Sermon for Pentecost +21, 28th Ordinary, Year C, October 13, 2013, on Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers 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’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Kids are cute when parents try to teach them the importance of saying “thank you.” When children receive a birthday or Christmas gift, they tear open the packaging, they get wide-eyed, maybe smile – and all of that is natural, but they must be taught to add to their joy a polite “thank you.” So parents remind them: “Say Thank you to grandma,” and its cute to watch them say a sheepish “Thank you, grandma.”
Of all the things the bible is, the one thing it is not is “cute.” The bible is sometimes puzzling, sometimes challenging, sometimes even humorous, but never cute. If the opposite of cute is life-and-death, then this story from Luke is closer to life-and-death than cute.
This story is not a cute reminder to say “thank you.” The message embedded in this story made some people mad enough to want to get Jesus killed. On the other hand, once we grasp what is happening here, and what it all means, this story is a huge source of life and healing for us. We need this badly, so let us look at it together.
On his long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus and his traveling entourage pass through Samaria. Does that mean the ten lepers they encounter are Samaritans? If so, that adds a whole new layer of complexity to the story.
Jews and Samaritans found each other repulsive. Samaritans were part-Jewish, part not-Jewish, and so were despised by Jews. Samaritans did not worship in the one exclusively correct place, Jerusalem; they had their own temple.
So, to Jews, they were both ethnically and religiously corrupt. Healing, if it ever happened, would require going to a priest. If these lepers are Samaritans, whose priests would they go show their newly cleansed bodies to? Luke dangles this one out there for us to ponder.
Ten lepers in Samaria call out to Jesus for mercy. Jesus, remarkably, is not put off by them. He allows himself to be engaged by their cries for help. No one would have cared if Jesus ignored some disgusting, diseased Samaritans. But he did not ignore them.
Samaria, capital of Israel
Samaria is the name of a region, but it used to be the name of a city also. Samaria the city was, in fact, the capital of the Northern ten Israelite tribes that broke away and formed their own nation, just after the death of king Solomon.
These were the people whom the Assyrians conquered and drove off their land. A few of them were returned later. They intermarried, and became the half-breeds whom the Jews despised.
So, notice: ten tribes broke away and made an alternative capital in Samaria; ten lepers meet Jesus in Samaria. Samaritans are ethnically and religiously impure, the lepers are unclean. They cry out for mercy.
What does Luke tell us about them? In English we read that they call to Jesus, but that they “keep their distance.” Literally, Luke says, these ten lepers in Samaria are “far away.” Of course lepers were required to keep “far away” from healthy people; everyone knew that, so why mention it? This is a clue to what is going on here. Some background is needed.
The prophet Isaiah said that there would be a time when people from “far away” would find salvation.
How would the “far away” people find salvation? Isaiah said that there would be someone called the “servant of the Lord” who would be “light to the nations.”
He would “restore the survivors of Israel” and to bring them back “from North and West” so that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (it’s all in Isaiah 49).
God’s World-wide Redemption Goal
God’s will has always been to redeem everything that has been damaged by evil. God sent his son, John tells us,
“not to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through him” (3:17).
Jesus understood this worldwide mission of redemption as his mission. He knew that God intended salvation, or healing (the word means both) for everyone, not just his own Jewish community. It would be a light seen by all the nations, even people “far away,” starting with half-breed, incorrect, uncouth Samaritans.
This was Jesus’ mission from the start. Near the beginning of his ministry, Luke tells us that Jesus preached a sermon in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth that started well, but ended with an attempt to kill him. It started well as Jesus quoted Isaiah and said that the time of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor was coming true. People in Nazareth liked that part.
But then Jesus told a story from the Old Testament of a non-Jewish leper who was healed by the prophet Elisha. Jesus made the point that God’s healing, restoring, redeeming love was never meant to be exclusive; it was for everyone, even people “far away.”
But in Nazareth, they hated hearing that bit. If God wanted to redeem everyone, then that would surely include despised people like Samaritans, or even (God forbid) the enemy Romans! That was treason. They preferred that God would punish them, not redeem them. They thought that their people alone deserved God’s mercy. So they tried to push Jesus off a cliff. Somehow he got away that time. (It’s all in Luke 4)
Healing those “far away”
Now, back to the story of the ten lepers in Samaria. What did the healing of those ten accomplish? Jesus was dramatically enacting what he had announced back in Nazareth. God’s healing salvation had come to unclean lepers, “far away” in Samaria.
