Rev. Jane Dunning
“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
So much of Jesus teaching was about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. As he opens this story with these words, we are given a clue to what will follow. Throughout his teaching, Jesus repeats, again and again, that his mission is to save sinners and to bring the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast words of hope and words of promise.
This parable shows an unexpected contrast between two characters. One is upper class and an icon of respectability and of faith. The other is an outcast, considered to be a thief and a traitor. Who is the hero here? Whose prayer will be heard? Who will be restored to a loving relationship with God?
Let us set the stage…
We are standing in the temple in Jerusalem. It is a huge and beautiful structure. Its splendor inspires awe and wonder, as would be appropriate for worship of the One God of Israel.
There are people already gathered in the temple. Two characters walk in.
The first is a Pharisee.
Pharisees were members of the religious leadership and highly respected in the community. They took the ancient laws seriously and devoted themselves to prayer and to the observance of these laws. They held great power in society and were highly regarded by the people of the day.
Scholars tell us that it was the custom to pray out loud in the temple, before God and before others…
The Pharisee stood apart, where he would be seen, and held his hands up, as was the custom, and prayed:
“I fast, even beyond what the Law asks. I give tithes, not just a tenth of my agricultural products, but of all my resources.”
This character that Jesus described seemed to think that he is the reason for all the good things that have happened for him. The entire prayer was a recital of what he, this man, had done. There is no acknowledgement of his need for God in his life. His prayer seemed to focus on him.
He is reminding God of his deeds and his virtues.
Can’t you just see him standing there, with his chest puffed up with pride and self-righteousness?
Can’t you hear him proclaiming his worthiness?
The second character in the story is a tax collector, thoroughly despised by the people.
The Jews at that time were living under the rule of the conquering Roman government who collected heavy taxes from the people. Tax collectors were thought to use that as a license to steal. They became a symbol of a repressive system. They were treated as outcasts and traitors.
The poor tax collector did not pretend to be other than he was. Can you see him? He was bent over in humility, and did not even look up as he prayed. His prayer was a simple repetition of the ancient words, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He probably spoke softly, not wanting to call attention to himself…
He knew he was despised by people and wanted to be where no one would look scornfully at him. And he was so ashamed that he could not even lift his hands or eyes up to God in his prayers, as was the custom. He felt his own shame and was beating his breast at his unworthiness. He was crying out to God to be merciful to him, an unworthy sinner.
The tax collector’s prayer was one of humility and repentance for what he had done. He could not look up because the weight of his sins laid heavy on his head. His prayer was very short:
“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Can you hear him repeating this ancient prayer again and again, perhaps even listing those sins he had committed.
And his prayer was answered by God.
If we pray like the Pharisee, because we think it is our duty or because we want be seen as righteous, our prayers will be rejected because they lack the honesty and humility to acknowledge that we need the mercy of God. Those are not prayers. They are expressions of pride. There is no compassion for others, only thoughts of self-congratulation that he is not as others are…
When we confess our sins with a completely open heart, God hears these and is reconciled to us. God hears the prayers of those who ask for mercy rather than those who expect it because they have ‘earned’ it. He accepts those seeking mercy and forgiveness into communion with Him, as part of His kingdom. The greater the sin, the greater the repentance and the greater the mercy.
More than once, Jesus has said that he came to save sinners, to help them find reconciliation with our loving God.
When we come before God in prayer, we need to remember we are there to offer thanks for the many blessings that God has given us, and to ask for mercy and forgiveness for our flaws and our failings. We must also forgive the failings of others.
Jesus is telling us that if we pray with grateful hearts and rely on the mercy of God for mercy in spite of our faults and our sins, our prayers will be answered.
Jesus promises that when we turn our thoughts to God, when we return to Him, again, and again, and again, He will have mercy on us, and we will be restored and forgiven.
That is the promise that touched the sorrow-filled heart of a despised tax collector and led him to crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
And this man went to his home justified. Amen.
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
The parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge is one of a set of lessons Jesus uses to teach his disciples about prayer. Jesus has many things to say about prayer in various places in the Bible.
In Matthew 6 He says that we should pray without the desire to be seen, “go in secret to your room”. “ In Matthew 5 he says that we should reconcile with others before we pray. He says that we should pray without empty phrases or too many words (you’ve heard this suggestion: “Pray unceasingly, if necessary, use words”).
In the Parable of the unjust judge we are instructed to pray with faith that God will answer, and to not give up.
