Faith, living in trust with the Triune God whose Son showed us a depth of grace, life, forgiveness and love for all God’s children, no matter how lost: that’s where we want to be, in such faith, in such trust. Because that’s where true life really is found.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 28, year C; text: Luke 17:11-19
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I wonder if we could once and for all quit thinking the point of Luke telling this story is to inspire thanks, to call forth gratitude? For over 65 years in this parish this gospel reading was appointed for Thanksgiving Day of all days; since ELW in 2006 we’ve at least only had it one in three Thanksgivings. I suppose the lectionary preparers imagine that one can hear this story as an exemplar of gratitude, and I suppose it can be seen that way. But it’s hard to avoid the fact that most often the way the story is heard and discussed, the point seems to be: “Look at this one, he gave thanks.” “Shouldn’t you, too?” This is hardly the most creative assignment of a text to a situation we’ve seen.
Seriously, though, at some point we hope to mature in faith as disciples of our Lord Christ, don’t we? And this isn’t even a very effective parental strategy, to say nothing of mature discipleship: to guilt someone into thanking, or to compare thankful people to unthankful people in hopes of eliciting thanks. It’s not a terribly high standard for which to aim. And for goodness’ sake, not even Jesus does that here. He just ponders the meaning that a foreigner took the time to return to give thanks to God. He wonders where the other nine are. But there’s no reason for us to assume they didn’t find a way to thank God.
What is interesting to Jesus and to us, though, is that one of them returned. It’s not interesting to me as a question of thankfulness. It’s easy to imagine any number of scenarios where the other nine who were healed didn’t find their way back to Jesus, many of which would include them being thankful to God. But this one did return, did come back to Jesus. And something new and different happens to him, too, something he didn’t receive, or at least wasn’t promised, the first time.
If we want to understand why he returned, we have to say that it isn’t very obvious that there are great differences between the one and the nine.
All ten were lepers, victims of a terrible skin disease. All ten asked Jesus for help. And all ten were made clean by Jesus. Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle: all ten are cured of their leprosy. Cleansed. Nothing in the story hints that because nine didn’t return their healing was taken back. And the only reason given for the one leper’s return is that he noticed he was, in fact, healed. But we can only assume the others figured this out, too.
And we also know this: all ten had faith enough to ask for help from the one who brought healing from God. The act of faith was when each of them said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
“Have mercy,” they pray. In Luke’s Gospel, only three times does anyone ask for mercy like this, and they’re all in these three chapters after the Luke 15 parables of grace. In Jesus’ parable in chapter 16, the rich man, suffering in hell, asks Abraham, in heaven, to have mercy and send Lazarus, the poor man, with a drink of water.
In this story in 17, ten unknown lepers ask for mercy from Jesus. And in chapter 18, a blind man, sitting by the side of the road, asks Jesus for mercy twice, calling him “Son of David” both times.
In the middle of these events is Luke’s telling of Jesus parable about persistent prayer. Given the location, after the parables of grace, and that centering encouragement to pray always, even if results aren’t what we expect, we might wonder if this is significant. Is Luke saying that if God is in fact gracious and merciful and welcoming, as the father, the woman with the coin, and the shepherd, the wise among us will seek mercy from such a God ourselves? The rich man’s too late, but the others receive healing from Jesus. It might be worth keeping this in mind for a moment.
And oddly, these ten call Jesus “master,” a word that can be translated “overseer,” “supervisor.” Most times if the Gospels say “master” it’s the word for Lord, kyrios, that is translated. Here it’s a different word, one that’s found only in Luke and even then only six times. And in the other five times Luke uses it it’s always disciples of Jesus who speak it. Not here. These are strangers, but they call Jesus master as if they are disciples. They recognize his authority.
So what is different with the one who came back? Well, clearly, he’s a foreigner. Jesus points that out, he’s a Samaritan. But he might not have been the only one of the group. We can’t know how many of the others were Jewish or Samaritan or anything else.
We’re left with the only obvious thing: what’s different is simply that he came back. So the real question is still “why”? What was he looking for, hoping for?
Is it too much to think that this man just wanted to be with Jesus?
Think about it – he’s healed, he can return to his family after being certified clean by the priests and going through a waiting period. His life is his again. But he wants more. He wants to go back and thank and praise the one who gave the gift. And to praise God publicly.
