01. September 2013
The Sunday of the Ten Lepers
Be thankful! At first glance that is the major theme of today’s Holy Gospel. It’s also the kind of lesson we like to hear from Jesus. Why? Because it’s something we can work on, try harder to accomplish, struggle through, and resolve to do better. By nature we’re not thankful. We don’t like saying those words. They stick in the back of our throats. At best they come out under the breath or with a grumble.
The lepers ask for mercy. Jesus heals them. Nine go away but one notices the gift and comes back to give praise to God. Therefore remember to give praise and thanks when God gives you healing. Now you go and do likewise. Amen.
Wouldn’t that be a nice, tidy sermon? Indeed this reading is often used for the Holy Gospel on a day of thanksgiving. Yet, it misses the major theme in favor of the minor. We’ve not seen the forest for the trees. Let’s step back and get the big picture.
Where is Jesus? He’s on his way to Jerusalem … passing along between Samaria and Galilee. So, first notice that Jesus is not in the “pure” homeland of the Jews. He’s on the border between them and the confused idolators of Samaria. When Solomon’s kingdom was split between his sons, the place of sacrifices and worship became contended. The Northern Kingdom established their own “high place” at Mount Gerazim, rather than worship and sacrifice where God had appointed in Jerusalem.
In this borderland is a village where ten lepers dwelt. Later we learn that these lepers are both Jew and Samaritan. Misery loves company, it is said. You might recall the movie Ben Hur where his mother and sister were condemned to live in a valley of lepers. In the movie, Ben Hur literally violates the Law to see them and touch them.
What Law? Was their approach to leprosy pious superstition? Were they simply scared of that which they didn’t understand? No. God himself had given strict commands in the Law with regards to leprosy. You can read two chapters worth in Leviticus 13 and Leviticus 14. Such a disease was ritually unclean, excluding you from the Temple worship. It also excluded you from family and from community. Lepers then lived together in colonies, separate from both their community and church.
This Law was for the good of the people. Leprosy is a highly contagious disease and relatively untreatable. But God also gave prescriptions for those who were healed to present themselves to the priests for examination. If they were found clean, there were cleansing rites and sacrifices to be performed, and they were again integrated into the community.
This “forest” of information is essential to understanding what happens in today’s Gospel history. As [Jesus] entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Notice how they stood away from Jesus so as to avoid making him unclean. Normally they would call out a warning “unclean, unclean!” But here they substitute a confession and prayer for their warning. Jesus, Master! (the confession) Have mercy on us! (the prayer)
They recognize they have come into the presence of a man with great authority. But their confession is not that he is LORD or even God but an overseer or superintendent. In our context they would be calling him reverend, a title of respect and authority. Yet, they pray have mercy on us! Kyrie, eleison!
Sound familiar? Of course! We are a people caught between the mixed idolatry of this life and the purity of the life to come. We trust in money, leaders, superstitions, and pleasures before we call upon the Triune God. We recognize our great shame and vice. We are a community of poor sinners who have gathered together despite our different heritages because we have one thing in common: we need Christ’s mercy.
The Lepers want mercy. They come to Jesus. But what does Jesus do? When He saw them He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He doesn’t tell them to wash in the Jordan seven times like Naaman. He doesn’t touch them as He did for the single leper earlier in His ministry. No, He sends them to the priests a la Leviticus. Jesus sends them to the Law and those ministers of the Law.
Can the Law bring healing? Can it restore their flesh? Can they be made clean again by the Law? No! There is no healing, no restoration, no forgiveness, and no mercy in the Law. They ask for mercy and He sends them away to be inspected again by the priests. Did they expect to be healed? Maybe. Did they understand Jesus’ word? We don’t know. They simply did what He said.
Now as they went they were cleansed. Were they healed by their obedience? No. Were they healed by the Law? No. They were healed by Jesus. They were shown mercy by Jesus. Neither the priests, the ceremonial law, nor their obedience had anything to do with it. It was all gift from Jesus. Jesus who is their master? Greater than that! Jesus is their LORD, their Savior, their God.
We know that the Law is accomplished by Christ for us. We don’t need to return to circumcision, kosher laws, or tithes and sacrifices, any more than a believer would need to present himself to the priest. Jesus grants that balm and healing that is needed. “Every wound that pains or grieves me, By Thy stripes, Lord, is made whole; When I’m faint, Thy cross revives me, Granting new life to my soul. Yea, Thy comfort renders sweet Every bitter cup I meet; For Thy all atoning Passion Has procured my soul’s salvation.”
Thus, when one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. There is one who is commended. One whose life is more messed up than most. A leper, yes, but worse than that. St. Luke points makes that note: Now he was a Samaritan. But this outsider, religiously confused, gets it.
His healing was no result of his obedience. The priests didn’t have anything to do with this. He’s an outsider anyway. Why does he need to go to the temple? No, God had given him a great gift, sourced from the greater promise fulfilled—Jesus! This is all gift from our Eternal Father through Jesus Christ His Son and our Lord. That Word from Jesus—Go show yourselves to the priests—that Word is not for him. Just like Jesus said to the woman “it’s not good to give the children’s bread to the dogs” or the nobleman “unless you see signs and wonders” so here Jesus is challenging him. He wants these lepers to cast off their trust in the Law (a Law that could never save or show mercy) and trust in Him.
True thanksgiving is a fruit of faith, trust, and confession. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give glory to God except this outsider?” This man recognizes by faith that the giver of every good gift is God the Father. This man confesses that Jesus is his own gift from God. That’s why he returns, exclaims praise to God and worships Jesus, giving him thanks. Jesus commends to us this one Samaritan leper not simply for his thanks but his praise to God by faith.
You see how Christians, healed by Jesus’ own forgiveness, can fall back into their old ways and submit again to the Law. They want to do what Jesus says but then they get confused and think its the doing that saves them. God forbid! It’s all Jesus! The highest worship of God seeks Christ’s forgiveness! (Ap V.154) What is primary in today’s Gospel? Faith and confession. The Samaritan comes to know and believe that it is Jesus who is the source of every blessing. You are here to receive this same blessing. Your spiritual leprosy, too ugly to behold, is no match for Jesus’ mercy. You are forgiven in Christ’s name. You are cleansed again. “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church