A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on November 25, 2012.
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Back in the very early thirties, popular Methodist evangelist William Stidger was seated one day with a group of friends in a restaurant. They shared stories about how their lives were affected by the Great Depression. There was a minister in the group, and he suddenly broke in and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, because in two or three weeks I have to preach a sermon on Thanksgiving Day. I want to say something affirmative. What can I say that’s affirmative?” And as the minister spoke, Stidger said it was like the Spirit of God spoke to him: “Why don’t you give thanks to those people who have been a blessing in your life and affirm them during this time?”
As he began to think, the thought came to his mind of a schoolteacher very dear to him, a wonderful teacher of poetry and English literature who had gone out of her way to put a great love of literature and verse in him. So he sat down and wrote a letter to this woman, now up in years. It was only a matter of days until he got a reply in the feeble scrawl of the aged.
“My Dear Willy . . . .” Stidger was at that time about 50 years of age, and no one had called him Willy for years, so just the opening sentence warmed his heart. “My Dear Willy: I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind. You’ll be interested to know that I taught in school for more than fifty years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered me as nothing has done in years.”
Stidger says, “I’m not sentimental, but I found myself weeping over that note.”
That’s the power of thankgiving and gratitude: it warms our hearts when we receive genuine thanks. Today’s Gospel lesson is another story of thanksgiving. Here we read of ten men with leprosy, which is a terrible, debilitating contagious skin disease that attacks from the extremities and works its way into the body. For those with the disease in Jesus’ time, before there was a cure, it must have been horrific to see their bodies literally wasting away. It must have been painful to see the fear in the eyes of strangers as they steered clear when they walked in the countryside. Perhaps the worst was that lepers were cast out of their homes and villages so that they could not see and touch their wives or children. They were sentenced to live a shadowy existence where people treated them as if they were already dead. For the lepers in this story, their only source of comfort was the company of misery they shared with others suffering the same illness.
In this story, Jesus was traveling down 70 miles south from his home region of Galilee to Jerusalem, the major city of the Jews. But in order to get there, he had to go through a region called Samaria. The people who lived there, the Samaritans, were a mixed race descended from the Jews and foreign colonists settled by invaders from the north. The Jews hated Samaritans because they literally slept with the enemy and their religion had elements of both pagan and Israelite worship. As Jesus traveled through this region and into a village, he met ten lepers who cried out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When was the last time we told anyone, “Have pity on me, or have mercy on me!” We live in a society where “pitiful” is a bad word, and needing “mercy” is a sign of weakness. Those words suggest that we need others to feel sorry or have compassion for us and it cuts against the grain of our culture that worships autonomy and self-sufficiency. Many of us, me included, may be struggling with heavy burdens and struggles, and yet, we come to church putting on a good face and acting like we’ve got everything all together. But deep down, how drastically do WE need for our Master to have pity on us in our pain, our loneliness and our misery? How far are we willing to go to cry out for Jesus to have mercy and compassion for our failures and sin? How often are we afraid to be vulnerable with others because we fear that they might judge us, and look down on us? But when the lepers cried out to Jesus, Jesus did not judge or look down on them. Instead, he was moved to compassion, and he healed those ten lepers. What an occasion for thanksgiving and gratitude!
But according to Luke’s gospel, only one leper returned to Jesus to give thanks. And he was a Samaritan. Though we can’t prove this entirely, our impression is that the rest of the lepers were Jews, because Jesus told them to show themselves before the priests. When only one returned to give thanks, Jesus asked: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner, this Samaritan?” Perhaps implied in this question is another question: How could the other nine be so ungrateful?
Jesus asks a pointed question: “Where are the other nine?” Before we judge those other nine as outrageous ingrates, I hope you’ll let me take a small flight of fancy and speculate why the other nine did not return to give thanks.
1. Perhaps the first one thought that his disease just suddenly got better on its own and so there was no one to thank but his lucky stars.
2. Perhaps the second one thanked the priests for proclaiming him clean, but he never made the connection between Jesus’ words and the healing.
3. Perhaps the third one purposefully avoided Jesus because he had heard of Jesus’ high demands. He just wanted to be healed physically and then to get on with his life. He didn’t want to be confronted with Jesus’ demand for discipleship.
4. Perhaps the fourth one ran home to his village to see and to hold his wife and children. Because of his disease, he had been forced to abandon his family; now he had a chance to recommit to his family, providing them with a husband, a father, and greater financial security.
5. Perhaps the fifth one had every good intention to return to thank Jesus, but life just got too busy and so he forgot about going back to Jesus.
6. Perhaps the sixth one thought, “I’ve had such a hard life, God owes me this one.”
7. Perhaps the seventh one was so stressed out about the parties that he was going to host to celebrate his homecoming that he didn’t have time to go back and find Jesus.
8. Perhaps the eighth just wanted to get over his past and focus on the future.
9. Perhaps the ninth one was going to go back to thank Jesus, but he wasn’t about to walk beside a Samaritan – the tenth and only thankful leper — in order to do so. Now that he was healed and clean, and a Jew in good standing, he thought it best not to associate with a despised foreigner.
