screamed out. Should he hurry after Jesus? Maybe his only chance at healing was walking away. But he couldn’t make himself move. The lepers were not healed, after all. They still stood there, broken and disfigured. Their flesh still literally falling off their bones.
Then one of them looked at the other nine. “He told us to go.” He pointed to Jerusalem. “I’m going.”
As he moved forward, the others looked around and then one at a time they hobbled after the first man. As they left, the name of Jesus was on their lips and the sound lifted like a powerful breeze through the leper colony. “Jesus said so . . . Jesus is the Healer . . . I’m going where Jesus said to go . . .”
The ten were not a handful of steps into their journey to see the priests of Jerusalem when they began to change. Right before the eyes of everyone in the colony, the skin of the ten began to heal. Their beards became dark again and their limbs reappeared. New fingers where nubs had been. Fresh feet and ankles in place of stumps. New flesh, unblemished.
In a handful of seconds all ten lepers were healed.
A few seconds passed before even the lepers realized what had happened. Then all at once they began leaping and jumping and shouting praises to God. Jesus had healed them! He had ordered them to go to the priests because He knew they would be healed along the way. They were made whole the moment they obeyed Him.
Simon slowly sank to the ground. All around the colony the remaining lepers called out, yelling praises to God on behalf of the ten men. All Simon could think was the obvious. Since the lepers were completely healed—since all ten were well again—Jesus must be the Healer.
And if He was the Healer then it was possible He was who He said He was. And that could only mean . . .
The thought paralyzed Simon.
He brought his nubby fingers to his face and felt tears in his eyes. If Jesus was the Healer, then He was also the Messiah. False prophets didn’t touch lepers and heal them. The religious leaders were wrong about Jesus. Forget the anticipated entourage of royalty. Forget the hoped-for kingly attire and the expected powerful push against the Roman government. Never mind how it appeared.
Jesus was the Messiah.
Suddenly Simon was absolutely convinced. The evidence of his eyes was too great to ignore. But at the same time a grievous thought occurred to him. He had missed his chance! Jesus had stood before the colony of lepers and only ten men had come forward. Only ten with the faith to believe that maybe—just maybe—Jesus could heal them.
And Simon was not one of them. He had stood twenty feet from the Messiah and hid in the bushes. Even when Jesus looked him straight in the eyes Simon had done nothing but remain hidden. The weight of his shame hit him like boulders raining down on his warped back.
If he ever had another chance, if Jesus ever happened by the leper colony again, he would run to Him with all his strength. Simon looked at the distant storm clouds retreating along the horizon. Please, God . . . give me another chance. I’m sorry. I believe. I do believe.
No matter what happened next, Simon knew this much.
He would never doubt Jesus again.
* * *
The days that followed were slow and full of questions. Not only for Simon but for the other men in the colony. They had all seen the miraculous healing of the ten, and now each had his own theory about how it could’ve happened. Some believed it was a trick, part of a scheme by Jesus and His followers. Others believed as Simon did, that Jesus was the Messiah.
For the most part Simon kept to himself. His smell was horrific, so he spent most of his hours on the ledge of the rock, a few feet above the colony. The only place where he could think and remember and ponder how he had gotten here. The only place where he could pray to God that Jesus of Nazareth might pass their way once more.
Two weeks after the healing of the ten, Simon noticed something. The fingers on his left hand were entirely gone. They must’ve fallen off while he slept. The pain of leprosy no longer plagued him. He could fall into a fire and he wouldn’t notice it. Proof that he didn’t have long. Eventually the leprosy would eat him from the outside in. It would destroy his organs, eat away at his heart and lungs and brain. One morning he would simply not wake up.
And that would be that.
Unless . . .
He pictured Jesus again, the kindness He exuded, the calm way He had about Him. Then he remembered the Master’s twelve followers. There seemed nothing special about the men. They were not powerful or politicians. None of them were religious leaders. Simon doubted that combined they had half the knowledge he did about the laws and ordinances of the Jewish faith.
Yet they were given the greatest privilege of all.
The privilege of being friends of Jesus.