The judge in this story is unjust, arrogant, and irritated. Perhaps he is waiting for payoffs from wealthy citizens in trouble with the law. He can’t be bothered listening to the poor widow cry out for justice. (The Greek word translated here as widow, means “powerless one”; you can make a long list of others who are powerless: people living in poverty, those suffering from chronic pain or addiction, immigrants, people living in the shadow of violence and fear, for example).
I think most every human has suffered from a feeling of powerlessness; when a mountain of grief, pain and fear seems insurmountable.
The widow in the story is persistent. She knows what she deserves and she comes back to the judge day after day. She does not lose heart. To me she is a heroic figure. There is danger in speaking up about injustice, but she is brave and carries the candle of her cause, having faith that right will prevail. She has faith that the law is on her side and that this hard-hearted judge will eventually hear her case and grant her petition, and he does.
Unlike the unjust judge, our God is a just and fair God. This is one of those lessons which go from less to more: As in Matthew 7: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
If an unjust judge will answer the widow’s pleas, how much more readily will our just and loving God respond to us?
The question I asked in prayer this week was: If God is, as I believe, all knowing, all merciful and well, all-everything, why do we need to pray persistently. Are we nagging God, needling for attention from God who knows what we need before we do? And why the waiting? I suppose we wait because we are living beings and all of life takes time: growth, decay, understanding and discernment, they all take time.
I think perhaps God gave us prayer, not because God needs it, but because we need it. “Pray always and don’t lose heart”. Jesus said. Without prayer we can lose heart. We humans need prayer, in the way that the body needs breath. There is a prayer practice that goes back to the desert fathers and mothers called “breath prayer”. When we are heavy-hearted in this smartphone-obsessed, stressed out, frantic, sometimes scary world, breath prayer offers us a way to respond, a way to benefit from mindfulness and deepen our relationship with God at the same time.
For a moment, if you’re comfortable, close your eyes and pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath
In and out, in and out, in and out.
In through your nose, and out thru your lips.
Now, combine that rhythm with a simple prayer:
Lord, have mercy, hear my prayer.
Lord have mercy, hear my prayer.
Lord have mercy, hear my prayer.
Breathing, this very basic bodily function, one that opens the lungs and feeds the heart, can unite our hearts to God, and in this way we will not lose heart. Breath prayer can quiet our hearts and open us up to the peace of God’s presence. God knows that we are too busy, too tired, too hurting and too hungry to hear Him, so we are given prayer as a great and useful gift. Chanting the psalms, praying the rosary, repeating the beloved words our savior gave us….these are all ways to breath and pray and hear the quiet loving voice of God.
So like the persistent widow, let us breathe and pray and never lose heart. Amen
Amid all the various ecclesial, ethical, and liturgical reforms of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. – He said the nature of true worship is the tenth leper turning back. Perhaps paying attention to a few details will help us appreciate Luther's insight into Luke's unique passage.
But first let’s start with a different story of a man who was lost in the woods. Later, in describing the experience to some friends, he told how frightened he was and how he had even finally knelt and prayed. Someone asked, “Did God answer your prayer?” “Oh, no,” the man replied. “Before God had a chance, a guide came along and showed me the way out.”
It’s so easy to be blind to the many blessings that God daily showers upon us. We can awake to the sun shining, the birds chirping, and the flowers and trees lining our paths, and not give much thought that God has given us those blessings and given us the senses to enjoy them. One of my favorite Psalms verses is: “This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It’s a great way to reinforce a good start to the day. But some people grumble about having to eat the same kind of cereal every morning, forgetting that many have nothing to eat for breakfast. They complain about a lack of money, forgetting that they spend more on entertainment each month than many around the world earn as their total income.
To be oblivious to God’s blessings I think of as a slight to God. The proper response is to glorify God from a thankful heart. These two responses, the proper and improper, are illustrated for us in this story of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers. Only one of the ten responded properly.
If your upbringing was anything like mine, then you had a parent or two who was concerned that you learn proper manners. I remember being taught as a kid how important it was to behave properly, especially outside the home, and to use conventions of polite language: always say please and thank you. And when I was 13, we moved south to Georgia, there were even more rules to learn about polite Southern society.
So when we read this story about the ten lepers from the Gospel of Luke, it’s easy, with such an upbringing, to see this story as being about manners, and about gratitude and thankfulness. And certainly, it is about that. The lepers have been showered with an amazing act of grace, and the proper response to such grace is praise and thanksgiving. But I think this story is about something more.
