God’s abundant healing is available to all people, in all places, and can be experienced through worship.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28 C
Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
This Gospel story about the ten lepers reveals so much about who God is in Christ – a powerful, compassionate, healing God.
The divine power in Jesus is so evident to the lepers, that they recognize it the minute they see him coming. Even from afar, they can tell that this is someone who can do miraculous things. They call out to Jesus, asking for mercy, and calling him “Master.” This term of respect acknowledges Jesus’ authority in a particular way: In Luke’s Gospel, the title “Master” is used by Jesus’ closest disciples. These ten sick people are strangers to Jesus, but they can see him for who he truly is. They know Jesus acts with the power of God.
And what does this one with divine authority do? He heals. He heals not just one of these people, not a few of them, but all ten – at once, with barely more than a word. It’s almost as though healing just overflows from who Jesus is, and it is generous enough to reach all ten of these people. There is no scarcity here. In the presence of Christ, there is healing in abundance.
And there is acceptance and mercy for people who have been marginalized.
Leprosy was, and still is, a disfiguring and stigmatized disease. Any illness was significant and dangerous in the ancient world, but a chronic, infectious illness like leprosy, would have been especially disruptive to the rhythms of work and family life. Lepers could end up isolated and shunned by others. But Jesus is willing to go to them and heal them.
And to really underscore that this is a display of radical compassion on Jesus’ part, Luke adds one more twist in the story. All ten lepers are healed and sent on their way, healthy, presumably able to be reintegrated into their community. But one leper has a particularly transformative experience and returns to praise Jesus. That leper, the text says, was a Samaritan.
This is a moment in the story at which the audience can gasp in surprise. Samaritans are classic outsider characters in Gospel stories. This man wasn’t just an outsider because of his illness, he’s twice an outsider because of his identity as a Samaritan. Even Jesus goes out of his way to mention that this guy is different. He asks, “Was none found to return and praise God except this foreigner?”
Now Samaritans weren’t from some distant region; Samaria was next to Galilee, where Jesus was from. But Samaritans had a different ethnic background, practiced different religious rituals, and acknowledged a different temple. This had caused centuries of conflict with Israelite Jews. So when we hear that, of all the healed lepers, it is this political, ethnic, and religious outsider who comes back to fall at the feet of Christ, it’s a surprise!
And it’s a reminder of how often Jesus crosses traditional boundaries to show compassion and mercy to all people, even people with whom he shouldn’t be interacting, even people who have long been considered foreign enemies. Luke wants us to hear that Christ’s healing is so abundant that it extends to everyone, even Samaritans.
Jesus says to the Samaritan: “Your faith has made you well.” In the narrative of Luke, Jesus says this phrase to people who are treated by society as outsiders, but who are healed and loved by God. He says it to a woman who was labeled “sinful” for her lifestyle, and scandalous for anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair. He says it to a woman who has been bleeding for more than a decade and can do little more than reach to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. He says it to a blind beggar who waits at the city gates, dependent solely on the assistance of passing strangers. And he says it to a Samaritan leper: “Your faith has made you well.”
Jesus doesn’t this to the disciples, or the temple priests, or the theological experts, or the patrons of the synagogue… But to the people who are sick or poor, people who are often invisible. But they’re not invisible to Jesus. Jesus sees them, and loves them, and makes them well, because the healing power of God is abundant towards all people.
This doesn’t just mean physical healing of illness or injury. There can be a soul-deep, transformative healing.
When the Samaritan leper came back to fall at the feet of Jesus, he had already been cleansed of his illness. And yet Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. His act of gratitude and praise before Christ brings an even-deeper degree of wholeness and wellness than the physical healing he has already experienced. Who can know what more needed healing in him? The burdens that other people bear are not always easy to see. But he knew, and Jesus knew. And something about being in a posture of worship made him more than clean… it made him well.
Perhaps you have experienced something like that: Being made well by a close encounter with God. Worshiping before the living God doesn’t necessarily take away bodily pain and illness, but entering into a sacred space, into loving community, into song and silence and prayer – that can be a balm for a weary and wounded soul. Some people describe worship as entering a “thin place.” This is an idea from Celtic Christian tradition that describes a time or space where the boundary between the physical and the spiritual is especially thin, a time or place where you can experience the holy, where you can draw close to God.
Of course, thin places aren’t always churches – and too many times, churches have been places of harm rather than safety. Churches have, unfortunately, come in between people and God’s abundant healing. But God’s presence extends far beyond the walls of any one church, just as God’s healing and compassion extend far beyond any one particular group of people.
No one is an outsider to the healing love of the Triune God, and no one can ever be outside that love.
There is nowhere that is so far that you can’t experience it. Even if you end up in Babylon, like the ancient Israelites to whom Jeremiah was writing. The prophet encourages the Israelite people to make a life in Babylon, a place that is far from their homeland. They are not there by choice but in exile; they are the foreigners. Still, Jeremiah says they should be as present as they can in that place. They won’t be able to go to their familiar places of worship, but God’s spirit is still with them right where they are. They can still worship, and they can still pray.
Jeremiah even tells them to pray for their new neighbors, to seek the welfare of their former enemies. Jeremiah understood that God’s love could extend even to people like the Babylonians, and God’s healing could be found even in a place like Babylon. God’s compassion is just that abundant: it is for everyone and in every place.
So if you are feeling far from home, lost and confused, remember that Holy Spirit is present with you right where you are. If you are feeling like you have been made an outsider, remember that Christ will cross boundaries to come close to you. If you are feeling like your soul is weary and needing rest, remember that you can always come into the healing love of God and be made well.