What must it have been like to be a friend of Jesus? To walk with Him and talk to Him. To stand ringside to every miracle Jesus had performed for the desperate people in His path? How wonderful to eat with Him and hear Jesus declare God’s word. Because He was God. God. In the flesh.
The thought was more than Simon could imagine. If Jesus ever passed by, if Simon was somehow blessed enough to be healed by the Master, then he had one wish. One dream.
That Jesus might come to His house for a meal. That Jesus would be his friend. More than the healed flesh on his bones, more than his returned place in society, Simon longed for the friendship of Jesus. The religious leaders had never been his real friends. They were only friends in good times. When a person was perfect.
Jesus was the only One who did not judge and fear the lepers. The One who stepped forward and touched the unclean when everyone else hurried in the other direction. Simon wanted a friend like that. He wanted to be a friend like that.
And so he waited, sitting on his rock. From that vantage point the smell was slightly less severe. But more important he could see the road that passed by the colony. If Jesus ever walked by again, Simon would be one of the first to see Him.
The sun beat down on his shoulders. There was no relief from the heat, no way to find respite of any kind. But still Simon sat. And rather than allow himself to remember the beginning again, Simon prayed. God, if You would please bring Jesus by once more. I am sorry for not rushing forward when I had the chance. Jesus is the friend to the friendless, the One who looks past my disease. I know that now . . .
As he prayed, Simon remembered the quiet whisper of God back when he first noticed lesions on his arms.
My son, this has been done to show My glory to the people of Jerusalem.
A breath of hope worked through his lungs. Maybe Jesus would return. Maybe not. But God had spoken to him back then. No matter what happened next.
He was reminding himself of that very thing when he heard the sound of travelers. His heart skipped a beat and he struggled to make his legs work. He had to see who was coming, who was headed this way from Jerusalem. Other lepers must’ve seen the caravan, too, because once more they cried out as they were required.
“Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!”
Simon found a way to stand. Was it Jesus? Could it be the Master?
Suddenly the travelers came into view. He couldn’t be sure but it looked like maybe . . . just maybe . . .
He scrambled down the rock, falling to the ground. Work, legs . . . you have to work. Please, God, if it’s Jesus, let me go to Him. Somehow he managed to get what remained of his feet beneath him. Gradually his hobbling steps became something that resembled a sprint. “Jesus!” he cried out even before he knew for sure.
And as he rounded the corner finally he could see clearly.
At the front of the group was Jesus. Master. Messiah. The Healer. The echoes of “Unclean!” stopped and the crowd stilled. Many were busy inside the colony, making food and going about their business. But those who came to the edge of the colony seemed too shocked to move.
All but Simon. He held out one deformed hand. “Jesus, wait! I believe! I do believe!”
Jesus stopped, and again His followers kept their distance. This time there was no hiding for Simon. He wanted Jesus to see him, all of him. His broken, lonely heart and his diseased body. He came up to Jesus and fell at His feet. “I need You, Lord! Have mercy on me. You are Master and Savior. Please heal me. I am desperate.”
Simon closed his eyes and held out his hand. Maybe this was only a dream. How could Jesus be standing inches from him? He trembled, unable to draw a breath, and then when he thought he must’ve been imagining the moment, he felt it.
The touch of the Master’s hand.
Jesus had taken hold of Simon’s nubby wrist, as if Simon weren’t missing fingers. As if his skin weren’t falling off his bones. “Simon, My son. Open your eyes.”
Simon did as he was told and what he saw was the most beautiful sight in all his life. Jesus was still holding his hand. “Simon, your faith has healed you. Go show yourself to the priests.”
“Yes, Lord. I will. Yes.” Simon stayed on his knees. He was in the presence of God. He could feel it to the depths of his soul.
Not one other leper came to Jesus. Simon looked back at the men. No one else came. Like they didn’t believe or they didn’t understand. Surely they knew Jesus was the Healer, the Messiah. But whatever the reason they kept their distance. Jesus hesitated, His eyes deep with sorrow. Then He turned and went on His way. At the same time, Simon began to feel something happening inside him. The feeling was wonderful and intense all at once and then, in a matter of seconds, he watched his hands grow back. Fingers reappeared as if they’d never been diseased. His arms and legs became smooth and healthy and strong, and the tumors all over his body disappeared.