The people “far away” had seen the “light to the nations” and were experiencing God’s ubiquitous grace for themselves.
So, to whose temple did the healed lepers trot off, and to whose priests did they show themselves: Samaritan ones or Jewish ones? Or does it matter? Luke doesn’t say. Maybe the point is that it doesn’t’ matter. They were all healed, Luke tells us.
The One Who Returned
So what happens next in the story? One of them returned. On tenth of them returned. Ten percent is about the same percentage as Northern Israelites returned from Assyria to the land of Palestine, where they intermarried and became the half-breed Samaritans. Are we to take this one returning leper as a representative of the Samaritans? Luke tells us exactly one thing about the one who returned:
What did this Samaritan do? He fell on his face and “gave thanks”. The word for giving thanks is the word for Eucharist.
In fact the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, begins with the “Great Prayer of Thanksgiving” in which we remember and give thanks for all the ways God has shown mercy to his people, from creation to liberation from slavery in Egypt, to the ministry of the prophets, and finally, we give thanks for Jesus himself.
The Eucharist itself is a thanksgiving event that proclaims the healing, saving death of the Lord. Eucharist is a thanksgiving that Jesus, the “servant of the Lord,” whose body was broken like bread, suffered, rather than retaliating, and stopped the cycle of violence, ending the whole notion that God needs blood sacrifice in order to show mercy.
Eucharist is a thanksgiving event that invites people from North and South to sit together at a table of joyous, thankful meal of memory and of presence. Jews and Samaritans, slave and free, male and female, all reconciled to God and to each other.
Not Cute: Crucial
This is it then. This healing story is not “cute.” It’s not about remembering to say “thank you” grandma for the birthday gift or to God for the lovely day. It’s about the worldwide purposes of God to redeem all of creation; to heal and restore all that has been damaged, sickened, and disfigured by evil in all its destructive forms.
So did that one Samaritan leper, or the other nine who were also healed that day do anything special to deserve the mercy of healing? Did they promise to be good? Did they convert to Judaism? Jesus tells the one who returned to give thanks:
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
“Faith” means “trust.” Trusting God, who is defined by exactly one word: Love. Trust that God wills your redemption, your healing. Trust God to be merciful. And trust that God is good – not just to us, but to everyone.
It is crucial for us that we get this message. The good news is that God is merciful, not because we are so special or did anything to deserve it, but rather because that is who God is. We have nothing to fear. We are not “sinners in the hands of an angry God” we are rather “sinners in the hands of a merciful God,” a God, a God of redemption and healing. A God who looks like the one Jesus showed us. Trust God, and do not fear.
This text invites us to make a profound transition. Many of us have somehow acquired a view of God that is inadequate at best, and totally false at worst. We have the mistaken notion that God is generally angry. That he is up there looking for people to smite, and when it’s all over, he will throw most of them into hell. (This happens to be the mistaken notion of God that many atheists reject – and with good reason).
Some have the mistaken notion that God’s mercy must be earned or deserved, as if it’s not given as a gift.
If that has been your view of God, let this text be a reason for a major transition in your thinking. We believe that Jesus shows us who God is; what God is like. Jesus shows us a God nearly opposite to that angry image. Jesus shows us a God of love, who is always ready to extend his merciful healing to people in need, unconditionally. It is time to make the transition to the real God, whom Jesus shows us.
This is not only crucial news for us, it is crucial for the rest of the world too. We are here to take up God’s loving care and concern for all the people of the world. Many of them, for example, are hungry today, and so we, are committed to ending world hunger. Many of them do not have clean drinking water or access to medical care they can afford. For all the ways in which people suffer, Jesus shows us that God cares and seeks healing. So, we care also, and so we are called to join Christ’s mission to the world.
We know that we have been blessed in order to be a blessing. We demonstrate our thankfulness to God for God’s mercy as we do as Jesus did: act as agents of God’s mercy in practical ways to people who are “far away.”