Where are the other nine? With a little bit of imagination and self-reflection, perhaps we might come to realize that as much as we would like to identify with the grateful Samaritan, the other nine could have easily been us. We need only to look in the mirror to find them.
The fact of the matter is that before we met Christ, we all were like the lepers. No, we were not literally stricken with leprosy. No, we might not be the outcasts of society. On the contrary, we might actually be upstanding members of society, educated and well-trained, respected by our peers, liked by our friends. But without Christ, no matter what our outward appearance, inwardly we were wasting away, mired in sin, and destined for death. No matter how connected we were in our community, we were alienated from God, the true source of our life. No matter what our ethnic origin is—Jew, Samaritan, Anglo, African, Hispanic, Russian, Asian—we all were aliens of that country called the Kingdom of God.
It took the miraculous mercy of our Master and Savior to heal us of our situation. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we were offered the gift of salvation, of healing and wholeness, and of reconciliation with God the Father, the true giver of life. Of course, for those of us who have accepted this gift of salvation, it doesn’t mean that we no longer struggle with sin, temptation, or fears, or that we no longer suffer from disease and physical death. However, Christ is our hope that neither sin, nor fear, nor disease, nor death is our ultimate fate.
It is interesting that in this story, Jesus didn’t do anything like what we would expect from a healing. There was no touching, no commanding words, not even a simple exclamation like “Be healed!” He healed using those methods at other times. But on this occasion, he merely said to the lepers, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” even before they were healed. This must have been a strange command to the lepers: a person with a skin disease doesn’t go to a priest unless he is already physically clean. If a diseased Jew happened to be healed, Leviticus 14 specified the ritual ceremonies for reinstating him into general society. So what Jesus is doing in effect was to tell these men to act as if they were healed while they were still lepers. Jesus told these diseased and unclean men to present themselves to the priests as if they were already physically and ritually clean. And the Bible states that as the lepers obeyed Jesus’ command, as they went, they were cleansed.
Likewise, Romans 5:8 says that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us and freed us from the power of sin and death. And so in this still fallen and unredeemed world, we who are redeemed by God’s mercy, like the lepers, are called to live a new life. We’re commanded to live as if sin no longer has ultimate power over us because Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection has in fact broken the power of sin and death! As we obey Jesus’ command, we too are cleansed. What a cause for celebration and an outpouring of gratitude to God in Christ!
But in this story, only one grateful leper, seeing that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. In other words, the Samaritan’s gratitude resulted in pure, unadulterated worship of the living God. The responses of the other nine, as I’ve speculated earlier, might be understandable. But a response of gratitude in worship should come first, before all other responses. For in worship we acknowledge that all that we have – our health, our families, our friends, our church, divine forgiveness, eternal salvation – and all that we are in Christ, are first of all gracious gifts from God. From this recognition springs forth a gratitude that longs to worship and follow God with our whole being.
That’s where this story ends. In Luke 17:19, Jesus said to this thankful ex-leper, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Jesus literally says, “Your faith has saved you.” What a funny thing to say. For we think, “What faith?” I mean, there was no recitation of the Apostles’ Creed from the leper. He made no great statement of the divinity of Jesus. All that happened was that this leper had faith enough to approach Jesus to ask for mercy, faith enough to obey Jesus’ command, and then returned to give thanks. “That’s not much faith,” you may think. Perhaps that’s true. But according to the Bible, that’s enough faith. So while all ten were healed, in faith only one was “saved.” Salvation in Christ includes healing, but it includes more than healing, it includes a free act of God that leads to our response of worshiping God in thanks-giving and of obeying Christ in thanks-living.
And so as we conclude our Thanksgiving holiday, let us continue to give thanks, as we reflect on the gifts of God. Where are the other nine? We’ll, we don’t know. But as we acknowledge a litany of blessings, let’s be the thankful one.
For the blessings of family, let’s be the thankful one.
For the blessings of friends, let’s be the thankful one.
For the blessings of freedom, let’s be the thankful one.
For the blessings of faith, let’s be the thankful one.
But let’s not just be thankful for the obvious blessings. For the life of Christian thankfulness is lived not only in view of the obvious blessings of life, but also in view of the hard things of existence.
So, during this season,
For hard lessons learned, let’s be the thankful one.
For increased humility, let’s be the thankful one.
For strength to persevere, let’s be the thankful one.
For occasions to serve, let’s be the thankful one.
For opportunities to forgive, let’s be the thankful one.
For obstacles overcome and still to overcome, let’s be the thankful one.
For healing and salvation in Christ, let’s be the thankful one!
“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Amen.
Go now, and as you depart from this place,
May you be thankful for the mercy of God
May you be thankful for the healing of Jesus
May you be thankful for salvation in the Spirit
So that you may respond to these words of Christ:
Rise and go; your faith has made you well.