Two of the lepers came close and one of them shouted, “It happened again! Jesus did this!”
Of course Jesus did this! Simon wanted to yell at his peers. How had they not believed, even after Jesus had healed the ten? Either way it didn’t matter. He was no longer part of the leper colony.
He was healed.
By the touch of the Master’s hand, he had been healed.
Simon left his things and rushed to the city gates. Clean again, he had no trouble passing through. Relief washed over him with every breath. His friends would welcome him back. He would be respected among his peers, invited to their dinners. He would find Anna and the girls and pray it wasn’t too late to bring them home. He was healed! Simon ran to the Temple and rushed inside. The religious leaders were meeting, and all at once they looked up as he entered the building.
“Simon . . .” Jairus stood, his mouth open. “What . . . what happened?”
“It was Jesus!” Simon searched the faces of his former peers. “Jesus came by the leper colony and . . . He healed me!”
His pronouncement was met by silence. The Sadducees and Pharisees whispered among themselves, their faces dark with distrust. Suddenly Simon remembered. “The ten lepers! They came a few weeks ago. Surely you saw them. They were all healed by Jesus, and now I’ve been healed, too.”
Jairus approached him. “Take off your cloak.”
Simon was happy to comply. He ripped off his outer garment. “See?” He held out his arms to Jairus and then to his old friends. Isaac and Joseph stood just a few feet away. A relieved laugh came from Simon. “I’ve never been better. Jesus did this!”
No one said a word. Not Isaac. Not Joseph. No one.
Jairus nodded slowly. He was a man of great pride and confidence. He had a way of making the other religious leaders wish for his knowledge. He sneered. “And now, Simon . . . now do you believe Jesus is the Messiah?”
Another happy sound, part laugh, part cry, came from Simon. “Of course! He is Emmanuel. God with us.” Again he held out his arms. “Isn’t this proof?”
Jairus cleared his throat. “Simon, you are not welcome here. I’m sorry.”
It took Simon a moment to realize what was happening. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Jairus’s face had no expression at all. “You need to go.”
“Jairus!” Simon shook his head. “I’m healed! You . . .” He looked around the room. “You are my friends.”
“No.” Jairus shook his head. “We do not associate with lepers—healed or not!”
Simon’s heart raced, his breathing came fast. “You still don’t believe Jesus is who He says He is?”
“Absolutely not.” Isaac stepped forward. “He is an impostor. We are making plans to eliminate Him.”
“No!” Simon looked around the Temple at the Sadducees and Pharisees. “You can’t do that. Jesus is kind and full of compassion. He is healing people every day, setting them free from demons. Everything the people say about Him, it’s true! How could you want Him gone from here?”
“Simon.” Jairus motioned for Simon to follow him. “You are aware of the town Bethany?”
“Bethany? Of course, but—”
“The sick live in Bethany,” Jairus interrupted. “And that is where you must go now. You will find shelter there.” He walked Simon to the door of the Temple. “Don’t come back. And don’t try to stop us. Whatever happens in the days and weeks ahead, remember this . . . we are acting in the best interest of Jerusalem.”
“You can’t harm Jesus. He’s the Messiah and—”
“Don’t speak.” Jairus raised his voice. “We will do as we see fit.” The man’s expression held no room for negotiation. “Besides, Jesus is spending much time in Bethany. Maybe you will see Him there. And if you do”—a dark shadow fell over the man’s eyes—“do not warn Him of our plans.”
Simon tried to talk again, but he couldn’t speak a word. He was too shocked to find his voice.
“Be gone, Simon.” Jairus hesitated. “And don’t look for Anna. She is remarried. You are to have no contact with her or your daughters. You are dead to them.” Jairus pushed him from the Temple. “And to us.”
