Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 – Thus says the Lord to the exiles in Babylon: Build houses; plant gardens; take wives; have children. But seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you.
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c – Namaan, a Syrian, goes to Elisha to be healed of his leprosy.
Psalm 66:1-12 – Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth, for he has tested us, refined us like silver.
Psalm 111 – I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
2 Timothy 2:8-15 – I endure everything for the elect, that they may attain salvation. If we have died with him, we will also live with him. Do your best to show yourself an approved worker.
Luke 17:11-19 – Healing of the ten lepers.
Luke 17: Gratitude
We all know the story of the Ten Lepers, but most of your people probably won’t. For most of my 31 years of ordained ministry this text was appointed for Thanksgiving, so many of us old preachers tackled it annually between football games.
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.”
This story is a parallel of the healing; of Namaan the Syrian in 2 Kings 5 (one of our choices for the first reading of the day). Luke references Namaan’s healing in Luke 4:27. Jesus has already encountered a leper in Luke 5.
Jesus is in some unnamed village between Samaria and Galilee, on his journey to Jerusalem, headed for we-all-know-what. Ten lepers come up to Jesus, asking for mercy. With an ostracizing disease they cannot participate in the religious, social or financial life of the community. Leprosy could be any number of diseases. An unknown spot on the arm could be diagnosed as leprosy by a priest. If so, certain rituals were performed. The leper would often be asked to leave the community until things cleared up. One could only return if the priest had declared the disease healed, and the person clean. This put tremendous power in the hands of the priests.
Leprosy, in its many manifestations, is described in painstaking detail in the 59 verses of Leviticus 13. I won’t copy it all here.
Houses could have leprosy too. Leviticus 14:34-47 says,
When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession, 35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.“36 The priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease, or all that is in the house will become unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to inspect the house. 37 He shall examine the disease; if the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots, and if it appears to be deeper than the surface, 38 the priest shall go outside to the door of the house and shut up the house seven days. 39 The priest shall come again on the seventh day and make an inspection; if the disease has spread in the walls of the house, 40 the priest shall command that the stones in which the disease appears be taken out and thrown into an unclean place outside the city. 41 He shall have the inside of the house scraped thoroughly, and the plaster that is scraped off shall be dumped in an unclean place outside the city. 42 They shall take other stones and put them in the place of those stones, and take other plaster and plaster the house.
43 If the disease breaks out again in the house, after he has taken out the stones and scraped the house and plastered it, 44 the priest shall go and make inspection; if the disease has spread in the house, it is a spreading leprous disease in the house; it is unclean. 45 He shall have the house torn down, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and taken outside the city to an unclean place. 46 All who enter the house while it is shut up shall be unclean until the evening; 47 and all who sleep in the house shall wash their clothes; and all who eat in the house shall wash their clothes.
Think black mold. These laws were designed for the safety of the whole community. They were like our health codes, mold abatement and so on.
One can only imagine the struggle of being ostracized from the community. How does one work? Who helps you in your infirmity? How much would you miss your family? Does your family bring food to you? How far away are you from the comforts of home? For how long?
Jesus commands the ten lepers to go see the priests, even though they have not yet been healed. They must act on faith, going to the priests even though they have not seen even the first signs of healing.
As they are on the way they are healed. Jesus asked them to visit the priests, but not for healing. A priest would have to give them a clean bill of health, before they could return home to mainstream society. Being sick, or more accurately here, unclean, inferred divine disfavor. If you had leprosy, God was clearly punishing you for some hidden sin. Healing was then a sign of forgiveness. It provided an opportunity to be restored to community.
Once the ten realize they have been healed, they continue on their way. Where? Home presumably, understandably. One of them, however, returns to Jesus and begins praising God with a great voice (phoneis megaleis/φωνης μεγάλης: Megaphone!) I love the image of praising God with a megaphone.
Falling at Jesus’ feet he says the two important words we are taught as children: “Thank you,” (Euchariston/εὐχαριστων). Giving thanks is a eucharistic event. Taking the eucharist is an act of Thanksgiving. Sin is the heart incurvatus en se as Luther said, turned in upon itself. Giving thanks is a sign that the heart is no longer turned inward, but now turned outward in joy and thanksgiving for God, life, love, Christ, the other. Ten were healed physically. One leper found more than physical healing.
Jesus is not soft here. He lays it out in three rhetorical questions: “Were not ten cleansed? So, where are the other nine? Is no one going to praise God but this foreigner? Okay, son, move along. Your faith has made you well.” Namaan was also a “foreigner.”
- Jesus isn’t happy with a 10% return. In his parable of the sower and the seed, he seems to expect at least 25% of the seeds to fall on good soil and bear fruit. Only one out of ten lepers returning to praise God and give thanks catches Jesus’ attention.
- There is a running critique of Israel’s lack of faith in Luke. Foreigners consistently have more faith than Israelites. At times this even seems to surprise Jesus. The “foreigner” comment seems like a slam at first, but Jesus is pointing out for those around, as he did in the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), that sometimes those of other cultures and religious traditions show more faith, compassion and hospitality than those we consider orthodox. Jesus, perhaps ironically, points out that this person is not one of the orthodox, righteous insiders. To wit: “Oh look, a heathen gives praise to God! Hmm. Where are the faithful?” Once again a scandalous Samaritan is made a hero in Luke. This must have irked some folks.
- “Your faith has made you well,” is actually “Your faith has saved you.” Sodzo is the verb (ἡ πίστις σουσέσωκένσε). Luke uses salvation language again. Salvation, not as life after death – pie in the sky when you die – but salvation in it’s fullness: one made whole, right with God, body and soul. Paul would say “justified.” Jesus is saying,”Your faith has made you right with God.” Here is justification by grace through faith, even in Luke with his rich/poor flip-flop theology of the afterlife.
- One cannot miss Jesus’ constant attention to those on the margins of society. Those who are ostracized and left behind. This is the ministry to which Jesus calls the church.
One can see why this used to be a Thanksgiving Day text. Gratitude is a sign of salvation here.
The leper’s salvation is revealed by his turning to praise God and give thanks. Meister Eckhardt’s words (my second favorite German heretic) have stuck with me all these years: “If the only prayer you ever prayed was ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.” Having a heart of gratitude, a heart that explodes in praise of God, these are signs of salvation. Luke’s Jesus will use similar words with Zaccheus two chapters later after Zach gives half his stuff away: “Today salvation has come to this household.”
Today. Gratitude, generosity and joy are signs that salvation is here. Now.