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.
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