Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
Jesus’ mission includes making people clean again. Unexpectedly, a Samaritan healed of leprosy becomes a model for those who would praise and worship God and give thanks for God’s mercy.
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus is in the borderlands. No man’s land if you will. The region between what is firmly home and firmly other. Between Samaria and Galilee. Who knows what you’ll find there…. Jesus found lepers. Or rather, 10 lepers found him. Respectful lepers – keeping their distance. We now know all about that – social distancing is not a new invention! Leprosy was more of a catch all term in scriptures for all manner of skin infections and disease – and not knowing about bacteria and contagion and how diseases work – the condition becomes not just a physical one but a spiritual one as well. They were considered unclean, isolated, not permitted to join in with the regular worship and activities of the community. So they stick together and stay away from others.
Now Jesus is about to enter a village when he is approached by the lepers. They cry out for mercy, calling Jesus “Master,” which is what his disciples have called him…. His only response is go and show yourselves to the priests. And as they went, they were made clean. They obeyed Jesus’ strange and simple command. The priests would be the one to judge, the priests would be the one to tell them if they could return to their families and their work. To go to the priests.
But on the way, one noticed that he was different. Healed. Made clean. And he stopped in his tracks and turned around to praise God.
He comes back to Jesus, gets on the ground and thanks him. He knows where his healing has come from. He knows what Jesus is now capable of and is moved to not just toss a thank you over his shoulder but to physically assume a position of worship and thanksgiving.
And then Jesus says something to his disciples I just can’t get over. Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? We don’t know who the other nine were. We know we are in a borderland – but its not clear who is a Galillean and who is a Samaritan until Jesus points this out. The Jews disdain for Samaritans was already pointed out in chapter 11, Jesus parable of the unexpected Samaritan who showed compassion to the man in the ditch, when several Jews had already bypassed him. And then here in chapter 17 – Jesus discloses to the disciples the man who showed faith and was made well was actually a Samaritan too. Breaking down the stereotypes of who is in and who is out in God’s kingdom. The model of faithfulness is the one who shows compassion, and the model of faithfulness is the one who knows and sees where his healing comes from.
The man’s faith was not expressed by his request for help but by his gratitude and praise of God. The other 9 were healed, but this one was made well. Jesus tells the man to rise and go on his way and saying that his faith has made him not only physically well, but also whole and, indeed, saved. That’s part of the complex and multivalent meaning of the Greek root word σoζω (transliterated as “sozo” and pronounced “sod-zo”) Jesus uses. And that is the greatest mercy and blessing. Our bodies can and do heal themselves. Doctors and nurses have been given gifts to heal us. But to be made whole – body, mind and spirit. That comes from the Lord.
This man saw that he was healed – and his response was praise.
Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. One of my favorite preachers Frederich Buechner described a Christian as – “one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”
Worship is that thing that is beyond duty. There are those who say, “I don’t need to go to church. All that God requires is that I am a good person.” And yes, that is all that Jesus requires in this story, that the lepers he healed fulfill their duties, that they do the right thing. After all, Jesus never said to anyone, “bow down and worship me.” Worship is never required. We are free by God’s will, free to sin or not, free to worship or not. Only Satan ever demanded to be worshipped.
Praise and worship is the faithful response to what God has done for us and heals us from. Worship is not primarily for us. It is not something that we do to get something out of, or to learn from, or to feel good and centered and strong. Worship is the thank you that we turn back for, and offer our words and action for no other reason than gratitude. Whether or not the worship “feels” right makes little difference – Jesus is present and we simply are to lay ourselves down at his feet. More often than not – however – we do receive something from gathered in worship.
The other nine did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly as they were told and presumably also enjoyed healing. Again, they didn’t do anything wrong and received the blessing promised them. But our faith shows us and indeed promises wholeness.
There is a time for lament and cries for justice and activism. But given that we live in a culture filled with blame, accusation, greed, and fear, and almost devoid of thanksgiving, maybe on this day, and remembering the tenth leper, gather to give thanks for the healing we receive. For the daily bread we receive. For the mercy and forgiveness we receive. And in that offerings of thanks, we are not just healed, fed, and forgiven, but made well. Made whole. Saved, if you will.