Simon’s legs and arms worked perfectly fine. Better than ever. But even so, Simon struggled to take a step. What had just happened? His wife and daughters were part of another family now? He hadn’t been gone a full year. Simon’s mind raced and he grabbed on to the nearest tree so he wouldn’t collapse. He couldn’t believe it. His peers, his friends, his former family—none of them had any intention of welcoming him back whether he was healed or not. All because Jesus had healed him.
And now they were making plans to harm Jesus?
What had Jairus said? Jesus was spending time in Bethany. Simon stood straighter and his steps became more determined. Fine. He would go to Bethany and find shelter. Then he would do what he longed to do.
He would find Jesus and thank Him.
* * *
Bethany turned out to be a place of respite for Simon. He became friends with a dear family—two sisters and their younger brother—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The three lived close by and they often met with Simon, sharing stories of their time with Jesus.
He was the Messiah. They were as convinced as Simon.
“But He is also our friend.” Mary’s eyes lit up. “There is no greater friend than Jesus.”
Simon’s life was so different now. Better. Gone were his priestly obligations. He now read and understood the Scriptures differently. They told about Jesus’s coming. It had been right there, all along. But for the first time, Simon recognized Jesus. Also, Simon had found work, helping a farmer at the edge of Bethany. Every chance he had, he made his new home more welcoming. He had a table and chairs, places to recline and visit. If Jesus ever came through Bethany again, Simon planned to ask Him to dinner. He would return the favor of friendship. It was the least he could do to thank Jesus for healing him that day.
One afternoon there was a knock at Simon’s door. Could it be Jesus, come to share dinner with him? Simon hoped so, but as he answered the call instead there stood Jonah, one of the ten lepers who had been healed by Jesus that day at the edge of the leper colony. Jonah looked whole and well, same as Simon. He nodded. “May I come in?”
“Of course.” Simon stepped aside and welcomed the man into his home. “You live in Bethany?”
“I do. I want to help the sick. I want to be like Jesus.”
Simon understood. He felt the same way. “You . . . you’ve talked to Him? Since your healing?”
“I have.” Jonah sat across from Simon at the table. “You won’t believe what happened.”
Then Jonah told a story Simon would remember forever. An awful story that shocked him and grieved him at the same time.
“After the ten of us were healed, we did as Jesus asked. We went to the priests and showed ourselves to be clean. We were declared whole again, healed. But when we told the priests that Jesus had healed us, they banned us from the Temple.” Jonah paused. “For a few minutes, I wondered if the leaders might kill us.”
Simon pictured Jairus, his former friends and peers. “It was the same for me.”
Jonah seemed lost in thought, back again in that moment outside the Temple gates. “The ten of us stood there, shaking. We had no idea our healing would be a problem.” He paused. “Some people ran by talking about Jesus. He was preaching a few blocks away.” Jonah paused. “I was the first one to speak. I told the others we had to go find Jesus. Forget what the priests said. The ten of us had to thank Him!”
It was a beautiful picture. The ten outcast healed lepers making a plan to find Jesus and thank Him. Simon was gripped by the story. “So the group of you went?”
“No.” Jonah’s expression grew full of sorrow. “The other nine shook their heads. They were afraid of the priests. Terrified. They wanted nothing to do with Jesus!” Jonah stared out the window of Simon’s house. “Jesus treated us like a friend. He touched us when no one else would come near us. Not even our families. But that day outside the Temple, the other nine were too afraid to tell Jesus thank you.”
“That’s awful.” Simon was shocked. How could a person receive that sort of gift—a second chance at life—and let fear cripple him?
Jonah shook his head. “I haven’t seen them since.”
“What a loss for them.” Simon leaned back in his chair. “So you moved here?”
“I wanted to be near Jesus. He loves the people of Bethany. He has friends here.”
“Yes. They’re my friends, too. Mary and Martha and Lazarus.” Simon smiled. “All of us look for Jesus every day.”
“He will be here soon. I’ve heard from many in town.”
“I need to get word to Him.” Joy came over Simon. No matter how many people were afraid to be associated with Jesus, Simon wanted to be His friend. He would be here, door open, whenever Jesus passed by. Before Jonah left, Simon pleaded with him. “If you see Jesus, please . . . ask Him to come to my house. I want to give Him a meal and thank Him. I want to be the sort of friend to Him that He was to me.”
