Luke 17: 11 – 24
Thanksgiving Day, October 11, 1999
One day a woman was rushing home from a doctor’s appointment. The doctor had been somewhat delayed at the hospital, and the lab work took a little longer than usual so by the time she left the clinic she was running quite a bit behind schedule. She still had to pick up her prescription, pick up the children from the baby-sitter, and get home and make supper, all in time to make it to the prayer meeting at her church that evening. As she began to circle the busy Wal-Mart parking lot, looking for a space, the windows of heaven were opened, as it says in Genesis, and a downpour began. While she wasn’t usually the type to bother God with small problems, she began to pray as she turned down the row closest to the front door. "Lord, you know what kind of a day I’ve had, and there’s still an awful lot to do. Could you please grant me a parking space right away, oh, and close to the building so I don’t get soaked." The words weren’t even completely out of her mouth when she saw the backup lights of a car come on at the end of the row. It was the best space in the whole parking lot, right next to the handicap spots and straight out from the front door. She made straight for it and as she pulled in, she said, "never mind God, something just opened up."
It’s kind of an amusing anecdote, but how many times do we ask God for something, and then when we receive it, we behave as though it were quite an unusual coincidence, and we fail to give credit where credit is due. That’s exactly what happened in our Scripture reading this morning.
In the story that we read, we saw that Jesus was "on his way" to Jerusalem — and the cross. He was traveling the border between Samaria and Galilee, when he came to this village. Either there was a leper colony nearby, or perhaps the fact that this village was located on the border indicates that it was in kind of a no-mans-land, and the village itself was the leper colony. Any way, his reputation preceded him, for ten of the lepers came out to meet him.
Now this is one of those stories that loses some of its punch for us today, because we really don’t have a clue what it was like to be a leper. Probably the closest any of us has come is watching some of the Leprosy Mission of Canada infomercials, but as horrible as the disease can be today, it was far worse then. Now we have doctors and effective treatments for Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. In those days they had only fear and isolation. Think for a moment what it must have been like to be pushed outside the community. Isolated. Humiliated. A charity case. Add to that the fact that the priests and teachers of the law commonly used lepers as object lessons about sin, where would you find your reason to go on? What would it be like to never be touched? Never. To see little children run away at the sight of you? No hugs, no kisses, no hand-shakes, no pat on the back. These lepers knew the laws and the traditions. They knew exactly how far they were required to stand from the public. And there they stand, some distance away trying to shout over the crowd of people that seemed to surround Jesus whenever he came to a public place. They called out to him "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" Maybe they wanted alms, or they needed food. It’s even possible they knew that Jesus was a healer and they were reaching out in faith, believing that Jesus would show mercy to them, as he had to so many others. In any case, they knew their place and though they cried for mercy, they didn’t dare draw near.
Jesus answer is a little surprising to us. He does not ask if they believe. He does not lay hands on them. He does not spit on the ground, make mud and rub it into their wounds. When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." Essentially, he tells them to do what the law required when a leper was cleansed, without really assuring them that they would be cleansed. It was possible for leprosy to go into remission, and the truth is that many who were called lepers probably had eczema, psoriasis and other problems that affect the skin but sometimes disappear. If a leper thought his leprosy had gone away, the law required that he present himself to a priest. After an elaborate examination involving a period of quarantine, the priest could declare him clean and return him to his home . When Jesus said to the ten "Go and show yourselves to the priests," he was telling them to act in faith as though they had been healed, even though the healing was not a reality at that point. As they left him, they were miraculously cleansed of their leprosy.
It’s interesting that all ten of the lepers obeyed Jesus’ command to "go and show yourselves to the priests." Not one asked "Why go when we haven’t been healed?" or "Don’t you think you should cure us first?" They didn’t argue the theological implications of healing. They just obeyed Jesus. And, while they were busy obeying, all ten were healed.
You can imagine them, leaning on their crutches, wrapped in bandages, limping and hobbling down the road, and on their way--one after another discovers, “I am clean, the sores are gone, my flesh has been restored.” They start to walk a little faster, anxious to do what the law requires and to be reinstated into society. But then there is one, 1 out of 10, who stops short. He makes the connection and he says, “wait a minute! That rabbi healed me. I’ve got to go back and thank him.” He leaves the others on the way and runs back "praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him." Luke gives us the end Paul Harvey style. "He was a Samaritan." And now the rest of the story. I’m glad Luke includes all these details about the story. There’s a lot here for us to learn about believing the promises of God and acting on them in faith. There’s a lot here to learn about what real gratitude looks like. He limped away on his crutches, now he skips and dances and runs back to Jesus, praising God at the top of his lungs, shouting, "Hallelujah." Then he throws himself at Jesus feet. He’s embracing him around the ankles, groveling before him, and with tears of joy streaming down his face he says, "Thank you, Lord. Thank you."
I can image the disciples standing by watching this, thinking, "Does he have to get so emotional? I’m really not comfortable with this display. This is not what "decent and in order" looks like." None of that matters to the Samaritan. He’s been healed, and by a Jewish rabbi who ought to have despised him. He doesn’t care what others may think, his sentence of banishment and death has been lifted and he came to praise and thank the one who lifted the curse.
But the point of the story is not really about the one at all, it’s about the nine. Having received the worship of the Samaritan leper, Jesus turns to him and asks, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
Now Jesus’ words are not meant to make the Samaritan feel bad, I seriously doubt that there was anything that could have made him feel bad on that particular day. Jesus is speaking for the benefit of the disciples and whatever other Jews may have been nearby. "This Samaritan, this despised foreigner comes back to praise God, and the children of Abraham, the children of the covenant do not? Is there something wrong with this picture guys?"
Of course it’s pure speculation, but someone has suggested some reasons why the other nine failed to return. In all of them we hear the echo of the little story that I told at the beginning this morning. One waited to see if the cure was real. One waited to see if it would last. Another decided he probably never really had leprosy. One planned to go back later and thank Jesus. One waited until the priest pronounced him clean and then gave glory and thanks to the priest. One took the credit himself, after all, it was his own faith that made him well. Another decided that he probably would have recovered anyway. Still another believed that he was doing exactly what the Lord told him to do. The truth is, that final reason is somewhat justified. Jesus did command the lepers to go and present themselves to the priest, so did the law. They were just doing what they were told. I’m sure they could rationalize their lack of gratitude by commending themselves for their obedience.
I think the reality lies in a different direction. Once when Jesus was dining in the home of a Pharisee, a ’sinful woman,’ probably a prostitute brought in a jar of expensive perfume "and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is--that she is a sinner." Jesus knew what was in his heart and told him a story.
"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged correctly," Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."
The Jewish Lepers loved little, because they felt that little had been done. Or perhaps they felt that they deserved to be healed because they were children of the covenant. God owed it to them so why should they be thankful. The Samaritan loved much, because he knew exactly what Jesus had done, and he knew how undeserving he was. The problem is, all ten had been cured of the same disease, but only one seemed to really recognize the scope of what was done.
God has given us so many blessings. Never mind all of the things that we’re traditionally thankful for on this day, we need to look at the wonderful blessing of our redemption and be thankful. Think about it. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We’ve been set free from the power of sin. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.. We have an eternal inheritance reserved in heaven for us who are kept by the power of God for salvation. Did we deserve this? Did we earn this? Not at all. How much did it cost us? Nothing! How much did it cost Jesus? His life! Romans 5, verses 8 and 9 say, " God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!."
Is that not reason enough to be "overflowing with thanksgiving " today?
May God give us grace to be like the Samaritan. To believe and be saved and be truly, truly thankful.