One of the things that intrigues me about this story, and leads me to think that it’s more than just a story about nine people forgetting their manners, is the setting. The gospel writer tells us that while on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus passes through the area between Samaria and Galilee. First: given that Samaria and Galilee border each other, there really is no “region between” them, and even if there were, that area is nowhere close to “on the way to Jerusalem.” At least, it’s an odd route to take toward Jerusalem. It may be that Luke has little grasp of the terrain he describes, but I tend to think his point is theological rather than geographical. (Remember that we Episcopalians take the Bible so seriously, we know that it should not be taken literally.)
It’s also interesting to consider the relationship between the people who lived in Samaria and the people who lived in Galilee. We’ve heard enough about Samaritans that we know they were considered outcasts by Jesus’ first century Jewish community – at least as they are portrayed in the New Testament.
Although they had the same scriptures and followed the purity laws, the Samaritans did not worship in the temple in Jerusalem, and so those in Galilee (and the rest of southern Israel) thought this was heresy. In Galilee, where Jesus did most of his public ministry, the Samaritans were a despised group considered unfit for association.
So it would seem that Jesus has deliberately entered into this place, this area between what his community considers what is right and what is wrong, an area where he is sure to encounter not only his own folk, but those who are unlike him, whom his community considers unclean. What sort of borderland place is this, this area on the border of Samaria and Galilee I imagine it as a sort of a demilitarized zone, a place to create distance between the warring factions.
What happens in this place in our Gospel story is that Jesus meets ten lepers. According to first-century historian Josephus, lepers were treated “as if they were, in effect, “dead men.” The Mosaic Law prescribed that the person be cut off from society, including his family. He had to wear torn clothing, have his head uncovered, cover his lips and shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever he went to warn others to keep their distance.
So, according to the Law, they have to keep their distance from Jesus, but they recognize him and cry out to Him for mercy. Rather than drawing near and touching them, as He did with the leper in Luke’s Chapter 5 (13), Jesus offers the ten lepers cleansing from their disease, without any apparent need for ceremony or physical action. He merely tells them to show themselves to the priests – a necessary step under the law for healed lepers to rejoin communities – and they become cleansed as they proceed to do so.
Luke here, I think, wants us to see ourselves as spiritual lepers in the sight of Christ – that our hearts are sick with sin, unclean before God. Just as this awful disease of leprosy separated the leper from the community, so our sin causes distance in human relationships. Just as only God could heal this dreaded disease, Luke is saying, so only God can heal and cleanse the human heart from the awful disease of sin.
The healing of these ten outcast lepers is not unusual for healing stories in the gospels. It follows a typical pattern: Jesus is passing through; there is a cry for help. Jesus notices and responds, and healing happens. These lepers are commanded by Jesus to go show themselves to the priests. It’s important to note that the lepers all obey Jesus. They all have faith that something good is about to happen, and even though he wonders about the nine others’ apparent lack of gratitude, Jesus doesn’t condemn them or take away their healing. What he does do is point out the atypical tenth leper – another indication that there is something deeper going on in this story.
This tenth leper is no ordinary leper, if there is such a thing. Not only is he ostracized because of his disease; he’s also ostracized because he’s a Samaritan. He’s a foreigner. He’s an outcast-outcast. There is perhaps no one else that Jesus could have met that would have been so hated and feared – hated
because of his beliefs, and feared because of his disease.
But Jesus meets this leper in the field between wrongdoing and right doing, and those distinctions between them disappear in the presence of the divine. “Get up and go on your way,” Jesus says. “Your faith has made you well” (or in the King James, “Your faith has made you whole.” The word that Luke uses here for “well” or “whole” is the Greek word Sozo, commonly translated as “to save” or “salvation.” The tenth leper is not merely healed of his disease, but is made whole and transformed in the presence of God.
This passage hints at the fact that Jesus offers this leper more than the others. They received healing, but this Samaritan receives a deeper salvation in addition. His faith has prompted him to return to the feet of Jesus in thanks, and that personal contact, that personal submission signifies a soul healing that is more than skin deep.
Notice Jesus didn’t demand this praise, but this leper offers it freely. Jesus loves for you to offer praise freely. Ten men prayed, but only one praised. Ten men prayed, but only one praised. As he is laying himself at Jesus’ feet, he is declaring his gratitude and also giving all he has in surrender to Christ. Perhaps the core of true thanksgiving is humility. He is not simply thinking of God’s gifts, but thinking of God the Giver. God gives us His gifts in love not so that we will make idols of the gift, but to truly fall in love with Him, the Giver!
The punch line here, of course, is that this guy was a Samaritan, implying that the rest were Jews. He is the last guy you would think would receive healing (especially in Jewish eyes), but the only one who truly has faith. Jesus expresses his sadness and disappointment. “Where are the nine?” He says.
I think this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend?