Jonah smiled. “I’ll tell Him.”
A wonderful few weeks passed and though Simon grew closer to Mary and Martha and Lazarus, though he was able to help the sick and offer food to the poorest ones in Bethany, Jesus still did not pass through.
Worse, word from Jerusalem was that the Sadducees and Pharisees wanted to destroy Jesus. Now. Simon shuddered when he remembered the words of the eldest leader. They wanted to eliminate Jesus. They would do their best to see that it happened. Simon had no doubt.
As Passover drew near, the villagers of Bethany heard news that Jesus was returning to their community. Simon went to the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and left word. “If you see Jesus, tell Him to come by my house. Please.”
Two more days slipped by and then one morning there was a knock at the door. Simon’s heart raced as he opened it and there . . . there stood Jesus.
“My Lord.” Simon fell to his knees. “Thank You. You healed me. I will forever be thankful.”
Jesus reached out His hand and helped Simon to his feet. “May I come in?”
There was a crowd with Jesus, but Simon didn’t care. This was Jesus his friend, his Master. His Savior and Healer. “Yes, my Lord. Please. All of you may come in. I’ll prepare dinner now.”
“Not now. Later. We will share a meal soon.” Jesus smiled. “I still have work to do.”
And so Jesus and His followers entered Simon’s house and for a short while they visited. Jesus his Master. Jesus his friend. Before he left, Jesus hugged Simon.
“I want a new way from you, Simon. A way of grace and mercy. Love and truth. Truth lived out. I don’t expect you to be perfect. Do you understand?”
“I think so, Lord.” Simon hung on every word.
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me.”
No words had ever felt more true to Simon. “Yes, Lord. Thank You. For healing me. For being my friend.”
Jesus smiled, and then He and His followers went on their way.
Simon could barely contain his joy. Jesus would come to eat with him one day soon. The way friends did. And as Simon went to sleep that night, he thought about his life, his past before being sick, and his happiness and gratitude since Jesus healed him.
Back before his illness, Simon had to be perfect. His friends at the Temple, the religious leaders, only enjoyed his company because he was a Pharisee. Because his performance was up to their standards. Because he followed the letter of the law.
Jesus asked about none of that.
As the Messiah, Jesus saw Simon as he was—a leper, bankrupt and in desperate need of healing. In need of the touch of someone who cared. Jesus was the sort of friend Simon had never known before. He didn’t expect perfection from Simon. He only wanted Simon to believe. Jesus was the way, the truth and the life. He only wanted to show Simon this new way.
This new definition of friendship rocked Simon’s understanding, and another realization hit him. Though he didn’t think often about it, people knew his story. The villagers of Bethany and the leaders of Jerusalem knew that Simon had been healed of leprosy.
They still called him Simon the Leper.
It was a name Simon didn’t care for. He wanted his name to reflect who he was today, not the putrid, rotting person he’d been in the leper colony. But now . . . now Simon felt a sense of joy at the title. If he was Simon the Leper then everywhere he went, every time he left home, people would see the obvious.
Simon the Leper wasn’t a leper anymore. He was healed. His life was being used to bring glory to God.
Just as the whispered voice of the Lord had promised when Simon was at his most desperate hour. A peaceful thought came over him. The religious leaders certainly would come to understand the truth about Jesus. Sure, He wasn’t the King they were looking for. Politics and governments of this world didn’t seem to be His concern.
Jesus was concerned with people.
And He was God. He had proved that much.
The religious leaders would figure out the truth. They had to. They were the keepers of the law. They could check all the prophecies and see that Jesus was the fulfillment. In the meantime, Simon would look forward to his dinner with Jesus.
He smiled to himself. Yes, Jesus would get through these challenging times. No one would harm Him. Not now, anyway. Jesus would share many meals with Simon and their friendship would be long-lasting. Simon would continue to learn from Jesus—not just what it meant to be a follower of God, but something else.
What it meant to be a friend.