And that is an act of relationship – he wants to look into the eyes of the one who gave him life. Maybe it’s not something he thought about, he just did it. It’s probably putting too much into his action to claim much of anything about it. But what we do know is what Jesus says to him. And that’s the real eye-opener.
What Jesus says to him is this: “your faith has made you well.” Now remember, we don’t think the other nine had their healing rescinded. But what happened to them was different. On the way to the priests, Luke says, “they were made clean.” Cleansed, purified, the word means, and it has to do with disease and also with ritual purity, both of which were affected by leprosy. They were cleansed of their illness. That is sure.
But Jesus says to this one: “Go on your way; your faith has made you well.” And that word is very different. The word Jesus uses here shows up over 100 times in the New Testament, half in the Gospels. And for 40 of those 52 or so in the Gospels, our translation reads “saved,” not “healed” or “well.” 80% of the time. Including at the cross, where they say “he saved others, let him save himself,” and in John 3, where Jesus says the Son came to save the world. The twelve times it’s translated “healed” or “well” are in situations of physical healing of course. But it’s the same word.
For Jesus life, real life, is always more than physical health. When he tells people whom he’s healed of disease that they are now “saved,” “well,” he means more than just being cured.
He’s saying that their faith reveals that they are now in a new life, having been rescued from destruction, saved from danger, not just healed from illness. He claims for them a life, a relationship, of love and grace with God that is the only life worth living.
And that’s the truth for the one returner, isn’t it? He is cleansed, sure. But now he can be with the one who did it, and find the welcome and grace that the Incarnate Son of God is offering to all. His faith didn’t earn his healing; we often misunderstand this phrase of Jesus. His faith is his wellness, his saving, it is his life of trust in the Son of God who gives him life.
That’s why the point of this story for Luke is not to tell us to be thankful, though we can certainly keep that in mind if we want.
The point of this story is to lift up the depth of healing that this Jesus brings to the world as the Incarnate One. He brings welcome and healing to Jews and non-Jews throughout Luke. And it’s always more than physical healing. It’s release to captives, sight to blind, justice to oppressed, and life to the world.
It is a new relationship of trust in the True God who’s always looking, always searching, and always welcoming back. And in this story, one of the ten actually has a chance to learn that for himself. Because he came back.
To turn to Christ and say, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on me” is to seek a healing that is deeper and more real than any physical one. It is to recognize that there is healing available that can only be called salvation, that only words that carry that weight, that importance, can describe.
It is to recognize that the important thing is not specific healing but being with the Son of God who welcomes us in love and mercy no matter how far or how long we’ve been or are lost.
It is to recognize who it is who is that life and say, “Master, have mercy.” And expect to be heard and forgiven and welcomed home.
The other nine, they were returned to their homes, doubtless certified clean by the priests, and given back their lives. This is good. This is grace. But this one recognized that it was Jesus, the Lord, who was the important thing, and went back, praising God. Went back in faith.
And that’s the possibility this story raises for us. The possibility that we recognize that the grace of the Triune God we receive in this place, and in our lives in the world, in and of itself is only part of the gift. The true gift is that we can trust our Lord Jesus and live in that relationship of life-giving faith always. That we can be in that mercy and grace in all things and at all times.
“Have mercy, Lord,” the ten said. And so we say. Because we believe.
And we also constantly pray for that same faith, that we might throw ourselves on the mercy of God and find the life that really is life. That we might see beyond any specific needs for healing we might have into the eyes of the True Healer himself and know that is where we need to be, always. That we might trust in our Lord Christ for our all.
We can come to God for graces, and ask for help, and we can receive it. And it will be a blessing. But the tenth leper shows us that a better path is to seek to be with God always, and so live in that faith always.
And while we’re on our way with Jesus, sure, let’s give thanks. But let’s do it the way the healed leper did. Let’s “praise God with a loud voice” as we turn to God. Because if we’re loud enough, then, maybe, we can let others know about the One from God who gives life, who wants a relationship of love and grace with all God’s children and always welcomes them home. Maybe then we can find the full joy of the whole creation turning to Christ with delight in their eyes and praise on their lips, knowing that this is the only place we’d ever want to be.
In the name of Jesus. Amen