And it goes further. When we look to God, do we see stern judge or loving parent? When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child? When we look to the future, do we see fearful uncertainty or an open horizon? There’s no right answer to any of these questions, of course. How we answer depends upon what we see. Yet how we answer dramatically shapes both our outlook and our behavior.
Perhaps this is the key to the stewardship campaigns happening in most churches this month. Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act. I repeat: Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.
We give thanks for God’s great mercy.
What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living?
It is the tenth leper turning back.
Rev. Heather J. Blais
Today’s gospel lesson, begins in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, who we hear cry out, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). The disciples are responding to Jesus’ teaching from the previous few verses, which are omitted from today’s lectionary reading:
“If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:3-4).
Jesus wants his followers to understand that we are called to forgive every repentant person who has ever wounded us or who might drive us mad. Not only must we do it once, but we must forgive every single time a repentant person seeks forgiveness. He uses the example of seven times, not so we get a free pass once our punch card is full; rather it’s to remind us there is no end to how much we might forgive. If a person is repentant, we are called to forgive, always.
Now can you see why our lesson begins with the disciples crying out, “Increase our faith” or as a young person in my house might say, “UGH”. Because if we are called upon to have such a depth of forgiveness within ourselves, that we might forgive any and every repentant person who has ever hurt us, that sure seems like we need to have a lot of faith. And sometimes, we might be feeling a little thin on faith.
Which is precisely what Jesus is responding to when he tells his disciples,
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6).
A mustard seed is a speck of a seed, and yet it grows into a massive plant. The point of this tiny seed size faith being able to move a tree into the sea, is not about the quantity of our faith. Rather, it’s that even if only one single cell of our being believes, it is sufficient. That much faith is enough. Which means we don’t need to look to our neighbor and assume because they might seem to have it more together, that they are somehow a more mature believer. No. Each one of us is here because we have some tiny speck of faith. And, it is sufficient. It is all we could ever need to walk the way of love and follow Jesus.
Jesus then offers this second metaphor, which in essence is about an employee who goes about their work because it is what they are assigned to do. Their employer doesn’t say, skip your work today and instead eat breakfast with me. They say go ahead and do your work, then have lunch. The employee is simply doing their job, and when we do a job well, it brings a satisfaction and joy. And as followers of Jesus, one of our assigned duties is forgiving repentant people who hurt us. Nor will it take an extraordinary amount of faith within us to find that forgiveness, because that tiny, mustard seed size faith is sufficient. It will give us what we need to find that forgiveness.Just like it will give us everything we could possibly need to walk the way of love.
Today we will baptize Quinn Everly Butynski and welcome her into the body of Christ. We will each offer her a tiny bit of our speck of faith, when we reaffirm our own baptismal promises in the Baptismal Covenant. We’re telling Quinn, we are in this together, and we will support you and one another, as we seek to walk the way of love.
In the Baptismal Covenant, found on pages 304-305 in the BCP, we promise that...
To live into these promises, all we need is our tiny, mustard seed size faith. That little bit is sufficient. Yet if we work in isolation, we are far lonelier, accomplish a great deal less, and often find we can only grow so much. As a community of faith, we help provide the water, the nutrients in the soil, and the sunlight to help the seed take root. We are better when we come together as a community of faith to do God’s work.
Our work here at Saints James and Andrew is highly relational. From worship and formation on Sunday mornings; to Monday evening at Second Helpings where you might run into a volunteer from Whitney’s Pantry, our street ministers, Emmaus Companions, or our Faith Community Nurse; to the rest of the week when pastoral visitations happen or property needs are being addressed so our space can be shared with and used by the wider community. As a community of faith, we want to help one another draw closer to God, we want to reach those who have not yet experienced the unshakeable and life changing truth that each of us is a beloved child of God, and this idea that every resource we have as a faith community is meant to be shared--whether that be our buildings, our pastors, or our ministries.
We are currently in the midst of our annual pledge campaign, and we are asking that each person touched by the space, people, and/or work of Saints James and Andrew consider promising to make a financial contribution for the coming year with a pledge to ensure we can continue to do this work well. How might you be willing to financially support the relational work that happens through our ministries, buildings, and staff in the coming year?
And a bigger question, that I’d like to ask each of us to dwell on: How has this community of faith helped your faith to grow or blossom?
I invite you to write your answers on the back of the postcard you each have, with a picture of SsJA from this past Pentecost. Whatever you might write, know it is an offering to God, and I invite you to keep it in your home, somewhere you might see routinely so you can know you are a beloved child of God and an invaluable part of this community of faith.
How has this community helped your faith to grow or blossom? Amen.
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